Steve McQueen: the King of Cool
- Created on Friday, 13 March 2015 15:30
I just finished reading the biography Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill, and it is one of the most interesting bios I have ever read. Terrence Steven McQueen (he always went by Steve) certainly had one of the most amazing life arcs of anyone who ever lived. By “life arc” I mean how far he went from how he started out to what he became. And that meant going from being a poor kid, nearly an orphan, and definitely a juvenile delinquent, to becoming not only the biggest movie star in the world, but the most celebrated and widely recognized person on the face of the Earth.
But, he started out poor, being born in rural Indiana in 1930, the son of a man who abandoned him at birth and whom he never met, (though as an adult, he did look for him and located him three months after he died) and whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute who was incapable of taking care of him. So, she left him with her parents in Missouri, but they both died forthwith, so he was sent back to Indiana to live with his great uncle Claude, who was a hog farmer.
And, Uncle Claude was good to Steve and was the closest thing to a father-figure that he ever had. But, he was also strict with him, and he made him work on the hog farm. And that was just the first of many grunt labor jobs that Steve McQueen had in his life before he became an actor. As he liked to say, he shoveled a lot of shit in his life.
At the age of 13, his mother (whose name was Julia Ann which got contracted into one word: Julian) summoned him to California to live with her and her new husband. Unfortunately, her new husband, like her, was an alcoholic, and he was a mean drunk. That became the worst period in Steve’s life because the man would beat him- severely. Eventually, Steve ran away and just lived on the streets, joining a gang and surviving mainly through petty crime, such as stealing hub caps. He wound up getting in trouble with the law and was sent to a reform school in California called Boys Republic.
That turned out to be a blessing for Steve because he was treated well there. And, it became a lifelong passion of his. When he made it big, he became a major financial supporter of Boys Republic, and through his estate, he still is. Here is their website:
And he did more than just support them financially. He also made regular visits there to talk to the boys and encourage them. And he is still supporting them because Steve McQueen is one of the most successful dead people there ever was. Only Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe have raked in more money in death than he has.
At the age of 17, Steve joined the Marines, which came about mainly because some of his buddies at Boys Republic were doing that, so he joined them. He did 3 years in the Marines, and he got through it with an honorable discharge. But, it was a rough go. He got into trouble; he got into fights; and he spent some time in the brig. However, he was commended for being good at handling weapons.
When he got out of the Marines at the age of 20, you might say he became a drifter. But, he was not a bum because a bum doesn’t work, and he did- at all kinds of hard physical labor. He wasn't lazy. He was not afraid of hard work. But eventually, he wound up in New York City and for only one reason: his mother Julian was there. And this time, she wasn’t married, but she was living with a man, Victor Lukens, who was an artist and film maker. And Victor was a good man. He was good to Julian, and he was good to Steve when he joined them. And he offered Steve a job as a helper on his film sets. Steve, who was mechanically inclined, would help by building sets and props, running errands, and if necessary, he would be available as bit actor to fill out a scene. These were very minor parts, with little or no speaking. But, it seemed he had a knack for it, and the camera liked him. And that’s how he got started in acting. It was nothing that he ever dreamt of doing or thought that he had any talent for. If his mother hadn’t taken up with this minor film producer, it most likely never would have happened, and who knows what he would have done with his life.
And for Steve, it was not as though he discovered that he loved acting. Rather, it was that he realized that, being uneducated, his prospects were dim. Acting was a way out of poverty for him; that’s all.
But, he took the craft very seriously. He joined the Actors Studio, which schooled such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Paul Newman. In fact, he met Paul Newman there, which began an intense lifelong rivalry. They starred together in adversarial roles in The Towering Inferno in 1974, and they wanted it to be McQueen and Newman in Butch Cassidy, but Steve wasn't satisfied with the terms. He felt that Newman was getting top billing, which was probably true at the time.
Few people know this, but Steve McQueen’s career began as a stage actor. He worked on Broadway and off-Broadway, and that lasted several years. It was there that he met the woman who became his wife, Neile Adams. Neile, who was Filipina, was a little pixie, as cute as a button, and she had already found success as an actress and dancer. And then, she was invited to go to Hollywood to make a movie, and Steve followed her out there. And shortly after that, they got married.
Steve McQueen was a ladies man. He attracted women because he was good-looking and because he was cool. He rode motorcycles, etc. And when he became a star, his attractiveness to women increased exponentially. But, there was simply no chance that he was going to be faithful to just one woman. He was rather like John F. Kennedy that way.
I am saying this because it's like he had a split personality. On the one hand, he adored family life, hanging out with the wife and kids and doing family stuff. But, at other times, it's like he became another person, this swinging single guy. It's like there was a switch in his brain that would switch back and forth. Sexual fidelity was not in the cards for him, and of course, it did cause stress in his marriage.
Once they had kids and his star began to rise, Neile had to retire and just be a wife, mother and homemaker because that's how he wanted it. His first significant film was in 1958, The Blob, which they say is a cult classic. He also did television, including a successful Western called Wanted Dead or Alive. His first really big blockbuster hit was The Magnificent Seven where he reportedly upstaged the star, Yul Brenner. And that was followed by The Great Escape, where again, he stole the show, and he soared right to the top from that. And by the way, in the story, the Germans kept throwing his character into solitary confinement, but he complained that he had nothing to do. He didn't think it looked good for him to be wallowing in a cell doing nothing. It wasn't good for his image. So, he came up with the idea of his character having a baseball mitt and a baseball with which to play catch with himself against the wall.
I am not going to review his entire movie career because that you can find elsewhere, and I really want to focus on his health, since this is a health blog. But, there is no denying that his string of blockbusters is still unrivaled, culminating in three from the 1970s: The Getaway, Papillion, and The Towering Inferno. It’s incomparable the extent to which he dominated Hollywood for about a 10 year period. He was the biggest and highest paid movie star in the world.
Now, as to his health, he apparently was born with a good constitution. The only significant health problem mentioned during his childhood was an ear infection which left him partially deaf in one ear. He was lean and athletic by nature, a natural mesomorph as they say, and by working out with weights, he acquired a wiry muscularity which served him well, on and off camera. For most of his life, he could eat whatever he wanted and as much as he wanted without getting fat. In fact, back in New York in the early days, his girlfriends would envy him for being able to eat a lot of food without gaining an ounce, which was something they couldn’t do. Only in his last decade did that catch up with him. I learned that during the making of Papillion, they had to do things with camera angles and with his clothing to hide his slightly paunchy condition.
As for his eating habits, they were totally conventional. All the citings about food in the book were just the standard fare, such as hamburgers, barbecue, birthday cakes, etc. During the making of The Great Escape, he complained about the German food and said that he missed California hamburgers. And when he was in France, he complained about the food there. They tried to serve him eel once, and he got mad and stormed out. He liked good old American food. In Taiwan, during the making of The Sand Pebbles, which won him his only Academy Award nomination, he complained about the food there as well.
What’s interesting is that even though he went from rags to riches, his eating habits didn’t change. He didn’t eat any better or any differently even when money was no obstacle. And it goes to show that eating habits are formed early in life, and they tend to persist regardless of changes in income or circumstances.
Steve McQueen had a lot of bad habits, and that's putting it mildly. He smoked and smoked heavily. He smoked cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Only late in his life did he try to quit smoking, and only with partial success. He cut out cigarettes, but he never quit smoking cigars- even when he was dying of lung cancer. He also chewed tobacco and used snuff. He also adored marijuana; he was a big pot smoker.
He also developed a serious cocaine habit, which was quite common in Hollywood. He made several movies with Sam Peckinpah who was a major, super-addicted cokehead, and they did coke together.
He also used LSD but mainly as a sexual enhancer. He went through a phase where he was spending his nights on the Sunset Strip at the Whiskey A Go-Go. It was like he was a fixture at the place, and I'm sure it was good for business. And it involved a lot of sex and a lot of acid.
He also liked to drink alcohol, but mainly just beer. And he had a favorite: Old Milwaukee. He drank it religiously. He even had it for breakfast sometimes. It was like a sacrament to him.
Besides being an actor, Steve McQueen was heavily involved in both car racing and motorcycle racing. It inspired him to make the movie Le Mans, although it was a commercial failure that cost him dearly. But, at one point, he actually considered giving up acting and becoming a full-time racer. Wisely, he decided not to do that.
But, he was very mechanically inclined, and he loved not just the speed but the mechanics of it all. They say he was an ace mechanic, and he loved getting his hands dirty. Like my father who loved working on cars, Steve McQueen got the black soot in the cracks of his fingers which stayed there for years at a time, and it was a problem during film shoots. In his later years, he also learned to fly airplanes and besides being a pilot, he learned to service the planes that he owned.
So, even though he was uneducated (he never finished high school), he was very intelligent, and he excelled at a lot of things.
But, in discussing his health, there is also the issue of his mental health, and he had problems with it. I’m quite sure that today, Steve McQueen would be diagnosed as manic/depressive or bipolar. He had severe mood swings, and when his mood turned bad, it was frighteningly bad, and he could be violent. There were times that his wives, Neile Adams and Ali McGraw, feared for their lives, but not his last wife, Barbara Minty. It seems that he mellowed quite a bit by the time she came along. Of course, she was young enough to be his daughter. But, his mental instability and volatility also created problems on the movie sets. There were many actors and directors who despised him and refused to work with him because of his belligerence and incorrigibleness. He was like a dictator. It was either his way or the highway. But, as far as I know, he was only self-medicated for his mental health problems- with alcohol, marijuana, etc.
You probably realize that Steve McQueen died young, at the age of 50. He died of mesothelioma which started in his lungs. That’s the cancer that is usually associated with asbestos exposure, and Steve McQueen had asbestos exposure. Some of the grunt labor jobs he did as a young man before he became an actor involved asbestos exposure, such as tearing down old houses. It was said that he had asbestos exposure in the Marines. Also, it said that with the car racing, he had asbestos exposure, that the fire-resistant suits that they wear when they race contain asbestos. Or at least they did. So, apparently, he had a lot of asbestos exposure. But, I have to think that his legion of bad habits had something to do with it as well.
I would have to say from watching his movies that Steve McQueen aged rapidly and prematurely. He certainly did very well with his hair, retaining a full, thick head of hair until the end. But, that I attribute entirely to genetics. But, if you look at his skin and the aging in his face, you see that he definitely aged prematurely. And I attribute that to his bad habits.
It’s baffling in a way because the truth is that his good looks were a big part of his appeal. He was talented, for sure- but, for the kind of roles he played, he had to be good-looking as well. So, why do anything to destroy such a valuable asset?
But then again, part of his whole charisma was that he was a “tough guy” and when you get lines in your face and a leathery skin, it does make you look tougher- I guess. So, maybe that's why he let himself go.
And I should add that part of it was due to photo-aging, meaning from excess sun exposure, and I am sure he was not the kind of man to slap on sun screen every time he went out in the sun (although it is actually a good practice).
They say that for most of his life he was a very high energy person, but I have to wonder to what extent that was due to his mania. He was hyper.
But, his physical decline came on quite rapidly. It started during the making of his final movie, The Hunter. It was noticed that he was out of breath a lot, that during the chase scenes, where as a bounty hunter he was chasing somebody, that he couldn’t keep up. He struggled to do it. He also developed a chronic cough that wouldn't go away. So, when he returned to California from Chicago, he saw a doctor, and x-rays revealed the cancer in his right lung, the mesothelioma.
He did not undergo too much conventional treatment because they held little hope for him. They never thought that surgery or chemo would do him any good, but they did try radiation briefly. But, that was soon stopped as well. From that point on, he sought alternative treatment, particularly with this Dr. Kelly, who was the rage at the time. But, my impression is that nothing he did helped the least bit. It was an unrelenting downward spiral towards death.
But, it was very touching to read about his final year because he knew he was dying, and he wanted to make the most of his remaining time and do the things he needed to do before he died, including apologizing to the people he had wronged, including both of his ex-wives. He also found religion in quite a serious way and even did some counseling with Billy Graham.
The way he died is that he went to Mexico in order to have an operation just to relieve pressure on his abdomen. It wasn't meant to be a cure. He had terrible ascites at the end, which is where the abdomen swells up, and the pressure from it was causing him a lot of pain. So, he flew to El Paso (where he had made The Getaway years before) and was driven to Juarez where he had the surgery. He survived the operation, and they thought it was successful, but then he had a heart attack which killed him. That was on November 7, 1980. He was just 50 years old.
It’s reasonable to assume that he had heart disease because you really can’t have a heart attack unless your arteries are diseased. And, the clogging of his arteries with plaque was no doubt something that built up over time, over many years, even when he was looking good and feeling good and acting vigorous.
I think the main message is that Steve McQueen was dying even when he seemed to be thriving. It was all an illusion.
What an amalgam Steve McQueen was, with exceptional talents and strengths, but also deep flaws and weaknesses. He showed great compassion and generosity at times, and that's many times. But, he also had a dark side that lashed out at people, sometimes to a scary and startling degree, including to people he loved. He could be extremely selfish and also extremely unselfish. But, he also underwent an amazing transformation in his life where he really seemed to have conquered his demons before he left the world. He was human, which is to say that he was flawed; but it's also fair to say, as people do, that he was one-of-a-kind- a phenomenon.
I think probably his most signature movie was The Getaway because in it he plays a bank robber; so, he was bad; a criminal; yet somehow, he never really strikes you as bad. The other criminals in the story, they strike you as bad- really evil and wicked to the core. But not him. And as he and Ali MacGraw make their escape into Mexico in an old pickup truck, and with all the loot, you really get the feeling that they are going to live happily ever after and be just fine. It's too bad life can't be as sanguine as the movies.