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An iconic man on screen and off, Steve McQueen epitomised the qualities that a man’s man should have. As has been frequently quoted:
“Men wanted to be him and women couldn’t help but notice him.”
Steve McQueen led the kind of life that a whole generation observed in awe. He was a man’s man who rapidly became iconic to movie buffs and race car fanatics alike, but before the glamorous Hollywood parties, tv series, celebrity friends, romances, and race car antics captured in photographs, the Indiana-born kid had to overcome some serious hurdles.
McQueen was born into a family already in turmoil. His father left before he was born and his abandoned mother gave him to her parents to raise. As the Great Depression set in, Steve McQueen and his grandparents moved in with his grandma’s brother Claude and his family at their farm in Slater. McQueen later said that he had good memories of living on the farm, noting that his great-uncle Claude
"was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him."
It was Claude who gave McQueen a red tricycle on his fourth birthday, a gift that McQueen subsequently credited with sparking his early interest in car racing.
When Steve McQueen was 12, Julia wrote to her uncle Claude, asking that her son be returned to her again to live in Los Angeles, California, where she lived with her second husband. By Steve McQueen's own account, he and his new stepfather "locked horns immediately". Steve McQueen recalls him being "a prime son of a bitch" who was not averse to using his fists on Steve McQueen and his mother. His stepfather regularly beat him, and before long Steve McQueen slipped into petty crime and joined a street gang. After police caught him stealing hubcaps, his stepfather threw him down the stairs.
It was at the California Junior Boys Republic reformatory school in Chino that Steve McQueen finally found peace in discipline and routine. Had he not gone to reform school, Steve McQueen said that he: “would have ended up in jail or something. I was a wild kid."
McQueen became a role model to the younger kids, and was elected to the Boys Council, a group who set the rules and regulations governing the boys' lives. He left the Boys Republic at age 16 but retained a lifelong association with the centre, and later, after he had become famous as an actor, he regularly returned to talk to resident boys.
In 1947, the 17-year-old Steve McQueen joined the Marines and sailed off to the Dominican Republic. He embraced life in the Marines. Famously, he pre-empted later acts of on screen movie heroism as an actor, when he saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea.
He remembered this period with the Marines as a formative time in his life, saying, "The Marines made a man out of me. I learned how to get along with others, and I had a platform to jump off of.”
In 1950 he was honourably discharged and went onto work, in a dramatic leap sideways, as a towel boy at a brothel. Steve McQueen made his way to Texas and drifted from job to job, from sales work for a travelling carnival, through to working as a lumberjack in Canada. He was arrested for vagrancy in the Deep South and served a 30-day assignment on a chain gang. Variety that perhaps prepared him for a life as a TV actor, constantly switching roles.
Steve McQueen Photos
Photos of Steve McQueen remain popular today and his memorabilia is highly sought after by collectors. Proud has several iconic pictures of Steve McQueen, taken on the set of The War Lover, a 1962 British war film, which was shot in London in 1962 by Eric Swayne
Eric Swayne was surrounded by a troupe of revolutionary artists, musicians, photographers and models; they were very much at the heart of London's swinging sixties creative explosion.
Born in the East End of London in 1932, Eric Swayne hit the 60s ‘scene’ just as Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan were redefining the aesthetics and conventions of photography.
His early friendship with Duffy in particular, opened his eyes to exciting new artistic opportunities at a pivotal moment in 60s London, and he quickly became a familiar face alongside London’s hippest.
Swayne had a life-long passion for photography. Although he had no formal training, he was an artist, he somehow knew that what was going on around him was unique. He was in the right place at the right time to take iconic images.
Picking up a camera for the first time at the age of 29, he began photographing his circle of friends, including Bailey, Donovan, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger or Mary Quant. Rock and roll stars and fashion icons would pop into his studio in North London, where he would photograph them in his typically informal style, lending an insider’s eye to a defining moment in pop culture history.
After his death in 2007, Swayne left behind an impressive body of work, his images capturing so many legends just at that precious moment when, unbeknownst to them, they were truly on the cusp of greatness.
Steve McQueen Actor
“I'm not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing” Steve McQueen
While working as a bartender in New York City, Steve McQueen met an actress who lead him to his first stage role in 1952. He earned $40 a week to say one line: "Nothing will help"... in Yiddish.
He was hooked on the acting bug. Using G.I. bill-funded financial aid, Steve McQueen enrolled to train as an actor at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1955, he made his Broadway debut in A Hatful of Rain.
"He always said he wasn't an actor, he was a reactor," said Bullitt co-star Peter Yates, "By that he meant that he didn't want to be lumbered with speaking plot. He wasn't sure he could do it."
To earn money, Steve McQueen competed in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway. He purchased the first two of many motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson and a Triumph. He became an excellent racer, winning about $100 each weekend.
Steve McQueen's first big movie role was a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman. Steve McQueen was subsequently hired as an actor for the films Never Love a Stranger; The Blob (his first leading role, science fiction); and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959).
At 29, Steve McQueen got a significant break when Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis Jr. from the film Never So Few after Davis supposedly made some mildly negative remarks about Sinatra in a radio interview, and Davis's role went to Steve McQueen. Sinatra saw something special in the young actor Steve McQueen and ensured that the young actor got plenty of close-ups in a role that earned Steve McQueen favourable reviews. McQueen's character, Bill Ringa, never looked more natural than when driving at high speed - in this case in a jeep - or handling a switchblade or a tommy gun. The picture was painted early on of Steve McQueen as the ultimate antihero, a lovable rogue and masculine hero.
After Never So Few, the film's director John Sturges cast McQueen in his next movie, promising to "give him the camera". The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he played Vin Tanner and co-starred with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz and James Coburn. This was McQueen's first major hit.
McQueen also played the top-billed lead role in Sturges legendary war film, 1963's The Great Escape; Hollywood's fictional depiction of the true story of a historic mass escape from a World War II POW camp, Stalag Luft III.
After starring in 1965's celebrated The Cincinnati Kid as a poker player, McQueen went onto earn his first and only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as an engine-room sailor in The Sand Pebbles, in which he starred opposite Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough, (whom he had previously worked with in The Great Escape).
He followed his Oscar nomination with perhaps his most famous, and his personal favourite movie appearance: in 1968's Bullitt. It featured an unprecedented, complex and endlessly imitated and referenced car chase through San Francisco that cemented Steve McQueen’s celebrity.
Steve McQueen’s next film, The Thomas Crown Affair, saw him undergo a complete change of image; playing a debonair and wealthy executive alongside Faye Dunaway in 1968.
By the time Sam Peckinpah's crime-thriller classic The Getaway came out in 1972, Steve McQueen was not only America's leading man, but also the highest-paid actor in the world. Ironically, he never saw himself as a good actor, and that humility may have added an authenticity to his on screen presence.
He followed this with a physically demanding role as a Devil's Island prisoner in 1973's Papillon, featuring Dustin Hoffman as his character's tragic sidekick.
After 1974's The Towering Inferno became a box office success Steve McQueen all but disappeared from the public eye to focus on motorcycle racing and travelling around the country in a motorhome and on his vintage Indian motorcycles.
Steve McQueen; the 'King Of Cool’
It was during filming of The Getaway that Steve McQueen met, and fell in love with, Ali MacGraw. She found Steve McQueen’s stoic composure a welcome change from the insincerity and showiness of Hollywood.
In 1973, The Rolling Stones referred to McQueen in the song "Star Star" from the album Goats Head Soup for which an amused McQueen reportedly gave personal permission. The lines were "Star f***er, star f***er, star f***er, star f***er star / Yes you are, yes you are, yes you are / Yeah, Ali MacGraw got mad with you / For givin' head to Steve McQueen".
"Steve was the ultimate movie star," explained Robert Vaughn, his co-star in The Magnificent Seven. "He had what they refer to as the X-factor. Well, it's sex appeal, that's what it is. He had enormous sex appeal."
Steve McQueen's appeal was about more than sex. His daring motorcycle and race car stunts gave men a boost of adrenaline and made them eager to relate to him. Meanwhile, women believed there was deep-seated pain and fragility behind McQueen's facade.
Steve McQueen was more than a movie star. He turned down parts in Ocean's 11, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his attorneys and agents could not agree with Paul Newman's attorneys and agents on top billing), The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, A Bridge Too Far, The French Connection (he did not want to do another cop film),and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It was his quiet aura, masculine calm, and daredevil hobbies that elevated him from movie star to legendary icon. "He liked camping, he liked rugged things, he liked firing a gun," said LIFE photographer John Dominis of his friend and photo subject, Steve McQueen.
James Garner on Steve McQueen: “Steve was a wild kid. He didn't know where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do.”
Unfortunately, as is the case with many superstar actors, McQueen liked hard liquor, drugs, and women. Steve McQueen’s relationship with Ali McGraw quickly turned into a Hollywood scandal since MacGraw was married to film executive Robert Evans when they started their affair. They went on to marry in 1973 and their turbulent marriage fuelled their mutual drug and alcohol abuse until they divorced five years later.
According to photographer William Claxton, McQueen smoked marijuana almost every day; biographer Marc Eliot stated that McQueen used a large amount of cocaine in the early 1970s. He was also a heavy cigarette smoker. McQueen sometimes drank to excess; he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1972.
Despite his excessive habits, Steve McQueen followed a daily two-hour exercise regimen, involving weightlifting and, at one point, running 5 miles (8 km), seven days a week. Steve McQueen also learned the martial art Tang Soo Do from ninth-degree black belt Pat E. Johnson.
The actor's mystique grew larger when he began training in martial arts with his friend and mentor Bruce Lee. McQueen wanted to know everything Lee could possibly teach him, and didn't stop training until his clothes were completely soaked through.
Steve McQueen: Stunts, motor racing and flying
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. When he had the opportunity to drive in a movie, he performed many of his own stunts, including some of the car chases in Bullitt and the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. It was difficult to find riders as skilled as Steve McQueen. At one point Steve McQueen is actually filmed in German uniform, chasing himself on another bike.
McQueen considered being a professional race car driver. He had a one-off outing in the British Touring Car Championship in 1961, finishing third at Brands Hatch.
He was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, Steve McQueen's Solar Productions funded the classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, in which Steve McQueen is featured. The same year, he also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine on a dirt bike.
Steve McQueen is rumoured to have owned around 100 classic motorcycles, as well as around 100 exotics and vintage cars.
See also: our feature on images of Bob Marley!
Steve McQueen: Illness and death
McQueen developed a persistent cough in 1978. Although he gave up smoking and underwent treatment, on December 22, 1979, after filming The Hunter, a biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure for which there is no known cure.
A few months later, McQueen gave a medical interview in which he blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. McQueen believed that asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers' protective suits and helmets could have been involved, but he thought it more likely that his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging (insulation) from pipes aboard a troop ship while he was in the Marines.
Steve McQueen was only 50 when he died. He was cremated and his ashes were spread in the Pacific Ocean.
He left behind a complicated legacy of mismanaged masculinity, worldwide adulation, and a rare cinematic footprint.
In 2007, Forbes said McQueen remained a popular star and still the "king of cool", even 27 years after his death, and was one of the highest-earning dead celebrities.
Steve McQueen prints
Pictures of this complicated legend are highly collectable and are equally desirable gifts for non-collectors. There is something enigmatic and untouchable about the position that Steve McQueen occupies in cultural mythology. The man himself was bigger than the moviestar persona, and the myths surrounding both his life and career sustain his ongoing popularity.
Perhaps partly that is down to the fact that Steve McQueen never took his own hype seriously:
"Me a legend?" McQueen once asked incredulously. "You wanna know what a real legend is, look at Duke Wayne. Me? I'm just a dirty old man who can't wait to get out of here and go play in the dirt."