Steve McQueen once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his motorcycle. He was an ex-con and former Marine. And he had three wives. The first was a Filipino actress related to pop singer Enrique Iglesias. His second wife was voted the top female box office star in 1972, and his third was a fashion model.
Third time’s the charm. They met after he saw her photo in an advertisement and used his contacts to arrange an introduction. They married just a few months later — and she was by his side until his death, at age 50, of malignant mesothelioma.
McQueen was born in Indiana in 1930, and had a tough time as a youth. His biological father left his mother before he was even born. The mother, an alcoholic and sometime prostitute, abandoned him to her parents when he was three years old.
It was the depths of the Depression, and the grandparents soon took young Steve and moved in with the grandmother’s brother. The brother, Uncle Claude, liked Steve and took him under his wing. He gave in a tricycle, and when he went back to his mother, at age eight, Uncle Claude gave him a watch with an inscription saying he thought of him as a son.
Back with his mother and a stepfather, Steve got in trouble and ran away from home, even joined the circus for a brief period. He went back and forth between his mother’s house and Uncle Claude’s farm several times, until he found himself in Los Angeles with his mother and her third husband. He was arrested for petty crime and handed over to his new stepfather, who beat him and threw him down the stairs. At that point, as a teenager, he reportedly looked up and growled, “You lay your stinkin’ hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill ya.”
Steve mcQueen took a turn at the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino (a cause he supported after he became a star), then in 1947, at age 18, he joined the Marines. After a rocky start he fell into line, embracing military discipline and once saving the lives of five fellow Marines in Arctic exercises, pulling them from a tank before it broke through the ice into the sea.
He was honorably discharged and in 1952, with help from the GI bill, made his way to New York to study acting while making extra money racing motorcycles on Long Island. He landed a few minor roles on Broadway, then in 1955 headed to Hollywood, where he found himself in a couple of B movies and then played in westerns on TV. His breakout role came in 1958 when motorcycle buddy Robert Culp got him to read for the part of bounty hunter Josh Randall on Have Gun, Will Travel.
As Josh Randall he wore a sawed-off rifle on his leg, developed the art of the fast draw, and began to create his image as a cool anti-hero. In 1959 McQueen appeared in a movie with Frank Sinatra, and then was cast opposite Yul Brenner, James Coburn and others in the western The Magnificent Seven.
In 1963, Steve McQueen was featured riding his motorcycle in the World War II movie The Great Escape.
He went on to play Nevada Smith and The Cincinnati Kid, and earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as a sailor in The Sand Pebbles.But perhaps his best-known movie was Bullitt in 1968, which featured a memorable car chase through San Francisco.
Later in his career McQueen turned down a number of movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dirty Harry and The French Connection, to focus on racing. He kept up a rigorous exercise program, but was also known as a hard-drinker and heavy smoker who experimented with drugs (although he considered himself a political conservative). His mug shot was widely circulated after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Alaska in 1972.
In 1978, he developed a persistent cough, and soon found he suffered from mesothelioma, a function of his smoking and possible exposure to asbestos in the Marines and later in racing. In the summer of 1980 he famously traveled to Mexico to undergo alternative treatments involving coffee enemas and the unproven anti-cancer drug laetrile. The treatments failed, and McQueen died on Nov. 7, 1980.
Steve McQueen was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, and of course he has a star on Hollywood Boulevard. And even now, almost half a century later, and with all our cultural changes, he still appears on many lists of Hollywood’s all-time coolest, sexiest and most popular movie actors.
Check out these other articles about celebrities we all remember:
Celebrity Deaths Part 1 by Richard Basis
Celebrity Deaths Part 2 by Richard Basis
His Master’s Voice by Roz Warren