Above: Steve McQueen enjoys a soak with his wife Neile Adams in 1963. Photo: Vanity Fair / Getty
Actor Steve McQueen was a complicated, vain, and difficult man. As an actor who cultivated an anti-hero persona he was called ‘The King of Cool’ and seemed a perfect fit for the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. His classic film repertoire included The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt, he even received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles. Notoriously difficult to work with, McQueen was often combative with directors and producers but his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command one of largest pay-per-film salaries of his generation. With good taste in music, cars, fashion, and yes, women he was an unlikely mix of debonair gent and street thug.
Born in 1930 to parents Terence McQueen, a barnstorming stunt pilot, and Julia Ann Crawford, an alcoholic who occasionally worked as a prostitute, McQueen’s early life was a difficult one. After suffering at the hands of an abusive stepfather McQueen left home at the age of nine and eventually fell into a life of petty crime. By the age of 14, now abandoned by parents, he ended up at a reform school. This is where things turned around for McQueen and the two years spent at reform school led to more positive influences in his life. After leaving he worked briefly as an oil rigger and in 1947 he joined the US Marine Corps.
After his military service, McQueen, now 22, and with the help of the G.I Bill, he entered Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse to study acting. He earned extra money by competing in motorcycle races, a passion he continued to pursue throughout his career. With his first breakout role being Dale Robertson’s NBC western series, Tales of Wells Fargo it was not long after that he caught the eye of Hollywood producers and the rest is cinematic history. Steve McQueen died in 1980, at the age of 50, from lung cancer whom most say was due to his exposure to asbestos during his time in the military.
Steve McQueen’s time was a period of Hollywood history where some of the gloss and pretense of celebrity was taken away, revealing something a little more genuine. Whether troubled or difficult it was that ‘realness’ that shone through and connected McQueen with the audience in a true and lasting way. Many of the current crop of Hollywood leading men are so carefully filtered to the press and public that what we are left with is something sterile and superficial. And while some of stars of today might like to pretend they are ‘badasses’ they are lightweights living in the shadow the King.
Documentary about Steve McQueen’s life.
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