STEVE MC QUEEN: FOREVER "COOL"
by Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International Special Contributor
During the 1960s and 1970s, actor Steve McQueen was, to many moviegoers, the prime example of "cool." On screen he was nonchalant, in complete control of himself whatever his situation. He was calm, quiet, and composed.
McQueen's film roles were performed with a " ... flair that endeared him to his audiences ..." He won his fans with penetrating eyes, tanned and hardened good looks, his defiance of "the establishment" (and tradition in general). His screen image was that of a maverick, a rebel, the outsider who challenged authority.
One of the first television stars to make the successful move to major motion pictures, McQueen was able to demand (and get) multi-million dollar paydays for some of his films. He was considered to be one of the most talented actors of the 60s and 70s.
From the age of six, McQueen lived with a hearing loss in his left ear caused by a mastoid infection (the rear portion of the temporal bone near the temple). At age 20, while scuba diving on a Florida vacation, he went so deep underwater that he punctured the eardrum. This made the damage permanent, and he was "semi-deaf" for life.
McQueen's problem was partly to blame for his mistrust of reporters. Being hard of hearing, " ... it sometimes looked like he didn't understand what they were saying." (during interviews). "He was very sensitive about his lack of education ... he was afraid he might not understand ..." their questions and so give answers that would make him appear foolish.
Terrence Steven McQueen was born on March 24, 1930 in a suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. His father was a stunt pilot for a flying circus, and he left his wife and son when Steve was three months old.
Steve's mother, Jullian, was a teenager, an alcoholic, and very immature. She was more interested in "partying" than taking care of her son. So she took him to Slater, Missouri where her uncle, Claude Thomson, owned a farm. Jullian periodically abandoned Steve there for long periods of time until, overcome with guilt and remorse, she would come to Missouri and take him home with her. These episodes always ended in the same way: Steve would get in some kind of trouble, and his mother would haul him back to Missouri. This pattern continued until Steve was 14 years old.
It was then that Steve left his uncle's farm to join a traveling circus. After only a short time, he quit the circus and became a hobo. Within a year, he was back with his mother again, this time living in Los Angeles, California.
It was 1945 when Jullian signed a court order declaring her son was "incorrigible" (legally out of control), and he was sent to a reform school: the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. (It was an honor-based institution that emphasized hard work with the goal of restoring self-respect to the young men sent there.) There Steve received the positive influences that helped put him on the right track. He said later: "Boys Republic saved my life."
At the end of his sentence (1946), McQueen went to New York City but stayed only a short time. He spent the next year traveling widely, working at a variety of jobs such as crewman on a freighter going to the Dominican Republic, lumberjack in Canada, cab driver and mechanic in Washington, D. C.
At the age of 17, McQueen joined the U. S. Marines. After going A.W.O.L. and spending time in the brig (military jail) early in his enlistment, he finally adjusted to the military routine and even became part of the honor guard protecting President Truman's yacht. He left the Marines in 1950 and returned to New York City. There he became interested in acting, and began to study with the best drama teachers including the famous Actors Studio.
McQueen worked at a variety of jobs such as moving appliances from buildings, loading bags in the post office, selling ballpoint pens and encyclopedias, and laying tile.
He soon found that the new medium--television-- could provide a place to learn more about acting and also give him an income. McQueen's first TV appearance was in an episode of "The Defenders." (1957) He soon got roles in other dramatic series.
Television was just a means to an end for Steve. His very first film appearance was a small part in "Somebody Up There Likes Me." (1957) One year later he appeared in a science-fiction movie, "The Blob." An embarrassment in later years, it " ... showed Steve and the world just how far he had come ..."
That same year (1958) McQueen was cast as the star of a new TV series called "Wanted: Dead or Alive." His character was Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the Old West. From the first year, it was a top-ten show. This was a big break for McQueen as millions of viewers became aware of him.
Continuing to pursue a movie career, McQueen spent the summer break from his series appearing in a Frank Sinatra movie, "Never So Few." (1959) A year later he got the part that was to be his "foot in the door" to stardom.
McQueen was signed to appear in "The Magnificent Seven," a Western. Its star was Yul Brynner, a major Hollywood figure. McQueen's role was supposed to be minor; but through some very subtle "scene-stealing," he turned that supporting character into the one that moviegoers remembered. Of course, Brynner did not appreciate McQueen's methods.
Before the movie was completed, there was an incident between the two men. A studio publicity man "planted" a newspaper item which implied that McQueen and Brynner were feuding. After he read the story, Brynner confronted McQueen. He told him to call the newspapers and tell them there there was no feud because, as Brynner said, "I'm a star, and I don't feud with with supporting actors."
McQueen became angry and replied in very strong language that he wasn't going to take orders from Brynner. Talking back to a "star" involved a risk for McQueen since Brynner had much more influence with the studios. Later, McQueen said this about the whole affair: "I've got a busted nose, teeth missing, stitches in my lips, and I'm deaf in ... (one) ear. What could I lose from a little fight?"
McQueen's next three movies did poorly at the box office. But he hit "paydirt" in 1963 when he was cast in "The Great Escape," a World War II prison camp film. It had a large number of "name" actors, but McQueen made his character (Virgil Hilts) the one that audiences found most appealing.
A dramatic scene near the end had McQueen on a stolen motorcycle being chased by German soldiers as he was trying to reach freedom. His character (actually a stuntman) made a spectacular jump over a six-foot high barbed wire fence that ended with him tangled in the wire and again a prisoner.. This became the film's defining moment to millions of filmgoers, and " ... the public could say, 'That's Steve'".
Throughout his life, he was " ... forever linked to speed ...": motorcycles, cars, and later in life--airplanes. At several points early in McQueen's career, he even raced professionally, and he was a member of the American motorcycle team that competed in East Germany (1964).
McQueen was considered "reckless" by many of his friends and acquaintances. As he described his life: "I did everything in a hurry ... around race tracks on motorcycles and ... the fastest cars I could find ... I want to go places and I want to go fast ... It's a way of life with me ... I'm going to die young ... and I gotta take a big piece out of life ..."
McQueen quickly got the reputation of being hard to work with, reluctant to take orders from his directors. Some of them did say later that, at times, Steve was right in arguments with them; but he was generally regarded as "difficult."
Steve never forgot his debt to the Boys Republic. He visited them frequently, speaking words of encouragement. He would even sit on the floor to be on their level.
Steve McQueen received his only Academy Award nomination for a 1966 movie: "The Sand Pebbles." Just prior to his work on this film, he was the number one box office attraction in the world. In 1969, he was named as "Star of the Year" by the National Association of Theater Owners.
Some of his next films were: "The Thomas Crown Affair"; "Bullitt" (this one had a memorable car chase); "The Getaway"; "Papillon" (His salary was $2 million, and it was thought by many to be his best acting job); and "The Towering Inferno."
From 1974-1978 McQueen was away from movies entirely. During that time his health went steadily downhill. He came back to moviemaking and appeared in: "An Enemy of the People," (from a play by Hendrick Ibsen); "Tom Horn," and "The Hunter" (his LAST film). This one was about a real-life, modern-day bounty hunter named Ralph Thorson. Ironically, 22 years earlier, in his FIRST starring role, Steve had played a bounty hunter named Josh Randall.
McQueen learned in 1979 that he had a massive tumor on his right lung. It was mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. At first, he submitted to conventional chemotherapy; but he soon discontinued it to pursue alternative treatments. McQueen traveled to Mexico (1980), submitting to a "cure" that temporarily caused his cancer to go into remission. (lessen in intensity)
McQueen came back to California to recuperate; and while he was at his home, evangelist Billy Graham visited him. Even before he learned about his cancer, McQueen had become a Christian and began to attend church.
Later that same year, McQueen returned to Mexico for a six-hour operation to remove stomach tumors. Unfortunately, the cancer was too far advanced. On November 7, 1980 Steve McQueen died. It was reported that he was reading a Bible in his final moments. It was open on his chest, and there was a smile on his face. After cremation, his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Part of McQueen's estate was his collection of motorcycles, the world's largest with 210 machines.
In his will, McQueen left $200,000 to the Boys Republic. A Steve McQueen Recreation Center was dedicated there in 1983. A plaque reads: "Steve McQueen came here as a troubled boy but left as a man. He went on to achieve stardom in motion pictures but returned to this campus often to share of himself and his fortune. His legacy is hope and inspiration to those students here now, and those yet to come."