after 30 years . . . Steve McQueen is still the coolest star ever
Published 06/11/2010 | 05:00
He never won an Oscar, was famously difficult to work with, and in later years would only deign to look at scripts if there was a cheque for $1.5m attached. Steve McQueen himself said disparaging things about his own acting range, and his back catalogue of films looks unimpressive at this remove. Yet, 30 years after his death, he remains the most iconic and coolest movie star of them all.
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of his death from lung cancer at only 50, and to mark the occasion a lavish photographic biography called Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool will be released, including previously unpublished photos taken by his widow Barbara. There are two biopics of the actor in the works, and in recent years his computer-generated image has been used in TV adverts for Ford cars and Omega watches.
So why the enduring fascination? Dying young never hurts an actor or pop star's reputation, but there's more to McQueen's continuing popularity than that.
There was an enigmatic quality to everything he did: in films good and bad, he stood apart, saying little, and making you wonder what was going on behind those ice-blue eyes.
Whenever he was on the screen, you didn't notice anyone else. There was also a suggestion of trouble in his demeanour, a suppressed rage that might bubble to the surface at any moment. And when you examine his early years, it isn't hard to figure out what he might have been tense about.
By the time Terrence Steven McQueen was born, on March 24, 1930, in Beach Grove, Indiana, his mother Julia was already struggling with alcoholism while his father, a stunt pilot for a flying circus, was about to take off for good. During his childhood, Julia abandoned him several times and exposed him to her violent boyfriends.
It's not surprising then that by the age of 14 he was a gang member and petty criminal. He was sent to a boys' home at 15 and at 16 he ran away from home and joined the US Marines.
In 1952, the newly de-mobbed McQueen decided to try his hand at acting, financing his studies at the famous Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York by racing motorbikes for money at the weekends.
His striking appearance and soulful stare soon got him film parts, most notably in Somebody Up There Likes Me, during which he met his friend and lifelong box-office rival Paul Newman. But that was only a bit part, and McQueen initially made his name on TV, playing a bounty hunter on a show called Wanted: Dead or Alive.
In the late 1950s, he got an even bigger break when Frank Sinatra suggested him as a co-star for his new war film, Never So Few. McQueen impressed Sinatra, but more importantly also made an impression on the film's director, John Sturges, who decided to cast him in a western he was planning based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Steve McQueen didn't say much in The Magnificent Seven (1960), but he stole the show from bigger stars like Yul Brynner by constantly fixing his gunbelt or staring enigmatically at the lens.
He made an even bigger impact when he teamed up with Sturges three years later to make The Great Escape.
As Captain Virgil Hilts, aka The Cooler King, McQueen embodied a kind of casually rebellious cool that seemed to chime perfectly with the early-1960s mood. Although the film also featured James Garner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson, it was McQueen who dominated the all-star cast. He even did some of his own motorbike stunts, and surely no one else could have thrown a baseball against a cell wall with such charismatic nonchalance.
The Great Escape made McQueen a big star, but finding films that suited his particular laidback style wasn't always easy. "I don't really like to act," he admitted once. "I had to force myself to stick to it."
McQueen's limitations were obvious from a fairly early stage. Comedy, for instance, was pretty much out of the question, as were purely romantic dramas. Action films were his real speciality, but he worked in an era where good action movies were thin on the ground. When he got the right script, however, something special happened.
He had a major hit in 1968 in the glossy thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, playing a dashing millionaire with a sideline in burglary. Hot on his trail was a glamorous insurance investigator played by Faye Dunaway, and in a memorable scene they did everything but make love while playing a soft-focus game of chess. Maybe McQueen couldn't do comedy, but he could definitely do sexy.
McQueen's sexual magnetism extended into his turbulent personal life. He was married three times, most famously to Ali McGraw, who may have left him but never forgot him, and memorably described their first encounter: "I remember seeing him across the swimming pool and my knees were knocking. He radiated such macho energy. Men wanted to be like him. Uptight society ladies and biker molls wanted to be with him."
Perhaps the most perfect vehicle for his talents was Bullitt (1968). Directed by Peter Yates, this high-octane thriller was flashy and handsome, more style than substance, but that suited McQueen perfectly.
As his fame grew, he became famously tight-fisted and developed a reputation for being prickly and demanding. He turned down the role of the Sundance Kid because his and Paul Newman's agents couldn't agree who would get top billing, and for a time in the 1970s he turned away from acting altogether.
He returned to memorable effect in the mid-1970s with the prison drama Papillon and The Towering Inferno, a big-budget disaster movie in which he and Newman shared top billing.
But as the 1970s wore on, McQueen spent more time motor racing than acting, and sadly the asbestos flame-retardant suits he wore may have contributed to the lung cancer that claimed his life on November 7, 1980.
It's often been remarked that McQueen was no great shakes as an actor, but then again, his natural charisma meant he didn't have to be. Interestingly, his acting hero was John Wayne, and, like The Duke, McQueen liked parts where you swaggered around and said very little. But whatever he did, you just wanted to watch him.