Steve McQueen was the ultra cool anti-hero type, who was equal parts sex symbol and action hero. He left us way too soon, but we can still celebrate his birthday, right?
He’d be 91 today. So picture yourself in your dream sports car or motorcycle. You’ll need it as we spin the Steve McQueen way back.
The toughness you saw on Steve McQueen on screen was no act. With his mother’s permission, McQueen enlisted in the Marines. He was only 17. This was back in 1947. Also, the rebel act on screen? That was authentic, too. McQueen served our country for three years. He spent a six-week stint in the brig for an unauthorized absence. Yet, he also was a hero. McQueen helped save the lives of five Marines during an exercise near the Artic. He eventually received a cushy assignment as part of the Honor Guard for Harry S Truman’s presidential yacht.
He also loved racing from an early age. As he studied acting, he also raced motorcycles, using the winnings to help pay the bills.
McQueen’s first movie role came in 1956 when he joined the cast of Somebody Up There Likes Me. And what a cast. Paul Newman was the star. By 1958, McQueen joined the cast of TV show Trackdown. Robert Culp was the star — McQueen knew him from the moto track.
Frank Sinatra gave McQueen another break when he added McQueen to the movie Never So Few. Then came the Magnificent Seven in 1960. McQueen needed to take a medical leave from a TV series to play the part of Vin Tanner, a drifter turned gun fighter tasked with guarding a village in Mexico. If you don’t immediately remember the movie, you’ll certainly recognize the theme song.
Here’s a taste.
Steve McQueen dominated the 1960s and into the 70s. There was The Great Escape in 1963. Insurance wouldn’t allow McQueen to actually perform the iconic motorcycle jump over the fence. Instead, a stunt buddy did it. But McQueen did ride his Triumph TR6 Trophy bike.
In 1966, McQueen earned his lone Academy Award nomination for his work in the war movie, The Sand Pebbles.
And then came another McQueen classic — Bullitt. McQueen played Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco police detective. The chase scene was classic McQueen, as he maneuvers his Ford Mustang through the twisting streets of San Fran. McQueen did all the closeups, but stunt men performed the rest of the oh-so-tight turns.
By 1974, McQueen was the highest-paid actor in the world. Everyone loved to watch the rebel, whether McQueen played a gunfighter, an anti-establishment cop or a prisoner of war.
In 1978, McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. McQueen might have been exposed when he was wearing a racing suit. He also speculated about whether he encountered too much asbestos while in the Marines or working on a movie set.
McQueen died in 1980. He’d gone to Juarez, Mexico, just across the Texas border, for a last-chance, experimental surgery. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there, so he checked in using the name Samuel Sheppard, a Cleveland osteopath who had been acquitted of murdering his wife a couple of decades before. McQueen lived through the surgery, but died of heart failure hours later.
McQueen was only 50 when he died. He didn’t enjoy the opportunity to grow old. But he’ll forever be known for his screen roles, the ruggedly handsome, oh-so-cool, anti hero.