Iconic actor, martial artist, and car (and bike) enthusiast Steve McQueen was a perfect fit for the counterculture era, rising up as a true embodiment of the antihero archetype.
McQueen’s seemingly effortless cool was underscored in films like “The Great Escape,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” and “Bullitt.” The actor introduced a new image for a Hollywood leading man: unconventional, rebellious, and ruggedly handsome. To dig deeper into his legendary biography, Stacker made a list of 25 lesser-known facts about this timeless star.
McQueen’s onscreen rebel persona matched who he was in real life. He never quite escaped the damage of his volatile, unmoored childhood, growing into adulthood steeped in risk and excess from fast vehicles and illicit substances to numerous, storied affairs. The actor was known for outlandish demands on set, including losing a starring role in ″Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid″ to Robert Redford because McQueen wouldn’t sign on without having top billing over Paul Newman. He made complaints about lines and costumes and, several times, filming had to be delayed because McQueen was inebriated on narcotics or alcohol (or both). Other times, he turned down roles in films that stand today as masterpieces, such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Dirty Harry,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
McQueen also allegedly abused his wives and lovers. In her memoir “My Husband, My Friend,” McQueen’s first wife Neile Adams outlined persistent emotional and physical abuse. Further allegations suggest the same treatment of McQueen’s second wife Ali MacGraw.
McQueen’s daredevil lifestyle included racing cars and bikes. Early in his career, he got his hands on Harley-Davidson and Triumph motorcycles. By the early 1950s, living in New York City and studying acting, McQueen began traveling to Long Island on the weekends to compete in motorcycle races. His winnings each week totaled around $100, more than $1,000 in today’s money.
McQueen’s legacy—stretched out over nearly three dozen films and countless television appearances—is that of an unapologetically flawed man. His signature style—often associated with Barbour jackets, Persol sunglasses, and TAG Heuer watches—and larger-than-life persona captivated and inspired audiences and fans throughout the ’60s and ’70s and straight through to today. Keep reading to learn more about the life of this iconic, complicated star.
Reunited in 1938, mother and son moved back to Indiana with her new husband. McQueen faced regular beatings by his stepfather’s hand, and by age 9 McQueen had set out to live on the streets. His mother responded by sending him back to family in Missouri, only to ask for her son back when she’d married yet again and wanted to move the family to Los Angeles. There, McQueen faced familiar abuse by his mother’s new husband. After bouncing back and forth another time to Missouri, McQueen joined a gang in Los Angeles and, after getting caught stealing hubcaps and getting thrown down a flight of stairs by his stepfather, ended up in reformatory school.
During the 14 months he was enrolled at the California Junior Boys Republic at Chino, McQueen was put into solitary confinement five times. He later said he relied on those memories while acting in “the cooler” scenes in 1963’s “The Great Escape.”
McQueen was 17 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was there that he learned to use a number of weapons utilized in fight scenes throughout his filmography—including guns, knives, and his hands for street-fighting. During his service, he was promoted to Private First Class but demoted to private seven separate times for various offenses including using a weekend pass to meet up with a girlfriend for two weeks. During a training exercise in the Arctic, the ship hit a sandbank and threw a number of people into the water where many drowned. McQueen jumped in and rescued five Marines. He was honorably discharged in 1950.
After being discharged from the Marines, McQueen kept a number of odd jobs, the strangest of which included serving as a getaway driver for robbers, working as a pimp, and selling illegal handguns. He decided to change tacks and headed to New York for acting school. He used money from the G.I. Bill to enroll in 1951 at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse.
Neile Adams, a Broadway dancer, married the then-struggling actor in 1956. She later wrote that their mutual, painful childhoods helped them to understand each other. Neile also said she was aware of McQueen’s drug problem very early on, and that McQueen demonstrated extreme jealousy that manifested at times as physical violence. Meanwhile, he was a known philanderer who carried on many affairs and flings. The couple had two children together, Terry Leslie McQueen (1959–1998), and Chad McQueen (born in 1960). Neile filed for divorce in 1971.
McQueen’s acting career had touched off in 1952 with a half-hour telephone short for Bell Telephone Company. The struggling
young actor was eager to take any roles he could get, so in 1957 when he landed a leading role in a campy horror flick, he jumped at the opportunity. The movie turned out to be the surprise 1958 sci-fi hit thriller “The Blob.” Aneta Corsaut, who later co-starred on “The Andy Griffith Show” as Helen Crump, co-starred. McQueen earned $3,000 for his part in the film.
While filming “The Magnificent Seven,” McQueen took his co-star Robert Vaughn to a Mexican brothel, where they imbibed numerous margaritas, stayed all night, and left without paying (McQueen was notorious for never carrying cash). Years later, Vaughn recounted the story and said he was sure the two were lucky to have escaped a beating if not death.
1963’s “The Great Escape” seamlessly incorporated McQueen’s acumen as a motorcyclist and cool antihero persona. But in what is widely considered the greatest motorcycle scene of any movie, the dramatic fence-jump was done by the actor’s mentor, bike-builder, and friend Bud Elkins. That’s because the studio was worried McQueen might hurt himself. To pull off the stunt, Elkins employed a modification to the seat to protect his body during the 60-foot jump.
McQueen provided most of the funding required to form the first authentic Team USA at the International Six Day Trials (ISDT) in 1964, held in Erfurt, Germany, at the height of the Cold War. The team was composed of McQueen, Bud and Dave Ekins, Cliff Coleman, and John Steen. In a proud moment for the star, McQueen had the distinction of carrying the “Stars and Stripes” for the U.S. team at the opening ceremony.
McQueen earned an Oscar nominee for Best Actor for his role as a rebellious naval engineer Jake Holman in the military drama “The Sand Pebbles.” The screenplay was adapted from a 1962 Richard McKenna novel of the same name. McQueen starred alongside Richard Attenborough, Candice Bergen, Richard Crenna, and others.
PROC. BY MOVIES