Steve McQueen: The life story you may not know
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.
To honor the late McQueen as we approach what would have been his 93rd birthday, Stacker curated a list of 25 lesser-known facts about the iconic, complicated star.
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.
The actor’s onscreen rebel persona matched who he was in real life. Born March 24, 1930, McQueen never quite escaped the damage of his volatile, unmoored childhood. He spent his adulthood ensconced in risky behavior and a life of excess, from fast vehicles and illicit substances to numerous, storied affairs. McQueen 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.
Early in his career, McQueen 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 enduring character is that of an unapologetically flawed man whose legacy stretches out across nearly three dozen films and countless television appearances. His signature style—often associated with Barbour jackets, Persol sunglasses, and TAG Heuer watches—and larger-than-life persona captivated audiences and influenced fans throughout the ’60s and ’70s and straight through to today.
Keep reading to learn more about McQueen’s life.
1930s: A hard-knocks upbringing
Steve McQueen was born in Indiana on March 24, 1930. His mother was a sex worker and his father a circus stuntman who left McQueen’s mom within six months after meeting her. Unable to cope with parenthood, by 1933 she left her young son with her parents in Missouri.
Reunited in 1938, mother and son moved back to Indiana with her new husband. McQueen was regularly beaten by his stepfather and by age 9 McQueen 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.”
1947: McQueen joins the Marine Corps
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.
1950s: Criminal enterprises
After being discharged from the Marines, McQueen kept a number of odd jobs, including serving as a getaway driver for robbers, working as a pimp, and selling illegal handguns. He eventually decided to change tacks and headed to New York for acting school. He used money from the G.I. Bill to enroll at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in 1951.