In 2005, Steve McQueen entered the Top 10 "dead earners" list. His image is now guaranteed, just by association, to give a "product" instant kudos. How is that? How can a man who never won an Oscar, who died 30 years ago at the relatively young age of 50, still command such instant recognition? Easy... because Terrance Steve McQueen is the real deal. He's that rare thing in the world. He's absolutely 100% genuine. As he himself would say, "There is no fuckin' bullshit with me brother." Don't believe me? Okay. well have a listen to this...
By the time Steve McQueen was just 14 he had been passed from his Mother to his Uncle, back to his Mother and then finally to a "reform" school in California. During this time, his blood Father had abandoned him and his Mother had had a series of abusive relationships with McQueen himself on the end of some serious beatings from different men. Did this cower the young McQueen? Did it make him retreat into a shell? Nope. In fact, he found the time to run away to the Circus and discover a love of Motorbikes, a love that never left him. To run with a street gang that saw him earning more than his abusive step-father and also to become enthralled with the thing that would make him world famous: the movies.
It was at the "Boys Republic" home in California that the young McQueen finally found some love and stability, but that streak of rebellion that made him so hungry to succeed in the world, to be the best, never left him. And by the time he was a man, he was the biggest and highest paid movie star on the planet. So fuck you all!
But I get ahead of myself. You see, McQueen packed so much into his 50 years that I sometimes wonder what the fuck I've been doing with my life. At 16, he finally made New York. And promptly ran away on a ship that was heading for the Caribbean. While there, he decided that he'd become a "Marine"... as you do, I suppose. Running five miles a day, seven days a week. An hour on the weights. Smoking two packs a day and zipping everywhere on motorbike, the young McQueen lived with a zest for life that very few of us ever really possess. They are the shooting stars. In the Marines, he was forever in and out of the "brig" for misdemeanours but was considered by all there to be a superb soldier when he wasn't going AWOL with girls. At 19, he saved a tank full of fellow Marines by pulling them out before it sank through ice and at one point he was assigned to be a personal guard to President Truman. He left in the early 1950s with the GI loan, which he promptly used to put him through drama college. He also bought himself a Harley that he raced on weekends. At one point, he was bringing home $800 a week (in today's terms) in prize money. His life long friend and fellow bike rider Bud Ekins called him the most natural motorbike rider he ever saw. McQueen left college and landed himself a role in Wanted Dead or Alive, playing the bounty hunter Josh Randell, and he almost instantly became one of America's biggest TV Stars. While on set (and I love this about McQueen), a professional stuntman taught him "how to draw". The stuntman said that "within two days, McQueen was quicker than me!"... Indeed, McQueen went on to be universally known as one of the quickest draws in the US... and you'd think this would make us blokes sick with envy wouldn't you? But actually it does the opposite. Indeed, as blokes read this they are smiling and nodding because we LOVE McQueen. We love him because we all know that poor kid who has been kicked around but who keeps coming back stronger. You see, deep down we ALL want to be Steve McQueen.
The next jump for our King of Cool was to the movies. Another uber-cool cat, Mr.Sinatra, noted the young McQueen and made sure that he got him onto his movie. From there, it was some run for McQueen: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullit... all iconic films that still live with us. Take The Great Escape. The famous "jump". McQueen didn't do it himself. They wouldn't let him. They said if he did and anything happened to him then the studio would go bust on insurance. So he glumly sat it out. When he was asked if he did the jump at the premier, did he do it? He immediately said: "Nope, that was my good friend Bud Elkins." McQueen was not a man to take credit from others, but what he did do, was every scene where he was dressed as German soldier. In fact, Elkins himself said: "The jump was easy, but because it was a jump the producers were up in arms. All the tough stuff, the skidding and quick stops Steve did... I couldn't do them, but he could." In fact, in one of the chases, no one could do the "chase" so they had to use McQueen to chase himself and make it look real with some clever editing. In Bullit, he did a lot of the car chases but again, the "jumps" he wasn't allowed to touch. He fumed and by 1974, after an amazing performance as the Fire Chief in The Tower Inferno, he jacked it in for a few years and took his motorbike across America. He appeared rarely, except on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show (America's most popular show) rallying around the dunes on a buggy leaving Sullivan and the audience breathless.
It's fair to say that McQueen liked women. And they liked him. Married three times, he was no doubt a difficult man to live with. He smoked a joint every day. Was prolific in his cocaine taking and still kept up the running five miles every morning. The man was on fast forward constantly and it was obvious that something was going to give and at just 48, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. McQueen tried to fight as he always did but it was too far advanced and suddenly he was dead, way too young at barely 50 years of age before the 1980s had even begun. It was a tragic waste for the acting world. He was a man who would have grown old much like his great friend Paul Newman and been fated by the Scorsese's and Spielberg's who idolised him (Spielberg famously begged him to be in Close Encounters but McQueen was already feeling the first effects of illness). Who knows what other great performances the older, craggy Steve McQueen would have given us. Have a look at him in the Cincinatti Kid: that walk, that cocky smile and you just know what he would have done to the Stallone's, Willises and Cruises that followed. This Marine, this juvenile delinquent, this King of Cool.
Steve McQueen's life was in every sense a tale of rags to riches. From sleeping in box cars in rags as a teenage boy to Hollywood mansions. Steve McQueen wasn't just a great actor, he was also as hard as a coffin nail and we loved him for it. Men and women alike, because in him we see the human spirit that cannot be extinguished, in him we still see a man that would not be beaten and because of that he will live forever... and looking fuckin' great while doing so.© Jonathan Owen/ ZANI Media