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The Reel Cowboys of Hollywood

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Vol. 2 - No.4 April, 2020 Nooseletter Home SUBMIT AN ARTICLE
 
The Side of Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s
King of Cool, You Don’t Know
The King of Cool is certainly not a new concept in Hollywood. We've seen it used in reference to Marlon Brando (Streetcar Named Desire—era), Clint Eastwood (still kickin' it so many decades later), and, of course, the late James Dean. But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has held onto that mantle longer than Steve McQueen. And this despite the fact he's been gone for nearly 40 years and that his first leading man role was in a movie called The Blob (he went on to bigger and better, though the film does have its following). The natural question to ask is why? What was it about Steve McQueen that has stood him apart from virtually everyone?

Journalist/author Marshall Terrill is the guy who probably knows McQueen better than anyone without actually knowing him. He has either written or co-written half-a-dozen biographical books on the subject, with another half dozen on the way. "There is such a need for McQueen," he exclusively tells Closer. "It's kind of like Elvis — it's unending."

But, again, we ask: Why?

"The most fascinating thing to me is that when I did that first book in '93, I thought that he would have had his run, like Humphrey Bogart did in the '70s, when film fanatics had his posters on their walls," he says. "They started doing that with McQueen in the '90s and I thought that that would have been his one time around. A final victory lap. But it just keeps going and growing, and it baffles me. It's the only aspect of this whole thing that really baffles me, the way it continues to perpetuate itself. Now it's become a generational thing in that it keeps moving up, and all the young kids discover who he is and are, like, 'Wow, this guy was really cool. He was something else.'"

Below, a look back at Hollywood's forever beloved King of Cool.
Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool
Part of Steve McQueen's appeal was his classic look.
Marshall points out that McQueen's look was timeless, as though he could have just arrived on the scene. Also, he represents '60s and '70s cinema, considered something of a golden age, and is looked at as the proverbial "man's man" who could work on his own car engine, fly his own planes, ride his own motorcycles, and handle his own weapons.

"That's not something they see in today's movie stars," Marshall observes. "They're watching a guy that lived these things throughout his life, so these movies, in a way, become biographical. They know that when he holds that gun, that he was in the Marines. They know that when he rode that motorcycle in The Great Escape, he could handle himself. They know that there's the car chase in Bullitt, even though he didn't do all the stunts, he did some driving — they knew he could handle himself. There's just a coolness factor that never seems to go away. So there's that, but then they discover the cult of personality of who he was, and the upbringing that he had, and the things that he did. To me, he was the first street kid that ever really made it big in Hollywood. So they know his behind the scenes story, which creates an emotional connection to him as an actor."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Overcoming his childhood was his biggest challenge.
Born Terence Steven McQueen on March 24, 1930 in Beach Grove, Indiana, his father (William Terence McQueen) was a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, who actually left his mother (Julia Ann) six months after meeting her. Early on, when Julia found it impossible to care for a youngster, she left Steven with her parents (who moved with him to his uncle's farm during the Great Depression) in what began a cycle of him going there, getting something of a normal upbringing, going back to live with her, finding himself in conflict (usually physically) with her latest husband, then he'd go back to the farm and so on. During all of that, he spent time living on the streets (at the age of nine!), and became part of a street gang, with whom he committed petty crimes. From there he went to the California Junior Boys Republic, located in Chino. Things got off to a rough start, but eventually he came around and became a true role model. Crediting that place with changing his life, once he became famous, he always made a point of stopping by to talk to and encourage the kids. Then, he made his way to the United States Marine Corp where, again, after a difficult (filled with belligerence) start, he became a model Marine and was honorably discharged in 1950. Acting was next on his radar.

Comments Marshall, "He jumped from job to job, and then when he discovered acting… Well, he had never given acting a thought, but the line that he said was, 'You know, there's a lot of women in acting,' so, therefore, it was a way for him to meet a lot of women. Then, of course, he found out eventually that there was money involved, too. At the same time, this was a street kid who made it big, and then he wanted to know everything that there was about the business so that he could never be taken advantage of. If you look at a lot of his movie contracts, they represented firsts. He really paved the way for a lot of Hollywood stars in terms of business concerns. In his contract for Papillon, for example, he got a $2 million salary for it, but he had a lot of incentives built into that contract to the point where he probably received close to $8 to $10 million. He was able to take home jewelry, wardrobes and so on.

"So he was making big money, but he kept things hidden — not just his private life, but his business life. When his contracts started coming out afterward, it was obvious he knew what kind of money to ask for. He knew what he could get. So, again, here's a street kid who is learning as he's going along and getting as much as he can out of the business. He's not taking any s— from movie executives. These guys are barracudas, and McQueen is just outsmarting them."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

He wanted to know how to do everything.
A statement that McQueen was known to say was, "There's nothing in the world I don't want to know." Those words touch Marshall, because they serve as proof of how hungry the actor was for new information. When he was acting, he constantly asked questions about different aspects of production both in front of and behind the camera. And this was at a time when McQueen took some heat from critics who claimed he was just coming to the set and behaving like himself.

"If you know anything about McQueen, there were elements of himself on the screen, but he fought hard to get that natural edge on camera," he says. "And he worked hard at it, too. When he made the movie Le Mans, playing a race car driver, he spent the whole night — like eight hours in a row — just getting in and out of the car. Exiting and getting in, just so that it would look natural. But keep in mind, there were also really longtime substance abuse problems, but he was able to compartmentalize. He used basically to regulate his moods in the old days when guys drank beer and did it all day long. He had his act together in one sense, but in another there were a lot of demons, too."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Wanted Dead or Alive
McQueen began studying acting in 1952, scoring stage and television roles (competitively racing motorcycles on the weekends for extra cash as well). He appeared in Paul Newman's Somebody Up There Likes Me and some B-movies followed, including the previously mentioned The Blob. Then he appeared on an episode of the TV Western Trackdown, playing bounty hunter Josh Randall, which was spun off as his own CBS series, Wanted Dead or Alive. That show ran from 1958-61 and 94 episodes, which proved significant to his career.

"It really was the key," says Marshall, "because it was such a learning experience for him. It's what I call his proving ground, because for those three years, he wasn't just acting, he was learning every single trick in the business and everything that he could behind the camera. Those were 12 or 14 hour days, but he was a younger guy at the time and used that situation to build himself up into a movie star."

He also learned how to be a colossal pain in the arse to such a degree that CBS canceled the show after three seasons rather than continue it for a fourth. "He made it such a painful situation for everybody," Marshall points out, "because in between those seasons he did the films Never So Few and The Magnificent Seven. It became very clear he was building a movie career, so he made it very painful on the show for directors, producers, and the studio — to the point where they were, like, 'Yeah, we could renew this, but we're just not going to.' Which is exactly what he wanted."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Climbing over people to get to the top wasn't a problem.
McQueen wanted to make it clear that he was a competitive guy, and was determined that when shooting a film, the camera was on him as much as possible. Getting to the top oftentimes resulted in collateral damage, which he was okay with.

"He was not afraid to climb over bodies to get there," Marshall points out. "His comment on that was, 'All the nice guys are standing in the unemployment line.' And so he just let it be known, 'I'm going to do whatever I can to get to make it.' Given where he came from, you can kind of understand that, but he took it extremely far. At the end of his life, I think he realized what a selfish SOB he had become, but in the beginning, in those early days he was willing to upstage Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. He was definitely competitive with Paul Newman. He did not want anybody to upstage him, because he was the guy that, if anybody was going to upstage anybody, it was going to be him.

"In one of my books," he elaborates, "I had a psychologist talk to me about that, and basically what he said was, 'The guy who creates the chaos is the guy that's in control.' So he would go to all his movie sets and create all this chaos, and, as it turned out, he was the person in control. It was the only way he knew how to do it, which I think he learned from the Boys Republic, because there was corporal punishing there in that if one person screwed up, then everybody got punished. He took that lesson and brought it to films sets and just turned every set upside down. As a result, a lot of people didn't want to work with him."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Directors wanted to escape the star of The Great Escape.
As a perfect example, he points to director John Sturges, who is the guy that really gave McQueen his big start in terms of being a feature film star. Recalls Marshall, "John Sturges said, 'In the early part of his career, McQueen listened to me, and I made him a star.' They worked together on Never So Few, which was his first major film. Then he worked with him again on The Great Escape, and on that film McQueen walked away for six weeks. Then he worked with Sturges one more time on Le Mans, and basically, they couldn't work with each other again. McQueen's ego so big to where, yes, he was the biggest movie star in the world, but actors and directors would want to certainly work with that guy no matter how difficult he was, because that would only elevate them."

On 1963's The Great Escape, McQueen felt that his co-stars all had "little things" going on with them, but he didn't. In response, he brought in another writer to fix the problem for him. Says Marshall, "A lot of these things — the ball against the wall, the motorcycle scene — McQueen made his own. He was such a scene stealer that you couldn't take your eyes off of him. He was the guy you followed."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

The clothes made the man.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, McQueen starred in films like The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Nevada Smith and The Sand Pebbles (both 1966), The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt (both 1968), The Reivers (1969), Le Mans (1971), Junior Bonner and The Getaway (both 1972, the latter of which being where he met and fell in love with Ali McGraw), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Most of them just furthered his stardom.

"The common thread through all of this was not only the acting, but he placed a lot of emphasis on wardrobe," muses Marshall. "Talk about Magnificent Seven, and you think about his cowboy hat and stained cowboy T-shirt. Great Escape, the leather jacket. Sand Pebbles, the white sailor's uniform. Bullitt, the turtleneck and tweed jacket. Getaway, the white shirt with the black tie and the jacket. And then, of course, the prison uniform in Papillon. The visual of him in these films with that wardrobe gives it a little extra dimension.

"Again, the timing of his career worked out well for him. He and Newman were the first anti-heroes," he continues. "Now they call it the non-conformist, but they were the first two of the non-conformists to come along and I think that connected with the youth of the day. So even though Bullitt is a cop, he's a nonconformist and he's doing things his own way. McQueen is an individual in all these things. Even in The Great Escape, he's not really part of the team. He's working alone; he always wanted that separation from the rest of the cast. Most actors, they make the decisions based on what the character would do on the page, but McQueen would always do what McQueen wanted to do, and he gave it his own personal touch. For whatever reason, people just connected with that."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Only once did he go for the cash when choosing a role.
If there was ever a moment where Steve McQueen "sold out," it would probably be the disaster blockbuster The Towering Inferno, which dealt with the rescue attempts of the people inside a skyscraper that's on fire.

"That was a total money grab," concedes Marshall. "Ryan O'Neal lived in Malibu at the time, and when he saw McQueen at a party and basically said, 'Why did you do that awful movie?', McQueen got very angry and almost hauled off and hit him. Then he calmed down and he basically said, 'I did it for my kids.' It was the financial security, and at the time he made $14.5 million on it. I believe he got a $1 million salary and 7.5% of the gross. At the time, that was the highest grossing movie of all time. And then six months later, Jaws had come along and knocked it off, but that $14.5 million is probably the equivalent of about $75 million today. He was looking to take a break from the movie industry, and that was a vehicle that came along at the right time."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Eventually, he burned out on stardom.
Following The Towering Inferno, McQueen stepped away from Hollywood as abruptly as he had entered it. Part of it stemmed from the negative publicity surrounding his marriage with Ali McGraw, and the belief that he had "taken" her from another man.

"He had become a big star and had just gotten burned out on it," he says. "He and Ali McGraw moved to Malibu and he just wanted to get away. The Towering Inferno was the culmination of everything, but psychologically he was burned out. All the things he had worked to become, all of a sudden he got tired of."

There was a four-year gap between The Towering Inferno and 1978's An Enemy of the People, and then two years between that and 1980's Tom Horn and what would be his final film, The Hunter. "He had talked about getting out of the business completely, but I don't think that would have been the case. The money was too good," explains Marshall. "He would have continued on in doing character roles, making lots of money that way, and just not having the whole focus and spotlight on him. He would have been a hell of a character actor, I think."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Toward the end, he reflected on the life he'd led.
Sadly, it was something we'd never see. Says Marshall, "He had become ill on the set of The Hunter during the last week of production. As a matter of fact, on Dec. 10 filming finished and on the 17th, he was diagnosed with cancer. I actually have an audio tape of him on his deathbed, and he said that he knew on the set of The Hunter he was sick. He was in Plaza Santa Maria with what I call a soothsayer; a guy who was brought in to look into McQueen's future. His name was Bru Joy and he was a spiritualist, a new-ager who came in and they had a 45-minute conversation. So he was basically brought in just to see where McQueen was spiritually, emotionally, and where he was going to end up. The tape ends up revealing a lot of his insecurities.

"He talked about that when he was younger, he didn't receive any love from his mother or father," he reveals. "When you don't have that sort of love, you do things to prove to yourself that you're worthy. He talked about the fact he'd done all these crazy things in his youth to prove to himself that he was worthy. Just a lot of looking back and a lot of regrets. One of the regrets he'd talked about was, 'I had built friendships about drugs and alcohol,' and he wished he would have built friendships that were based on solid ground instead. I'm not a doctor by any means, but obviously he was smoking pot and drinking beer every day to regulate his moods. And he was a moody guy. He was definitely a difficult guy to live with. I talked to two of his wives, and they said that he came from that old school where he was the man and they were the woman. They were there to serve him dinner and make love to him at night."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

The women he married represented different stages of his career.
Which could explain the fact he was married three times. His marriage with Neile Adams lasted 1956 to 1972, Ali McGraw from 1973 to 1978, and then Barbara Minty in 1980, the last year of his life. "His three wives took on different roles," suggests Marshall. "The first wife gave him that emotional support that he needed and was the mother to his children, and understood him the best, giving him a long leash. Unfortunately, their marriage ended at the end of the '60s because he wanted to screw around so much and wanted to be free. Then Ali McGraw represents pure, unabashed passion. That's what he had with her, but she was a very smart woman who had her own ideas about things. They were just complete opposites, so they clashed despite their unbelievable passion. Then, by the time he married Barbara Minty, he had completely mellowed out. Of course, she was almost 25 years younger than he was and he had done this 180. There was no fight left in him regarding women. He had found the woman that liked what he liked, that did what he did, that served him hand and foot. He was at his most peaceful with Barbara.

"If you look at it, they actually represent the different stages of his career as well. Neile represents the first part, the Hollywood years, his most successful years. Ali represents the Malibu years, which is when he started dropping out of Hollywood. And then Barbara represents this whole peaceful Steve McQueen where he'd come to peace with himself. Yes, he made a couple of movies, but he was not going to make Hollywood and movies his priority anymore. His priority at that time was just flying planes and enjoying life."

Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool

Saying goodbye.
That life was cut short for Steve McQueen at the age of 50 when he passed away from cancer on Nov. 7, 1980, leaving behind a widow, two ex-wives, two children, grandson Steven R. McQueen (also an actor), and a fascination on the part of the public that shows absolutely no sign of diminishing.

"There is just so much legacy there," Marshall proclaims, "but I think the lasting legacy is this individual who represents freedom, who represents pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. A street kid that made it big. And that's sort of the American dream, isn't it?"


About the Author
Closer Weekly Film/TV Editor Ed Gross always knew he wanted to be a writer — even from the time he was a wee lad growing up in Brooklyn — but couldn’t have imagined a lifelong obsession with pop culture leading to a career in entertainment journalism. Imagine loving classic TV (which, sadly, was new at the time), Superman, The Beatles, James Bond, movies and television in general, and being able to speak to the people behind them all and write about it. And then imagine waking up every day excited to get to work. Consider his mind boggled on a daily basis.
by Ed Gross of Closer Weekly
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