Steve McQueen: still the coolest guy in Hollywood

From genuine poverty to superstardom via fast cars and even faster women, Steve McQueen will always be one of Hollywood’s all-time greats.

March 15, 2015

The second greatest car chase in movie history (behind The French Connection) begins a little over an hour into the otherwise uninspired policier Bullitt. The first inkling that this isn’t going to be just some Hollywood crash ‘n’ smash ‘em occurs in the first few expertly timed moments when, pursued by an anonymous hood (master stunt driver Bill Hickman), Steve McQueen (in the title role) dodges and weaves through suburban San Francisco, vanishing over brows of hills, round hairpin bends all the while serenaded by Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, effortlessly sexy score; it’s the automotive equivalent of a slick pick-up executed well after midnight in the kind of bar where you wouldn’t touch the nuts.

There are the sly glances, the recognition of recognition (you are looking at me), the slow revving of automotive foreplay. And then seatbelts are pulled on, feet tense against accelerators and... well you can push a metaphor too far. Suffice it to say that when they really get going the whole thing lasts just under seven minutes and ends with an explosion.

But the point of bringing up this chase is that if you want to know about Steve McQueen, these few wordless minutes, shot on the undulating streets of San Francisco in the Spring of 1969, are really all you need to see. They are the apotheosis of the man; a blessed distillation of the two things he did best: driving cars; looking cool. But he didn’t start out that way.Steve McQueen Bullitt Terence Steven McQueen’s life began in 1930 mired in the kind of poverty and human wreckage that studio publicists usually have to cook up years later. Beech Grove, Indianapolis was a struggling train town perched on the edge of the Depression. His mother was Julia Ann Crawford, a teenage drifter who had turned to booze and then to the only form of entrepreneurism open to her – turning tricks. One of these may or may not have been Bill McQueen, a fellow alcoholic who had expanded his repertoire of addictions into morphine some time in his early 20s.

Bill vanished from the scene with the rapidity he had arrived and the next decade of young Steve’s life would be characterised by constant movement as his mother shuttled between various beds either taking her son with her or leaving him with, well pretty much with anyone who happened to be around. “I lived in about 20 different shacks and dumps,” he would later say.

There were endless runs in with the police, incidents with BB guns, shoplifting and petty theft. By 1945 he was a resident of Boys Republic, a reform school for incorrigible youth. Later he would sell the place as a penal hell-hole; in fact it may have been the making of him.

He certainly retained a fondness for the place. Years later when he was an A-List star the riders to his increasingly demanding contracts inevitably included dozens of pairs of new jeans and boxes of fancy electric razors. Execs must have thought it was just contractual showboating – the equivalent of the bowl of brown M&M’s – they no-doubt cursed him, then sighed and put the orders in. Days later the denizens of Boys Republic would be wearing new duds and be impressively smooth-chinned.Boys Republic Steve McQueen.But all that was way in the future, a future that this skinny, unpromising adolescent could hardly begin to imagine. By 1947 he had run out of options. There was nothing really left to do; nowhere really left to go. He finally took advantage of America’s long-standing multibillion- dollar programme designed specifically to cater for that great nation’s walking wounded; for its lost souls; for its wastrels and terminal losers. He joined the marines.

He was discharged from the Navy with not the foggiest idea of what he was going to do next. What he did have, courtesy of Uncle Sam and the G.I. Bill, was a right to some kind of further education. How he came to decide to use the government’s cash in order to pursue a career in acting is veiled in mystery, but it seems to have something to do with a woman.

He was living in New York with an actress who took him along to an audition, probably just to get him off her couch. His own take later was that there were plenty of women in the acting profession willing to give him the time of day. But whoever saw him that day saw that rough-hewn vulnerability that would sustain him through two decades’ worth of tortured outsider roles, not to mention those baby blues (by this time he was vain enough to be picking his clothes to bring out his two greatest assets). Steve McQueen. There followed a few years of apprenticeship, treading the boards in dinner theatres, the odd TV role and then the film breakthrough, starring opposite a gelatinous mass in schlock-horror classic The Blob. Steve was offered either $3,000 or 10 per cent of the gross. He took the cash and... well, we all know how those stories turn out. The movie would go on to make over $4 million. Rage and tantrums would follow. But more importantly, and possibly to his own surprise more than anyone else’s, he was becoming a success.

Typically though he wasn’t happy. “In my own mind I’m not sure that acting is something that a grown man should be doing,” he once said with reference to the fact that actors tended to be considered softies. It was certainly a subject that only the foolhardy would bring up to his face. Once in London an innocent misunderstanding over the precise meaning of the word ‘fag’ almost led to fisticuffs. And there was the occasional rumour – a supposed encounter with James Dean; a name-check in a scurrilous list of Hollywood closet-cases that never got published.

His tantrums on set had become legendary. Once an assistant director moaned that they were way behind schedule. McQueen grabbed the script, ripped 10 pages out at random, and announced, "now you’re back on schedule". Once he hit the big time the explosions were exponentially more powerful and his ego, his urge to dominate, control, to star was insatiable. Steve McQueen. On the set of The Magnificent Seven he drove Yul Brynner to distraction, stealing scenes from the nominal lead actor with a host of ticks, tricks and snatched moments of ineffable cool. On Hell Is For Heroes (1962) he worked his frustrations out on Paramount’s rental cars, totalling three in the first two weeks of shooting. The Great Escape (1963) saw further opportunities for McQueen to get up his co-stars’ collective nose. He kept the “f***ing candyass limeys” waiting on set for hours at a time.

His inner demons were yet again exorcised via the medium of the internal combustion engine; in this case a Mercedes 300-SL with which he garnered 37 speeding tickets before wrapping it around a tree. The result was the so-called “asphalt clause” banning him from race-driving during the shooting of any of his films. Five years later he would find a way round the vexatious contract detail. He would put reckless driving at the centre of the film. A smart move. It would turn out to be his biggest hit.

McQueen’s preparation for the role of Frank Bullitt took all of one night. First stop was the city morgue where he asked to observe an autopsy. The bone-cutters had just the thing, the corpse of a recent gunshot victim, which they pulled apart in front of him with clinical relish, anticipating at least a shift towards the green spectrum in the Hollywood star’s robust complexion. McQueen watched the whole grand guignol with sanguine indifference. In the middle of it all he munched on an apple. Steve McQueen. And so, back to that chase. McQueen spent possibly the happiest days of his professional life hurtling along the streets of San Francisco (many of which, for added realism, the production crew reportedly neglected to clear of pedestrians and other traffic) in an extensively enhanced Green GT Mustang. But the sequence’s genius is not wholly in the squealing brakes and precision steering, impressive though they are. The secret is in the editing.

What British director Peter Yates knew, and what almost every single director of car chases in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond has somehow forgotten, was that if you want it to look fast – chop it slow. Yates uses relatively sustained takes and long shots to stress the movement of the cars through the frame – one side of the screen to the other. You get to feel the physics of the thing. You get time in those shots to imagine the Gs.

Cars continued to dominate McQueen's professional life. Making a movie set at Le Mans had been an obsession for nearly a decade. Now with the success of Bullitt – and its undeniably popular automotive component – behind him, he managed to drum up the $7.5 million to make it a reality. It was chaos from the start. Before a frame was filmed the mini-city that sprang up around Le Mans was costing nearly $100,000 a day.

The movie wasn’t the only thing spinning out of control. McQueen’s boozing and smoking (to say nothing of the Peyote) had already caused problems on Bullitt – on one hungover morning he couldn’t remember the only line he had in the scene. It was hardly a challenge – “he’s dead”. On closer questioning it emerged that he couldn’t actually remember the name of the film he was in. Le Mans was a metaphorical car-wreck. le mans Steve McQueen. He’d started coughing sometime in 1976, and he hadn’t really stopped since. He hated "candyass doctors" pretty much more than any other species of candyass, and thus consistently refused to visit one until 1979. The diagnosis was catastrophic: Mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. He had let it fester for three years untreated, perhaps suspecting all the time that he knew what it was, and by refusing to face up to it had effectively signed his own death warrant. It was typical McQueen behaviour: truculent, independent, mistrusting of any authority; the result of terrible fragility, of fear that things might be out of his control. This, it turned out, certainly was.

Towards the very end he became involved with a quack called William D. Kelly who claimed to be able to cure cancer with vitamins and dietary supplements. An ambitious claim, particularly since his only official medical qualification was in dentistry. Dr. Kelly’s ministrations were predictably ineffective and Steve McQueen died at 3.50am on November 7, 1980. He was 50.

There is a final, tragic, irony. The thing he loved most, racing, may have contributed to his death, though not in the way everyone who cared for him thought it would, not in a fireball – quite the opposite. While competing between movies his contract with the studios had insisted that he wear thicker and thicker asbestos protection, guarding their property against a potentially fatal or disfiguring blaze. Steve was a smoker sure, but Mesothelioma is a rare cancer linked, in many cases, to the inhalation of asbestos fibres. For a man who liked to take risks the irony might have made him smile. Playing it safe had been the death of him.