Childhood & Early Life
Steve McQueen was born Terence Steve McQueen to William Terence McQueen and Julia Ann nee Crawford on March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. His father, a stunt pilot, left Julia six months after meeting her.
McQueen was mostly raised by his maternal grandparents and his uncle Claude at the latter’s farm in Missouri, as his mother was an alcoholic and prostitute and couldn’t care for young McQueen. He was raised as a Catholic.
When McQueen turned eight, his mother took him with her to his step-father’s place in Indianapolis. Adolescent McQueen faced tough time coping with the new environment, new place and new people.
Unable to bear the atrocities cast upon by his step father, McQueen left home at the age of nine. His mother sent him back to Claude only to call him again three years later to a new father and a new home in Los Angeles. However, history repeated itself and McQueen returned to his uncle a final time.
At the age of 14, he temporarily joined circus. He then returned to his step father and mother at Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the relation with his parents only worsened with time and McQueen was sent to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. At the Republic, McQueen rose to fame so much so that he was elected to the Boys Council.
At 16, McQueen left Chino to return to his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. However, he soon left for Dominican Republic. During this phase of life, McQueen took up many odd jobs as a lumberjack, oil rigger, salesman and so on.
In 1947, McQueen enrolled himself at the United States Marine Corps. Though initially he squandered his time, McQueen later directed himself to self-improvement. He was enlisted on the list of honor guard, responsible for guarding then President Harry Truman’s yatch. Three years after his service, he was honourably discharged.
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Following his service in the Marines, McQueen returned to New York. In 1952, he enrolled himself at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting school. The same year, he made his stage debut for a Yiddish play, delivering his first and only dialogue.
Alongside acting, McQueen rekindled his childhood interest in racing. He competed in weekend motorcycle races, emerging victorious almost each time. With the money earned, he bought himself the first of the many more to come Harley Davidson.
Between 1952 and 1955, McQueen took up minor roles in several plays. In 1955, he made his Broadway debut with the play ‘A Hatful of Rain’. The same year, he left for California, to make a place for himself in Hollywood.
McQueen’s Hollywood tryst began with B-movies. ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ marked his Hollywood debut. Soon to follow were flicks like ‘Never Love a Stranger’, ‘The Blob’ and ‘The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery’.
McQueen’s career breakthrough came in television for Dale Robertson’s western series, ‘Tales of Wells Fargo’. Immediately thereafter, he appeared as bounty hunter, Randall in the television show ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’.The show ran from 1958 until 1961 and was a major hit. It earned McQueen lot of attention and praise.
During the 1960s he began to gain limelight in Hollywood. He made his debut in Frank Sinatra’s war drama film, ‘Never So Before’. He was widely applauded for his acting abilities. Following this, he starred in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ which marked his first ever hit.
The year 1963 saw McQueen rise to stardom with the film, ‘The Great Escape’. His heroic scenes and outstanding on-screen presence earned him rave reviews from fans, audience and critics alike. The year ended with a couple of projects that hit the screens, ‘Love with the Proper Stranger’ and ‘Nevada Smith’
McQueen’s acting skills got refined with each passing film. He received his first and only Academy Award nomination for his role as an engine-room sailor in the military-drama film, ‘The Sand Pebbles’. He followed it up with the 1968 film, ‘Bullitt’ which till date is regarded as one of his best films. In the film, he played a San Francisco cop who pursued suspects on the city’s hilly streets. The movie also showcased one of the wildest rides in film industry.
The first half of the decade of 1970s saw McQueen taking up a variety of projects. ‘Junior Bonner’, ‘The Getaway’, ‘Papillon’, ‘The Towering Inferno’ were some of his films that released during this time. Such was his brilliance on-screen that he became the highest-paid actor of the time. However, the low came in quickly, as McQueen drowned himself to drugs and drinks. His personal life was in turmoil as he was labelled as an abusive husband by his ex-wives.
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Interestingly, when McQueen was at the zenith of his career, he gave up acting to concentrate on his first love, motorcycle racing. He travelled around the country on his vintage bikes. In 1978, he returned to the big screen with ‘An Enemy of the People’. People were amazed by his new avatar and barely recognized him in his long beard, lengthy hair and heavy physique. He followed this with his last two flicks ‘Tom Horn’ and modern-day action thriller ‘The Hunter’.
Alongside acting, McQueen never gave up on his love for racing. He was an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. Interestingly, he performed most of his stunts on his own. Such was his interest in the sport that at one point, he even considered becoming a race car driver professionally. He even has a patent for a motorsports bucket seat design in 1971.
McQueen possessed several fast car wonders including Porsche 917, Porsche 908, and Ferrari 512 race cars from the ‘Le Mans’ film, 1963 Ferrari 250 LussoBerlinetta, Jaguar D-Type XKSS, Porsche 356 Speedster, 1962 Cobra and Ford GT40. He also had a bevy of aircrafts, which he both flew and owned.
Awards & Achievements
Interestingly, despite his huge popularity and action and acting antics, McQueen did not receive any award in his career except for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the film, ‘The Sand Pebbles’.
Posthumously, he received several awards and honors. In 1999, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers.
In 2005, he ranked at the 26th position on the list of 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.
In 2012, McQueen was posthumously honored with the Warren Zevon Tribute Award by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO).
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Personal Life & Legacy
McQueen married thrice in his lifetime. His first marriage was to Neile Adams in 1956. She bore him a son and a daughter. The two divorced in 1972 and McQueen later married his ‘The Getaway’ co-star Ali MacGraw in 1973. This marriage too did not work and they separated in 1978. He finally married his third wife, Barbara Minty, a model. Apart from his three marriages, he dated a couple of women including Barbara Leigh, Lauren Hutton and Mamie Van Doren.
McQueen was a drug addict. He smoked marijuana and cocaine and was a heavy cigarette smoker. He was also an alcoholic.
McQueen refreshed his childhood memories by visiting the Boy’s Republic school often. Therein, he played pool with the boys and spoke his heart out about his life and work.
McQueen turned to Evangelical Christianity towards the end of his life. This was after he was influenced by his flying instructor, Sammy Mason.
In 1978, McQueen developed a persistent cough which only worsened with time. The following year, medical reports revealed that he was suffering from pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer. His condition deteriorated further as he developed huge tumors in his abdomen.
In 1980, McQueen flew to Mexico to undergo an experimental surgery to remove the abdominal tumor on his liver. Despite warnings from doctors in the US, who said that the tumor was inoperable and that his heart wasn’t strong enough to undergo a surgery, McQueen checked in a small clinic in a pseudonym ‘Sam Shepard’.
He breathed his last on November 7, 1980, due to cardiac arrest at the clinic, 12 hours after the surgery to remove or reduce numerous metastatic tumors in his neck and abdomen. He was cremated and his ashes were spread in the Pacific Ocean.
To commemorate the 80th birthday of the star actor, the Beech Grove, Indiana, Public Library formally dedicated the Steve McQueen Birthplace Collection.
The Disney Pixar film, ‘Cars’ honoured the actor by naming its main character ‘Lightning McQueen’. British heritage clothing brand J. Barbour and Sons paid a tribute to him by creating a Steve McQueen collection. English pop band Prefab Sprout named their second album, Steve McQueen.