Timeless: Steve McQueen

Throwback another Hollywood hunk in our Timeless series where we examine the lives of 20th Century studs whose handsome memory is ingrained in our minds. Then throwback some tequila with us for $5 a pop. Make it a top-shelf margarita for just $7.

The legend of Steve McQueen, star of just a few great movies and a great many terrible ones, has proved remarkably enduring.

No actor has done more than echo his catlike grace and genuine aura of danger than Steve McQueen. It helped, too, that his death from lung cancer at 50 ensured that his good looks were never totally eroded by age.

For decades, he had everything he’d ever wanted: a never-ending supply of women, mass adulation and a license to misbehave. So why did he become such an irredeemably tawdry character?

By most accounts he was a total dickhead.

Steve McQueen was cocky prick who you just wanted to smack in the face. But it was this bad boy behavior that appealed to men and women.

He was the epitome of yin and yang—sweet and scary; caring and selfish; cocky and insecure; funny and humorless; generous and thrifty. He was every emotion you could think of.

Early Life
In interviews, he was nonchalant about his rough upbringing, as befitted his cool image, but the reality was a nightmare. Born to a teenage prostitute, he never knew his father — a circus stuntman who deserted her six months after they met.

Abandoning him to live with a great-uncle in Missouri for years at a time, his mother would occasionally relent and take him back. By the age of nine, though, he was being beaten so badly by her new husband that he took to sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles.

Mr. McQueen led a troubled youth, spent time as a teenager in Boys Republic, a California home for problem children, and, like many actors, compiled a colorful employment record - he listed jobs as a merchant sailor, oilfield laborer, carnival barker, lumberjack, errand boy for a brothel and a stint as a marine who served time in the brig for being AWOL.

It was his job as a cleaner in the brothels that young Steve McQueen learned his most valuable life lesson. The prostitutes told him that confidence is the key to success - in life and in the bedroom.

Leeching and Learning
He moved to New York in 1952 and worked as a bartender. It's here where readers will imagine how he made his way in New York. Sexy and slim, blond and bold, his bravado knew no limits and he fucked men and women, took their money and scraped by.

His salvation came when an acquaintance suggested that McQueen join an acting school. To Steve, it seemed a good way of meeting more people to fuck, so he decided to have a go.

He liked it. But his acting career failed to ignite. So, he leeched off a successful dancer called Neile Adams — spending her earnings on new cars, drugs and other women. Eventually he married her in 1956. He landed a small role soon afterwards in the film of Harold Robbins’s trashy novel, Never Love A Stranger.

His next role was a bit part in Somebody up There Likes Me (1956) and then he had an inauspicious debut in a leading role in The Blob (1958), battling a slimy invader from space. Then, McQueen became a star on television, with the 1958-61 CBS series Wanted: Dead or Alive and was one of the few early '60s TV stars (Eastwood was another) able successfully to make the transfer to motion pictures.

But, as McQueen’s career gathered pace, his married life floundered. He would fuck around with his co-stars and he always flaunted his affairs — with co-stars including Jacqueline Bisset and Lee Remick, not to mention a host of starlets and fans.

By 1960, his wife Neile had given up work and given birth to a son and daughter. Still struggling to be the kind of wife he wanted, she’d boil up the high-grade peyote he bought from Navajo Indians, and then disappear while McQueen got stoned with his friends.

McQueen is best-known and most successful movies are probably The Great Escape (1962), in which he won the admiration of stunt men by doing his own dangerous motorcycle stunts; Bullitt (1968), which climaxed with Mr. McQueen at the wheel in a classic auto chase sequence up and down the hills of San Francisco.

His star was continuing to rise — Bullitt placed him firmly in the pantheon of international superstars. His next project, Le Mans, which he made through his own production company, was meant to be the ultimate movie about the racing circuit.

Instead, largely due to McQueen’s pig-headedness, it was a dull and plotless flop.

McQueen was a devoted fitness buff in his spare time, working out with a personal trainer, boxing, and taking martial arts lessons in his well-appointed home gym. One of the most iconic and enduring photos of the actor, in which he works a heavy-bag wearing nothing but a loose pair of sweatpants, ratty handwraps, and a stony expression, was taken in that very gym by a photographer for Life magazine in 1963.

McQueen’s primary motivation for such a dedicated physical regimen was that he wanted to be in the best possible shape for his race car driving hobby and his fairly extensive stunt work on his own films, but his friend and Jeet Kune Do instructor, some guy named Bruce Lee, believed there was more to it. (Check out our Timeless: Bruce Lee post)

Brush With the Manson Murders
In the late 60s, his stardom established, he started going for all-night benders at the Whisky a Go Go club on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where he met one of his chief partners in crime: a womanizing hairdresser called Jay Sebring.

The two men, fueled by alcohol and cocaine, shared the sexual favors of a Bambi-eyed starlet called Sharon Tate, often in the same bed at the same time. And their friendship continued even after she married the director Roman Polanski.

On the afternoon of August 7, 1969, Sebring went to McQueen’s house to give him a trim and suggested they attend a party that evening at Sharon’s house. McQueen said he’d be there. As fate would have it, instead he decided to fuck around with a new blonde that he had met and did not attend the party.

Two months later, when the killers were arrested, police discovered McQueen’s name on a hit-list of people whom Manson had decided to kill. It turned out that someone at McQueen’s production company had once rejected a screenplay by Manson. From then on, the actor carried a loaded Magnum at all times.

Meanwhile, Back at Home…
After bouts of wife-beating and drug-fueled confessions of infidelity, Steve and Neile divorced in October 1971. Emotionally adrift, McQueen withdrew alone to a small house where he enjoyed getting up late, popping open a couple of beers and spending all day watching TV. But he missed the stability of his marriage.

His next movie, The Getaway, was produced by Robert Evans, a Hollywood bigshot then married to the coltish Ali MacGraw — and Evans decreed she should have a starring role. It was an order he’d live to regret.

Almost immediately after meeting McQueen in 1972, Ali became another notch on his belt.

Later, she recalled: ‘I was obsessed with Steve from the moment he stepped into my world, and there was never enough air for me to breathe to change that feeling. He was very taken with me, too, although I wasn’t necessarily his dream lady physically.’

Yet even at the height of their affair, McQueen — fueled as always by coke and beer — couldn’t resist having sex with groupies (both men and women) on set. He made no attempt to conceal any of these liaisons from Ali, but she grimly clung on.

During the last days of shooting, Robert Evans arrived to visit the set. McQueen refused to speak to him, so it was left to Ali to tell her husband about the affair.

Their relationship continued to blaze after filming ended. In 1973, they moved into an isolated beach house together and McQueen took to calling Ali his ‘old lady’. When she pointed out, quite reasonably, that his refusal to let her work meant she’d have no money if they parted, he grudgingly proposed.

‘OK, baby — if you want to get married, it’s tomorrow or never. That’s it,’ he said. So they married. And his controlling behavior intensified.

Whenever Ali MacGraw’s agent called, her new husband would slam down the phone. No way was he going to allow his young wife to resume her career, even if she was the hottest female star in Hollywood.

As far as Steve McQueen was concerned, Ali was better off barefoot and pregnant, serving him up meat and potatoes at 6pm precisely, which he’d devour alone in front of the TV. Which is why the star of Love Story and Goodbye Columbus simply stopped making movies for five years.

No one could understand why the sophisticated former model, at the peak of her career, had chosen to marry McQueen, whose antediluvian attitudes to the female sex were widely known.

Even the gossip columnists knew he was cheating on Ali — by renting a suite at the Beverly Wilshire in LA for quickies, though no one quite dared put it that way in print. Sometimes, too lazy to go out looking for women, he’d arrange to ‘interview’ potential starlets in his suite for a movie that didn’t exist. And such was power of his macho movie image that girls half his age ignored his growing paunch, falling willingly into the convenient bed.

He was never all that fussy where sex was concerned. If models and starlets weren’t readily available, he was perfectly happy to sleep with prostitutes — the more the merrier.

Indeed, a few years earlier, while making The Magnificent Seven, he and his co-star Robert Vaughn had spent the whole of Good Friday in a Mexican brothel. After getting drunk on margaritas, they echoed the film’s title by sharing seven girls between them in one silken-pillowed room.

Not only was McQueen openly and repeatedly unfaithful, as author Marc Eliot reveals in a new biography, but he also ingested vast quantities of drugs, regularly getting high on cocaine, peyote, LSD and — to pep up his bedroom activities — vials of amyl nitrate. (Imagine McQueen on the dance floor in a gay club?)

Being a bad boy, of course, was a crucial component of his popular appeal. But what this book reveals for the first time is the sheer scale of his appalling behavior, in both his private and professional life.

In person, McQueen was a short, boorish man of few words — sometimes choosing to communicate only in grunts.

When he wasn’t racing cars or consorting with women, he often spent days doing nothing except watch TV soap operas in a drug-induced haze.

Professionally, he was usually a nightmare to work with, throwing tantrums about everything from the cut of a pair of jeans to the billing of another actor. On nearly every film that he made, he fell out with the director or the screenwriters or his co-stars — and sometimes all of them at once.

Desperately insecure, he’d work himself into a fury over the success of his rivals. When he learned that James Garner — who then lived in a flat below his — had beaten him in his ambition to make a movie about motor racing, he urinated every night on to Garner’s balcony.

Paul Newman, who starred in more hits than McQueen, was a particular bugbear. So when the two men were given equal billing in The Towering Inferno in 1974, McQueen insisted that each was given exactly the same number of words — and that the final shot and sentence spoken in the film would belong to him.

Hard to believe now that he was widely viewed as the most attractive alpha male of his time.

Life With Ali
Finally, in 1977, after miscarrying their baby, Ali told him that she wanted to accept the offer of a part in the film Convoy.

‘He was sitting in a chair, nursing a beer,’ she recalled. ‘He turned to me and said: “In that case we are filing for divorce.”’ Later, he offered to match the deal she was offered out of his own pocket — in essence, paying her not to work. She declined and did the film, which was a huge hit.

What Ali didn’t know, however, was that while she was filming, Steve had started an affair with a 28-year-old model called Barbara Minty, whom he’d ‘interviewed’ at his ‘office’ in the Beverly Wilshire. Nevertheless, the marriage seemed back on track for while. He’d surprised Ali by turning up on her the set in New Mexico and rekindling their sex life.

They then celebrated the opening of Convoy with a holiday in Paradise Valley, Arizona — and had a great time until he irrationally accused her of flirting with another man. On the drive back to LA, he grilled her so relentlessly that she couldn’t take it any longer.

‘I want a divorce,’ she screamed at the top of her lungs, startling McQueen’s son from his first marriage, Chad, who was in the back seat. A month later, the couple formally separated.

Life After Ali
His two last films, Tom Horn (1979) and The Hunter (1980) were unsuccessful with critics and at the box office.

It was while he was shooting scenes for his last film The Hunter, on location in Chicago that he felt unusually tired and lacking stamina. He returned to Los Angeles and underwent a series of tests. It was then that doctors diagnosed mesothelioma, a usually fatal form of lung cancer sometimes associated with the inhalation of asbestos, a carcinogen. Mr. McQueen's friends immediately blamed the asbestos face masks and protective clothing he often wore while engaging in his favorite sports, motorcycle and sports-car racing.

He went to Mexico for treatment that included the drug Laetrile, intramuscular injections of animal cells, an organic diet, megavitamins, fasting, massages and coffee enemas.

None of these treatments were successful. The pain was increasing so surgery was the next option. So a Mexican doctor removed a five pound tumor from McQueen's abdomen.

On November 7, 1980, during recovery from the surgery, Steve McQueen, 50 years old, died of a heart attack.

McQueen once said:

"I'm not a great actor - let's face it. I don't have a great deal of scope. There are certain things I can do, but when I'm bad, I stink. There's something about my shaggy dog eyes that makes people think I'm good. I'm not all that good."

Still, in the right role, there was no one else quite like him, and for Mr. McQueen the right role often meant a man of action involved in exciting chases in cars, on motorcycles or, on horseback.


Come to Bacchus today for a toast to Steve McQueen, some throwback tunes, Thursday Night Football (at 2PM), and tequila. Andrew is on at 5pm and he's got RuPaul lined up to play at 7:30. Never a cover. Always fun.

MONDAY TRIVIA HINT: removed on Friday, 9/16