Steve McQueen was born *Steven Terrence McQueen (see note below on name) on May 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. He was abandoned both by his father and his mother and was primarily raised in Missouri by his Uncle Claude. At the age of twelve, he returned to live with his mother and her new husband in Los Angeles, California. His family life was unhappy and soon Steve was hanging out with a street gang and constantly getting into trouble. His mother sent him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California and he remained there for several years and joined the Marines in 1947. After leaving the Marines in 1950, he began studying acting and was accepted into Lee Strasberg's prestigious "Actor's Studio". Steve auditioned along with 2000 other hopefuls but only he and Martin Landau (Mission Impossible) were accepted. He debuted on Broadway in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain.
He was soon earning a modest living with guest appearances in television which led to the lead in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. He starred as Josh Randall, a bounty hunter who gave away as much money as he earned. He carried a sawed-off Winchester Rifle nicknamed the Mare's Leg. The show was a huge success and Steve's career took off.
His first leading role was in the 1958 horror movie The Blob. His big break came when he replaced Sammy Davis, Jr. in the film Never So Few which starred Frank Sinatra. The always confident Sinatra took a liking to Steve and urged the director, John Sturges, to "Give the newcomer a break". Sturges recognizing McQueen's raw talent, offered him roles in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Other classic McQueen films include Bullitt, Papillon, The Sand Pebbles, The Getaway, Le Mans, The Thomas Crown Affair, Junior Bonner, Tom Horn and The Towering Inferno among others. His last film was The Hunter in 1980.
McQueen was married three times, his first wife was dancer/actress Neile Adams which lasted from 1956 to 1972. They had two children, daughter Terry born in 1959 and son Chad in 1960. Sadly, Terry died in 1998 from respiratory failure after receiving a liver transplant. Terry had one daughter, Molly Flattery (1987) and Chad has three children, Steven R. McQueen (1988), Chase (1995) and Madison (1997). Steve's second wife was actress Ali MacGraw whom he met on the set of The Getaway. They were married from 1973 to 1978. His third wife was Barbara Minty, they were married in 1980, the year of his death. Although Steve remarried twice after his divorce from Neile, they remained great friends and lovers for the rest of his life. They had their problems and they divorced but she was always his champion and still is to this day. She, too, is a remarkable person and it's easy to see why McQueen loved her for the rest of his life.
McQueen was a tremendous motorcyclist and racecar driver. When insurance companies for the films allowed, he would perform many of his own stunts. His most famous stunts were performed in The Great Escape where he did much of the bike riding and Bullitt where he did much of the driving. Much to his dismay, the insurance companies would not allow him to perform the most dangerous stunts in either film which he always regretted. Contrary to popular belief, McQueen did not perform the the famous fence jump in The Great Escape. Instead his good friend and stunt driver Bud Ekins made the jump. Steve always made a point to credit Bud Ekins for the jump whenever asked about it during interviews. There were many times someone would say "That was a GREAT jump!" and he would say "Yeah, it was but I didn't make it."
His love of racing led to movies and documentaries involving both car and motorcycle racing. He made the film Le Mans in 1971 which is considered one of the best "documentary" films about the racing world. He did much of his own driving in the film. He wanted to enter the actual Le Mans race that year but again the insurance companies intervened. He also made the documentary film On Any Sunday. It follows the lives of motorcycle racers and racing enthusiasts, including actor Steve McQueen. First asking the question "Why do they do it?" this film looks at the people who devote (and sometimes risk) their lives to racing on tracks and off-road courses around the world. It is considered one of the best documentaries of it's kind even now. It was funded by his own production company, Solar Productions. He owned dozens of classic motorcycles and exotic sports cars worth millions. He was quite the "Man's Man", he rode bikes, flew planes, raced cars and was a 3rd degree black belt in karate. He trained under ninth degree black belt, Pat Johnson. He was also great friends with Martial Arts experts Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. He was a pallbearer at Bruce Lee's funeral and both inspired and encouraged Chuck Norris to become an actor. Incidentally, both Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris taught Steve's son, Chad, various forms of martial arts in which he excels as well.
Steve McQueen died on November 7, 1980 in Juarez, Mexico at the age of 50. After being diagnosed with inoperable Mesothelioma in 1979, he went to Mexico to receive an unconventional treatment to cure cancer. He died of a heart attack following surgery. It is unclear where he was exposed to the asbestos that causes Mesothelioma. There are several theories, the first one is he breathed in the asbestos when working on the drum brakes of his Austin-Healey and another was exposure when he was in the Marines. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
His legacy still lives on in popular culture. Several songs have been written about Steve McQueen. The best known is probably the song written by Sheryl Crow called Steve McQueen. The video featured scenes from Bullitt, Le Mans and The Great Escape. Even more than 25 years after his death, he is inspiring another generation of artists - see list here
Steve McQueen was by no means a saint, he had his demons - he cheated on his wives, did drugs, drank too much and may have been a bit too self-involved. However, he knew his faults and never pretended to be anything he wasn't. So if his loved ones forgave him, who are we to judge? He worked hard, played hard and loved hard. To this day, there has never been an another actor who could fill the shoes left behind by McQueen. There have been a few imitators but they never came close. He was a remarkable blend of character that appealed to men and women alike. Both admired his rugged, good looks, devil-may-care attitude, athletic triumphs and unconventional lifestyle. That's not a simple accomplishment in Hollywood since actors usually appeal to one sex or the other more dominantly. Additionally, he was an unusually gifted actor that made even better movies. You can't argue that fact when he made such films as The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Papillon, The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, Tom Horn, etc. Steve McQueen was a exceptional man and he definitely earned and deserved his well-known nickname "The King of Cool". He most certainly was.
*Many McQueen biographies and sites have his name listed as Terrence (or Terence) Steven McQueen, however, his ex-wife Neile McQueen refers to him as Steven Terrence in this excerpt from the her book My Husband, My Friend:
"Terrence William McQueen left his wife, Julian Crawford McQueen, almost as soon as baby Steven Terrence was born to them on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana."
Since it is difficult to imagine Neile McQueen forgetting her husband's birth name, I have listed him in this mini-bio as Steven Terrence.
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