Tuesday, March 17

The Rogue Movie Star

I'm reading here that a rogue is an independent person who rejects conventional rules of society in favor of following his own personal goals and values.  It goes on to say it's an unprincipled person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likeable or attractive.  That is a pretty good way to start a piece on Steve McQueen, 1960s icon and from time to time the most popular actor in the world.

We are, however, not restricted by a dictionary definition, are we?  He certainly wrote the book on bad boy but that doesn't quite cover it either.  Abused on a number of levels as a child, he grew up to be an abuser himself, saying I live for myself and I answer to nobody.  Despite three marriages, he was a notorious womanizer and one who simply vanished for periods of time.  It was whispered he had gay flings as well, quick and furtive, but he was also notoriously homophobic.  Secrets were kept in the 60s for the world's most popular actor.  He abused booze and especially drugs, all sorts of drugs, his entire adult life.  He was hell on wheels (he would have beamed at that expression) on movie sets, bedding many of his female costars and fighting with directors and costars.  He and his The Great Escape costar, James Garner, were not friendly for years and they lived next door to one another.  Bobby Darin, his costar from Hell Is for Heroes, said McQueen was the biggest a-hole who ever walked down Hollywood Blvd.  Chalk me up as enemy number one.  Hold on there, Darin, plenty of others want some of that action.  For a man who appeared to have it all, McQueen was consumed with jealousy and an arrogance that had a lot to do with his childhood... such as it was.

Some things on McQueen's past are simply too unsavory to speak of in this blog.  Trust me.  After all, I just wrote of seeing Cinderella so I am still imbued with goodness and purity. But let's venture forth steadily and you'll see why he would never have worked for the folks at Disney.

He was born in 1930 in a little berg outside Indianapolis to a teenager and her older stunt-pilot boyfriend.  Both were alcoholics and neither cared that much about the baby.  She had no real trade or anyone to leave Steve with so she took him to an uncle's in Missouri where he would live on and off for several years.  His mother earned a modest living through prostitution and when she gathered a few bucks, she would go and collect young Steve and off they would go.  He enjoyed his life with his uncle but he was largely unsupervised and free to get involved in pranks and sex at a surprisingly young age.  Life in the Ozarks allowed him an early acquaintance with moonshine.

He first lived in California in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake (coincidentally the last California city I lived in) where he could get into all kinds of trouble as only California could offer a handsome, young, not-at-all-innocent kid.  Mama married and her husband beat Steve who would admit that he already had a very smart mouth.

He left home and school in his middle teens and traveled all over America taking brief stabs at employment wherever he could.  His bravado allowed him to tell prospective employers anything he wanted about his qualifications, the truth be damned.  He had already developed a life-long basic disregard for people.  He found his way to Cuba where he worked at a brothel as a towel boy.  Working in a similar environment as his mother was about all they had in common.  He would say he hated her.  He would never forget that she constantly called him a bad boy.

Before he was of legal age, he had an active sex life, a strong affection for potent potables, a love affair for speed that for his entire life would focus on cars and motorcycles.  He trusted no one, kept his own counsel and would rather spin a tail where people's mouths would fall open than tell the truth.  He was already moody, defiant, paranoid and had a big mouth, traits he would keep and expand on his entire life.  Any place he moved to would result in silence on any former place he'd lived.  Discussing his past was something he took great effort to avoid.

He had worked in some capacity before he reached a double-digit age.  As he grew older and before becoming famous, he would find himself in reform school (he had mainly good things to say about the experience) and would work for a spell in a circus, as a lumberjack, a merchant seaman and even had a stint in the Marines. 

He was 20 when he arrived in The Big Apple.  He didn't have two cents to his name.  He did have an elephantine ego and he knew that even at his still-young age he could go toe-to-toe with some of the town's big egos.  He knew he was good-looking.  Sexy, too.  Everyone said so.  He couldn't stand still and the resulting posturing and adjustments became a turn-on for many.  His eyes were so blue that people forgot what they were saying when speaking to him.  Some would say those eyes pierced a person's soul.  Those puffy lips, gravelly voice and aw-shucks manner made women want to cradle him in their bosoms, something he was all for.  He knew he would be able to make some bucks in seedy Times Square.  He wasn't sure how exactly, but knew it would involve scamming at some level.  He also made some legitimate money by racing motorcycles.

He fell in with some people who were struggling actors and it was through them that he got the acting bug.  Being able to not only meet but befriend his acting idols, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, certainly pushed him along.  He joined the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse and began developing his new craft.  He managed some Broadway work which earned him some acclaim but he had since heard the call to Hollywood... at least in his own head.  He was positive he would not only make it as an actor but he'd be the biggest movie star ever.  One day he told that to the real biggest movie star ever... Marilyn Monroe.

At 25 he landed in Tinseltown and was soon making his film debut in a bit role in a Paul Newman film, Somebody Up There Likes Me.  One day I might do a piece on the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.  It is legendary and oh-so-fascinating.  They had known one another in New York but Newman had made it in Hollywood first.  McQueen hated that especially since he thought he was a better actor than Newman.  And now he's going to play ninth fiddle to him in a flick.  Damn that Newman for also rivaling him in the beautiful blue eyes department. 

Along the way he married a dancer-actress he met in New York, Neile Adams, and the union, his longest and most successful, would not be his most famous.  He began doing a lot of television guest spots and had his first starring movie role in the low-budget 1958 entry, The Blob.  (I saw some of it the other day and cracked up over what they called horror in 1958.  How times have changed.)  In 1959 he made Never So Few, a very decent war film with Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida.  Just a few years later, McQueen and Sinatra would have killed one another but at this point McQueen was still apprenticing.

In 1960 came Steve McQueen's big break.  He would costar in one of the screen's most iconic westerns, The Magnificent Seven.  We'll give it more time later on but for here it's fitting to say the McQueen movie-set temperament was born.  What saved him, if anything did or could, was he was still a fledgling and was billed under the biggest, most outlandish movie temperament, maybe ever, of Yul Brynner.  Today, the pundits like to say their feud was little more than playful upstaging on McQueen's part with Brynner more or less sloughed it off.  But I remember the reports at the time being more of a grudge match throughout the filming.  McQueen became pals with the bisexual actor, Horst Buchholz, who was, more or less, the German Steve McQueen.

McQueen filmed The Magnificent Seven during a hiatus from his TV show, Wanted: Dead or Alive, where he played bounty hunter Josh Randall.  I never missed it.  I was spellbound by the actor who reminded me of the late James Dean and a bit like, um, dare I say, Paul Newman?  After being Magnificent, McQueen became a little too magnificent on his dinky little TV show with its fake rocks and rickety storefronts.  Soon he was Mr. Big Deal and before you knew it, the series was over.  Alright world, here he is.  The up-and-coming most popular movie star of the new decade.

McQueen would make some of the most-remembered and financially-potent films of the 60s, but the next three, all from 1962, are not among them.  I actually liked The Honeymoon Machine), a military comedy which I mentioned in my piece on his costars Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton.  McQueen may not have had a lot of humor but director Richard Thorpe seemed to unearth some comic genes in the actor.  Hell Is for Heroes is a low-budget war film that worked in my opinion, thanks to some good actors, including the aforementioned Mr. Darin.  I liked Darin but frankly, his ego was as ballooned as McQueen's.  They didn't get along?  Duh.  The War Lover was a miss despite some good aerial sequences and McQueen as a dare-devil pilot.

Then came The Great Escape (1963) which I count as one wonderful war film.  Short on character development but high on suspense like any good thriller, McQueen knew he was onto something good and had an unerring sense the public would flock to it.  But he displayed his temperament constantly due chiefly to feeling his part needed to be beefed up.  He harangued director John Sturges for more dialogue.  He may have been top-billed, but in some ways he was just one of the many prisoners with an escape plan.  He was also miffed that the famous motorcycle ride would not be entirely performed by him.  The barbed wired fence jump was not McQueen.  Insurance wouldn't permit it but the air turned blue when McQueen got the denials.  When he became aware of the great success of The Great Escape, he famously said I'm bigger than Paul Newman.

Then came three more misses.  Soldier in the Rain (1963), a comedy with Jackie Gleason, went belly up.  McQueen swore he'd never do another comedy (he did).  He was likely miffed that Gleason made The Hustler with Paul Newman and it was a raging success.  In Love With the Proper Stranger, he fell into the arms of Natalie Wood.  Natalie Wood?  Natalie did.  The film allowed her to have a location romance after her romp with Warren Beatty petered out.  Beatty was first offered the male lead and then guess who was asked next?  Yep, Newman.  Wood and McQueen were a magical pairing but the film about abortion didn't connect so much with the public.  Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) about a southern dude, in and out of trouble, was a role made for McQueen but nobody came to see it.  A hot romance with costar Lee Remick helped remedy the dreary Texas location.

He then made back-to-back films with his New York pal, Karl Malden, both successful.  After he made the poker-playing film, The Cincinnati Kid, he acquired the moniker, The King of Cool, and it stuck.  McQueen was his usual trouble on the set with fixes and changes although costar Edward G. Robinson liked him and said McQueen reminded him of himself, Bogart and Cagney.  Quite the compliment.

When curmudgeon director Henry Hathaway first encountered McQueen on the set of Nevada Smith (1966) he took him aside and told him in no uncertain terms that there would be no prima donna behavior on this movie and McQueen, by all accounts, was sweetness itself.  It was great to have the feisty one back in a western, a genre, in my opinion, made for his type of man and actor.  The story of a cowboy tracking down his parents' killers reunited him not only with Malden, but two more New York pals, Suzanne Pleshette and Arthur Kennedy.  Pleshette made sure everyone knew she was not the latest entry on his list of conquests.

McQueen got his only Oscar nomination, and a well-deserved one at that, for his portrayal of a cynical naval engineer in 1926 China in The Sand Pebbles (1966).  It was a big roadshow production and well-received by critics and the public.  Maybe when he found out that director Robert Wise first offered the role to Newman was cause enough to be a pain in the ass during the shoot.

Newman was not offered the role of the stylish and debonair thief in The Thomas Crown Affair but nobody originally thought McQueen was right for it... a little too rough around the edges... you can get the boy out of the Ozarks... but he did get the part.  He dressed up real good, too.  Equally stylish was the equally temperamental Faye Dunaway as the insurance investigator out to nab him.  I cannot get why I've never heard nor read of their clashes.  There must have been some posturing around that set.  The chess scene is one of my favorites ever and just as yummy was that long smooch afterwards.

Listen up now.  You wonder how the King of Cool became the Most Popular Movie Star in the World?  He was about to sign for his fifth hit in a row.  Coming off The Cincinnati Kid and Nevada Smith, he gets an Oscar nomination for his assured and fits-like-a-glove performance in The Sand Pebbles and then rocks in The Thomas Crown Affair in a role Cary Grant would have played a decade earlier.  It was heady stuff and off the screen, McQueen was so full of himself and behaved so badly that he was harder than usual to be around.  Into this intoxicating mix came Bullitt.

The rogue movie star was about to become the rogue cop.  Someone told him the story of a San Francisco cop, Frank Bullitt, who marches to his own tune and has a difficult time living in the regular world.  McQueen knew this was for him.  He could phone this one in.  And... and... he was going to get to drive a hot car through the city (on those streets...!)... say no more.  Where can he sign?  By the way, he did not do all the driving.  Puh-leeze.

He was beside himself with how far he'd come.  That screwed-up kid with little education, a whore for a mother and a daddy he didn't know, who spent time in a bordello and a reform school, was now the biggest, most important person in the movie world.  It spoke volumes to him.  He knew that no matter how much a bastard he was on movie sets with the wild demands and the insults to others, they'd all have him back in a split second for another movie, another huge salary, another melee.  Still, his true measurement for how things were going centered on one thing... was he bigger than Paul Newman?  What's your take on that?

He coulda been a contender and find out when he and Newman starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Newman and McQueen, McQueen and Newman.  It was bandied about and caused the suits to get sweaty with anticipation but in the end, it was about the billing.  Neither would give up being listed first.  Instead, some other blond actor (hmmm, I'm thinking... I'm thinking) saddled up as Sundance and took second billing to boot.  One day in the future a burning skyscraper in San Francisco would find McQueen and Newman, Newman and McQueen, together with the billing issue resolved.

He had a great laugh in 1969 when he made the enemies lists of both Richard Nixon and Charles Manson.  His laughing was tempered a bit on the latter because he was scared of Manson as was most of Hollywood and Sharon Tate had been one of his former playmates.

The Reivers  (1969) is one of my favorite McQueen parts, a comedy-drama with a heart that I don't think many went to see.  Bullitt was still fresh in the public mind.  He played a southern plantation handyman out on an adventure with a youngster.  He refused to learn his lines and battled royally with director Mark Rydell and unsuccessfully tried to get him fired.  Maybe it all had something to do with the fact that when McQueen married Neile Adams, he had ripped her from the arms of Rydell.

It's likely he would say Le Mans was his favorite movie.  To combine movie-making with auto racing was something he was dreaming of.  He was jealous over the fact that James Garner had just completed Grand Prix.  McQueen wanted his movie to be bigger, better.  His schizophrenic antics ruined his longtime relationship with director John Sturges, with whom he had worked on Never So Few, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  The film, due chiefly to McQueen's meddling, was a mess when released, and the actor's reputation suffered as a result.  His marriage was also unraveling and the pair would soon be divorced.

He moved into a particularly destructive phase.  He became more temperamental, his drug use increased, his womanizing was over the top.  He was frequently rough with women in and out of bed and some of his closest cronies would say they believed he hated all women.  Do you think his mother had something to do with that?  He reported to a few that the last time he saw her (she didn't see him), she was getting into a car with a john.

He went to Prescott, Arizona, in 1972 to make the rodeo flick, Junior Bonner and it was a flop.  Much more successful (with the public) was The Getaway (1972).  During its making, the press reported savage battles between McQueen and director Sam Peckinpah, a man who could well-match McQueen on the lunacy scale.  The film was about an ex-con and his wife on the lam after a botched heist.  Admittedly, part of his appeal as an actor is when the real-life bad guy played a bad guy.  While the movie found little favor with the critics, it was a sexy piece of celluloid as he and his new lover (and about to be second wife), Ali McGraw, cavorted lustily before our very eyes.

They were constantly in the news, fighting, breaking up, kissing, fighting again.  She seemed a bit of a hippie and suddenly he was wearing beads and headbands and tie-dyed shirts.  In photos of them out on the town, he looked stoned.  She was never much of an actress although I often admired her outlook on things... particularly after she left him.  He'd just made a couple of films that didn't work and with or without her, his reputation as a bankable actor was eroding.

By the time he began filming Papillon (1972), McQueen had developed a persistent cough.  He determined he would have to have it looked into.  Filmed on Maui and in Venezuela, Jamaica, Spain and France, it was a compelling story of a Frenchman falsely imprisoned for murder.  It examined a friendship he had with a fellow inmate and focused on his attempt to escape.  I wish I knew how he got on with Dustin Hoffman, then, at least, another frequent pain-in-the-ass on a movie set.  McQueen didn't look so good in the film, although prisoners aren't often confused with GQ cover boys.  I have never disliked any McQueen performance, but this one I've kind of taken a particular shine to.

Despite a longtime rivalry, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman actually liked one another.  If not exactly friends, they were certainly friendly with one another.  Some have said very friendly.  They had once been partners, along with Sidney Poitier and Barbra Streisand, in a producing company.  One difference between them was at this time, the early 70s, McQueen was hurting for money.  The divorce was costly, the movies weren't doing so well, his various habits were expensive as was his life with McGraw.  He needed to make some money.

The Towering Inferno (1974) would have, otherwise, not been a movie that attracted McQueen but the salary he was offered ended any doubts.  He and everyone else knew, especially once the entire cast was assembled, that this would be a hugely successful film... with the public.  It was so big it took two movie studios to produce it, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

McQueen and Newman, of course, fought (some say bitterly) over the billing and it was resolved by showing their names alone on the screen with McQueen's name on the bottom left and Newman's on the top right.  Phew.  Peace.  It didn't keep McQueen from going around saying that most folks read from left to right.

Well, there wasn't all that much peace either.  With a cast that included William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn and Richard Chamberlain, McQueen was nervous, always paranoid that someone would steal his thunder.  He was particularly edgy because he doesn't appear on screen until the halfway point.  The co-directors had their hands full of action sequences and star egos and while they said there were problems with most of them, they agreed no one was more painful to work with than the demanding McQueen.

He hadn't worked in several years when he decided to do something different.  An Enemy of the People (1982), Henrik Ibsen's classic, found McQueen long-haired, haggard and bloated.  The public must have been paid to stay away.   Filmed after Enemy but released before it was Tom Horn (1980) about a real-life western renegade who was sentenced to death for a crime he may not have committed.  I quite liked its art house feel, but it, too, went nowhere. 

He and McGraw were divorced after six tumultuous years and he married a third time.  It was discovered he had cancer (mesothelioma) and was getting sicker and sicker although he managed to complete his final film, The Hunter (1980).  In the story of a real-life bounty hunter, McQueen looked much older than he actually was.  Although more successful than his previous two films, it by no means ran any race with his most popular films.

The public became aware of the gravity of his illness when he began looking for unconventional ways of treatment.  While the cancer would have eventually killed him, it didn't.  He died in Mexico of a heart attack after an operation.  He was 50 years old.  He had lived two lifetimes.

What of Steve McQueen's legacy?  He's now been dead 35 years.  To those in the know, he will always be remembered as being troubled and one of the most difficult actors to ever hit Hollywood.  His on-set tantrums are legendary.  But how good of an actor was he?  I suppose he was never confused with the greats but I thought he was a very good actor.  His old drama teacher, Sanford Meisner, told him... keep it honest and simple.  Don't lay on complications, no frills.  Just live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.  He did that.  All the greats do.  But whatever you think about his acting prowess, he was, for a time,  the most popular movie star in the world... the king of Hollywood.

Movie Review



  1. Check out the video "Steve McQueen...The Last Mile" for some good shots of him toward the end of his life.

  2. There's lots of info on apparently a very troubled soul. To answer your question on who was the better actor, to my mind that would be Mr. Newman, a better actor and great humanitarian.