Steve McQueen was an epic bad-boy on screen, with a fanatical audience. He was also difficult to work with on-set. So, while he could demand a higher salary than any other male actor, he was notoriously aggressive, belligerent, even combative with directors. From all reports, he was also a womanizer (he told his first wife that he just couldn’t say “no”), wife-beater, and philanderer. Read more about the man behind the legend, with all the good, bad, and the ugly.
Was Steve McQueen Ever a Kid?
Born with the first name “Terrence,” Steve McQueen comes across as a James Dean heartthrob, but he really did come from somewhere. His father was a stunt pilot and his mother’s profession is not known. She was an alcoholic (she has also been called a prostitute), so she left McQueen with her parents in the midst of the Great Depression.
They, in turn, moved to a farm owned by McQueen’s uncle, who became a father figure to him until his mother took him to live with her and his new stepfather in what would become a series of short, unstable, and even sometimes abusive marriages.
McQueen Was Sent to Reform School and Once Worked in a Brothel
It appears to have been his most-recent stepfather’s insistence that inspired his mother to commit him to the care of the Boys Republic, a boy’s reform school. But, it also appears to have been the place that saved him from a life of crime.
Throughout his young life, he had participated in gang life, committing petty crimes, but from the age of 16 onward, he left home once again and drifted from job to job, working in a carnival, a lumberjack camp, and even in a brothel. Given his early history, it’s not surprising that there just aren’t early photos of Steve McQueen.
Reform School and the Marines Saved Him
Just as his time at the Boy’s Republic set him on a path that took him away from a life of crime, his three years in the Marines eventually led him to a life of acting. He was still rebellious, evidenced by his demotion to Private seven times, but he also was a hero.
He rescued five Marines during an Arctic Excursion and was even assigned as an honor guard on President Truman’s yacht. Like most of the other jobs in his life, his stint as a Marine was short-lived, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. Just two years later, he would delve into the world of the acting, as he studied acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
Steve McQueen’s Racing Days
Steve McQueen began earning money in weekend motorcycle races, and he got really good at competing. Besides his motorcycle racing, he also began racing cars. Beyond his life as an actor and director, Steve McQueen also became a racing legend, even famously driving with his foot in plaster against Mario Andretti.
He’s been called a “brave and skilled driver,” and he was also an adrenaline junkie, which helped to make him so successful on and off the racetrack.
Steve McQueen Never Really Stopped
Steve McQueen continued racing right up until his death, at the age of 50 years-old. He famously starred in Le Mans, which is a fictional account of a car race. Although the movie was initially not well-received (it was a flop at the box office), the movie has seen a comeback as a historically accurate car-racing cult classic.
The movie even included footage from an actual 1970 race, by Solar Productions. The real strength of the movie was that it told the story of car racing, without the encumbrances of plot and character. Beyond the actual race footage, the movie also featured real-life drivers and race cars, staged to maximum effect and without the modern-day technological wonders.
The Magnificent Seven
Steven McQueen famously took on the role as the Vin Tanner, a gunfighter, in The Magnificent Seven. In the movie, he is one of the gunmen hired to defend a poor village in Mexico from a band of ruthless bandits, led by Calveras. They also help the villagers build fortifications, and they also sacrifice their lives to save the villagers, even after they’ve been betrayed.
McQueen later thanked Yul Brynner for requesting that he be cast as Vin in the move. Even with their disastrous relationship on-set, Brynner never kicked him off, and McQueen said, “that movie made me.”
Why He Had a Butterfly Tattoo
It’s not exactly the strictly tough-guy image that you’ve come to expect, but Steve McQueen did appear to have a butterfly tattoo in Franklin J. Schaffner´s movie, Papillon, which is billed as the true story of Henri Charrière. Schaffner is perhaps best remembered for Planet of the Apes and Patton, but this prison-break adventure story is still remembered.
Originally used to represent freedom from the repressive Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, the tattoo took on a life of its own. Escape becomes the only focus of his life, and the tattoo is a dramatic representation of that mission.
Steve McQueen as a Dad
Yes, it may be hard to believe that Steve McQueen was a dad. He was married three times, and he had two kids with his first wife, Neile Adams (they divorced in 1972). His daughter, Terry Leslie McQueen, tragically passed away in 1998, at 34 years of age, after health problems and a successful liver transplant.
McQueen’s son, Chad McQueen, followed in his father’s footsteps as a racing enthusiast and actor. Chad also had three kids, one of whom is now an up-and-coming actor, Steven R. McQueen, known for his popular roles on Vampire Diaries and Chicago Fire.
Steve McQueen Was Reportedly an Animal Lover
Who can resist a man who treats his cat like that? You’ve likely seen this photo of Steve McQueen with his family pet, Kitty Cat. He may have been a volatile actor, a wife-beater, a philanderer, and much more, but the photo seems to depict a different side of the man.
Then again, Darwin Porter compares Steve McQueen to a cat, and not in a good way. As Porter explains, “He had no morals. He was an alley cat…” referring to the fact that he’d sleep with anyone, particularly leading ladies. Porter claims “that’s what helped make him a star….”
Was Steve McQueen a Playboy?
Steve McQueen may have been the “King of Cool,” but it’s unlikely his wives saw him that way after their tumultuous relationships came to a screeching end. He was a chronic cheater, with a list of lovers that reportedly included Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, James Dean, and Paul Newman. But, that wasn’t all. The list goes on, with Ava Gardner, Mae West, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. He bragged, saying that he’d slept with all of his leading ladies, which appeared to be mostly true.
Biographer Darwin Porter called him a “sad, lonely man.” Director Henry Hathaway said: “He hated women. He used them for relief and discarded them quickly.”
The Great Escape
Steve McQueen added to his list of war-time gritty roles with The Great Escape. The movie is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 nonfiction book about a mass escape from a POW camp during World War II. In the movie, McQueen takes on the role of USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, called “Cooler King” for his tendency to end up in the cooler. He’s made numerous attempts at escape, but he also refuses to show any respect for the German guards, who have warned him that they’ll shoot him if he tries to escape again.
The prisoners hatch a plan, but only three men escape, clear and free. Hilts is captured and returned to camp.
Steve McQueen Draws His Gun
It’s yet another mark of the bad-boy, but you’ve likely seen him in these images of Steve McQueen holding a gun. With such a violent temper and his history of abusing women, it would seem a bit scary to consider the fact that he owned an extensive gun collection, and that he had to frequently interact with prop weapons on set.
McQueen had a great deal of experience with guns, and was reportedly “good with them.” Even so, he had a manic compulsion to practice his quick-draw. It had to be flawless, which annoyed fellow actors like Yul Brynner.
He Loved the Great Outdoors (Especially in the Nude)
Steve McQueen loved adventures, whether it involved racing or just enjoying being in the great outdoors. He also was very free and unencumbered. He famously walked around his backyard without any clothes on. He once said, “I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”
His wish to be outside, away from the hubbub also was part of his bad-boy, anti-hero personification. More than anything, he wanted to live his life on his own terms, without being beholden to anyone or anything. He rebelled against any force or person who sought to tie him down or control him.
Steve McQueen Thrown in the Slammer
For all the reports of Steve McQueen’s volatile and aggressive behavior, you’d likely believe that he would have an extensive history of arrest, particularly after his criminal behavior when he was a boy. He also was a wife-beater, and even appeared bent on trying to kill his first wife when she had one affair.
He also loved to party and use drugs, so those could have been other possible reasons for arrest, but his arrest in Anchorage, Alaska didn’t stem from any of that controversial behavior, at least not directly. The drinking did catch up with him in that he was arrested and charged with drunk driving and reckless driving.
Was Steve McQueen Paranoid?
Steve McQueen experience abuse, loss and unrequited affection from his family as he was growing up, which likely set him on the path toward a lifetime of insecurity, anger-issues, and an unresolved attachment disorder. He was paranoid that it would all fall apart, and that there would be nothing he could do. Darwin Porter claims: “He never got over his childhood scars. Above all he wanted to be perceived as a macho man’s man.”
So, he treated everyone badly. He burned bridges, and he even made poor business decisions, sometimes based on egotistical non-issues.
Steve McQueen Worked Hard
Steve McQueen may have represented different things to those around him, but he was always constant in his dedication to health and fitness. Like his obsessive compulsion to practice his gun-draw and other practice for acting roles, he daily worked at weights and running.
His body was important to him, not only as a way to fulfill those heroic actor parts, but also as a means to continue his racing career. As he burned his bridges in Hollywood, he focused more on racing. As he said, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”
Steve McQueen’s Legacy
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is that famous boulevard, and you can find Steve McQueen’s bronzed star laid out among the other highlighted actors and actresses. Besides being a popular favorite, he received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles.
He is also known for his roles in The Blob, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon. He also took on roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Towering Inferno.
He Was Inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame
You may recall that Steve McQueen started out racing motorcycles and that always seemed to be a particular passion for him, even as he continued to race cars throughout his life. He was even inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame for his lifetime participation in and support for the sport.
McQueen financed and starred in a now-influential motorcycle movie, On Any Sunday, with Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill. He was also part of a team of off-rode motorcycle racers. In the late 1950s, he famously took a dangerous road trip by motorcycle around Cuba with a group of friends. He loved the sense of “freedom and adventure.”
Smoking, Drugs, and Asbestos May Have Killed Him
That image of the smoking Steve McQueen helps to make his “bad boy,” but he was also reportedly into drugs (marijuana and cocaine) as well. Recreational drug and alcohol use wasn’t unusual, particularly not for actors who achieved the international acclaim he did.
McQueen was later diagnosed with lung cancer, which may have been exacerbated by his smoking. The primary underlying cause, though, appears to have been the asbestos exposure he experienced as a Marine (he scraped asbestos off pipes on the ship) and as a race-car driver (he wore a fire-retardant racing suit).
Throughout It All, He Was Beloved by Fans
Steve McQueen may have been famous and well-loved by fans both on the racetrack and on the Big Screen, but his personal life was tragic and horrifying. As the top-paid male actor, he flaunted his unapologetic “human” tendencies toward wild, unrestrained living. He drank, smoked, and did drugs. He demanded loyalty and fidelity from others while flagrantly sleeping with everyone. Yes, he was a rebel, which made him Mr Cool, but he was ultimately a self-destructive adrenaline junkie.
As Biographer Darwin Porter says: “Steve McQueen has become an iconic hero, forever cool, but it’s ironic because he was never really cool; he was a Molotov cocktail that could explode at any time. His fans never knew the real Steve McQueen – until now.”