On June 25, 1951, a man named Steve McQueen took the Subway to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, a well-known acting school: shortly before, the young McQueen had asked himself whether he wanted to lay tiles in the future or become an actor. His decision fell on acting.
McQueen financed his studies with his winnings from poker rounds, among other things.
Early days in film and television
In the boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Steve McQueen played his first supporting role: the lead was played by Paul Newman. A little later McQueen starred alongside Frank Sinatra in the film Never So Few (1959).
Steve McQueen played his first leading role in the science fiction film The Blob (1958): the film became a scary classic.
The Blob catapulted Steve McQueen to the top: producer Dick Powell discovered Steve McQueen after watching the sci-fi film and signed him for the television series Wanted Dead or Alive. Between 1958 and 1961, McQueen appeared in nearly a hundred episodes and became known to a wide audience.
The rise to stardom
Although he had already starred in a number of films, McQueen was not yet a movie star in the early sixties. It was not until the western The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson that Steve McQueen became a movie star. To this day, the western is a classic of the genre. McQueen was not the only one to launch his cinema career through The Magnificent Seven: James Coburn and Charles Bronson benefited just as much from the film’s success and are still household names today.
In 1963, Steve McQueen starred in the film The Great Escape: the film was shot in southern Germany. In addition to McQueen, numerous other actors of fame played in the film.
Steve McQueen proved his skills as a poker player in the 1965 film Cincinnati Kid.
Steve McQueen was a motorsports enthusiast all his life: McQueen’s biggest dream was to star in a motorsports movie. The MGM film Grand Prix (1966), a movie about Formula One, seemed ideal to fulfill his dream: It was directed by John Frankenheimer. Originally, Steve McQueen planned to play in the movie. But negotiations with McQueen were unsuccessful and a second Formula One film project was created: Day of the Champion, initiated by Warner Brothers Studios.
A race ensued between MGM and Warner Brothers as to who would be the first to release a Formula One film.
Race for the first Formula One film adaption
Numerous shots had already been made, but McQueen’s tight schedule threw a spanner in the works: by 1965, McQueen already had three other engagements, including Nevada Smith (1966).
His role in the film The Sand Pebbles (1966) ultimately prevented Day of the Champion from materializing: the Formula One project had to be delayed to such an extent that Warner Brothers terminated the project: MGM had won the race to make the first Formula One film adaptation.
Thus, McQueen’s dream of a racing film adaptation was dashed – for now.
“Every time he [McQueen] talked about Day of the Champion, his eyes sparkled,” writes his wife Neile Adams McQueen in her biography of her husband. In 1968, Steve McQueen starred in the crime drama Bullitt, which became a cult film. One of the reasons the film became so successful was one of the longest car chases in film history: a 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback and a Dodge Charger engaged in a car chase in San Francisco.
The Ford Mustang that Steve McQueen drove still has cult status today: there is even a replica of the Bullitt Ford Mustang.
Success and retirement from the movie industry
In the late sixties and early seventies, Steve McQueen’s success continued: Films such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and The Getaway (1972) manifested Steve McQueen’s status as a cinema star. The actress Ali MacGraw, whom McQueen met during the filming of Getaway, became his second wife.
After starring in Papillon (1973) and the disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974), McQueen retired from film work.
McQueen was in talks for leading roles in The Great Gatsby (1974), Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), among others: McQueen did not participate in any of these films.
In 1970, five years after the end of Day of the Champion, Steve McQueen’s dream of a motorsport film came true: The film Le Mans is about the 24-hour race at Le Mans. To this day, the film remains a milestone in motorsports filmmaking. Plot and dialogues are secondary: The focus is on the racing scenes. With the film, McQueen preserved motorsport as it was at the time: fatal accidents and the willingness of racing drivers to sacrifice their lives on the circuit play an important role.
King of Cool
Steve McQueen’s roles as an adventurous action hero earned him the nickname “King of Cool.” But McQueen didn’t just have a cool side. In 1978, he starred in the film An Enemy of the People. The film was based on the socially critical drama An Enemy of the People by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen.
In the film, McQueen portrays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a Norwegian doctor who warns the population about unclean water and is therefore declared an enemy of the people. The role did not fit McQueen’s usual action roles and revealed his acting potential away from action flicks.
Shortly before the end of his film career, Steve McQueen starred in the late western Tom Horn (1980). The plot is based on the true story of the Western hero Tom Horn. Steve McQueen worked intensively for his role: four years before filming began, McQueen started his research on Tom Horn and was thus able to portray the role convincingly.
Steve McQueen played his last role in 1980 in the film The Hunter: He played the role of a bounty hunter.
The legacy of the “King of Cool” Steve McQueen remains unmatched to this day: through his roles as an action hero, he made himself immortal. He proved several times during his career that McQueen was also a master of roles outside the action genre.
One of his trademarks was his passion for motor sports: Steve McQueen is said to have sometimes modified the script of films in order to express his passion for motor sports.
McQueen died in Mexico on November 7, 1980, at the age of 50.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Sandford, Christopher: “McQueen – The Biography”, 2001 HarperCollins & McQueen Adams, Neile: “My Husband, My Friend – A Memoir”, 2012 AuthorHouse