Sunday, 7 November 2010

The King of Cool: 30 Years On

Incredibly, it's 30 years today since Steve McQueen died. 30 years is such a long time, yet the events of that era still seem to be filed in the bit of my brain marked as 'quite recent'.... What a year it was for big name deaths too; John Lennon, Ian Curtis, Alfred Hitchcock, John Bonham, Bon Scott, Mae West, Peter Sellers and Harland Saunders (that's the 'finger lickin' Colonel to you and me!). I vividly remember hearing of Steve McQueen's death, and my mother's shock at the news (he was one of her all time favorites).

The son of a prostitute, McQueen had a tough upbringing. His father left when he was 6 months old, and his mother dumped him with family at the age of 3. He was running with gangs from a young age and getting involved with all sorts of petty crime and robbery. He ended up in a school for wayward boys, and was put in solitary confinement 5 times during his 14 month stay! He continued his life of crime into early adulthood... armed robbery, selling guns, and was even a pimp for a while.

Joining the Marines in the late 40's seemed to be the turning point for McQueen, he responded to the regimental lifestyle and became a law abiding citizen from then on. On leaving the Marines, he learnt to ride a motorbike, and was soon regularly winning races.

He started acting in local plays, and even got a few low key film and TV roles (most notable was the Western Wanted: Dead or Alive). But it was Frank Sinatra who gave him his big break. When Frank temporally fell out with Rat-Packer Sammy Davis Jr, he suggested little known McQueen take the role of Corporal Ringa in the war film 'Never So Few', originally planned for Sammy. McQueen impressed director John Sturges so much so, that he immediately used him again in his next film The Magnificent Seven....

Classic films came thick and fast; Hell is For Heroes, The Great Escape (also for John Sturges), The Sand Pebbles (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, Le Mans and Papillon being just a few.

He remained picky about the roles he took, and as such turned down some classic films; here's just a few of them... Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ocean's Eleven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

McQueen was keen to do all his own stunts, and was only stopped on occasions by his insurers. He did almost all of the bike work in The Great Escape (apart from 'that' leap... which he really wanted to do!), and the legendary car chase in Bullitt (bar just a couple of stunts). In fact, he even dressed as a German to carry out other stunt work in The Great Escape, as the makers were having so much trouble finding stuntmen who were as good as him.

Yet despite becoming one of the world's biggest box office stars, McQueen's real passion remained with bikes and cars, and he would often think about quitting movies to become a professional racer. He would still enter (and win!) races whenever insurers and\or film studios would allow.

McQueen always seemed the real deal, a classic case of 'what you see is what you get'. But away from the movies he was an intensely private man, and was rarely seen or photographed 'off duty'.

Steve McQueen was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, and died 7th November 1980, aged just 50. Thirty years on he remains one of the great Hollywood legends.

In 2007 I chanced on a book in the 'new release' section of my local Waterstones, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile. Written by his third (and final) wife Barbara, it documents the three years they spent together (up until his death in 1980), and is overflowing with private pictures. I snapped it up there and then, and have always been glad I did, as I never saw it again, and it soon went out of print.

Some McQueen fans were angry at Barbara for betraying Steve's privacy, but I welcomed this fascinating insight. It was pitched perfectly, and clearly created by someone who truly adored the man. Something that always intrigued me about McQueen was that he never took a bad photo, he looks great in every one! Well Barbara's book confirmed this - on screen or off, the man was completely photogenic.

Surely the greatest car chase in movie history?

THAT jump (interestingly McQueen is also playing the part of a German chasing himself!)



Lawrence said...

McQueen is still a total icon all these years later. Great article Piley. If I had to make a top three McQueen film list, it would be (in reverse order of course):- The Great Escape, Bullitt and (drum roll) The Getaway. The Thomas Crown Affair and Papillon would be waiting in the wings though.
There are two type of actors that I like, those that submerge themselves method style into the character, and those that bend the character they play into something that fits them. McQueen definitely falls into the later category. Just look at how many times he works into the script a car or motorcycle.
Strange to think that there is now a lauded director that has the same name as our fella. I wonder if he rides a Triumph?

Mondo said...

The opening Scene of Bullitt is stunning piece of work. Towering Inferno is the first film I saw him (Romford Odeon - I've got an Inferno badge somewhere)

John Medd said...

And don't forget the watch.

Piley said...

Thanks Gary, and yes - The Getaway, another absolute classic (shoulda been in the list I quoted in the piece). There was certainly a lot more to McQueen than just a 'pretty boy', a great actor who nailed some fab roles. Still works to this day, never looks cheesy or dated.

Mondo - Towering Inferno! Another I should have put in the list. Like the idea of a TI badge! Do you wear it much?!

How could I forget that JM?! Great watch, and great pic of the man with it too.


Lawrence said...

John Medd, surely you must have a McQueen plastic bag knocking about the homestead somewhere?

Lawrence said...

Mondo I'm fairly sure I lost my Bond cherry at Romford Odeon (Moonraker).

Heff said...

Ahhh, "Bullit".

I remember it simply because of the bad-assed Mustang in the movie !

(and my word-veri was HORSE !)

Kolley Kibber said...

I didn't get Steve McQueen at all during his lifetime - I was too young to appreciate what was actually quite an understated acting style, and his slightly simian, grizzled sex appeal didn't 'click' with me until well into my adult life. Now of course I can see it all. He was pretty much the coolest of the cool.

But I'm a bit aggrieved that though I, too, saw Towering Inferno at Romford Odeon, I never got a bloody badge!

Anonymous said...

I never knew about his earlier life, it's interesting that he could have ended up off the rails or inside. One of the all time greats and one of the coolest guys to walk the earth.


Piley said...

Heff - I like how you rate a film Sir!

ISBW - well put, you sorta grow into him don't you? I'm not sure I understood what all the fuss was about when me mum used to go on about him (not a patch on Reg Varney I used to think!). We need copies made of that badge Mondo!

Thanks Carl - funny how his 'coolness' has maintained through the decades where as others have gone in and out depending on the fashion\style of the era.


Anonymous said...

Good read Piley. I also didn't get McQueen in the early days. Perhaps as an awkward scruffy kid I couldn't relate to the way that he always looked so cool. But later I could see what a great actor he was. He always underplayed his parts....just his eyes alone saying more than his contemporaries did in words. Strangely I preferred his less glamorous roles, like Tom Horn and Papillon. Tragic that his life should have been cut so short. Looking at your picture of him Piley, how many of today's image conscious stars would allow those lines not to be Botoxed out? Plastic he wasn't.


Piley said...

A good point Warble... 'stars' just don't grown old gracefully any more do they? But the more they nip and tuck, the more freakish they become, why can't they see that? If you are a quality actor, they you'll find roles to suite your age (just look at Michael Caine... delightfully craggy, and rightly so). No point trying to play the lead guy aged 55 is there?!

Still it works, I saw Joan Rivers on TV the other day, and was shocked to hear she isn't 21 ;-)


Nazz Nomad said...

Great writing, even though you omitted The Blob!