Anyone that was alive during the early 70s will likely remember how Steve McQueen practically dominated Hollywood. He was actually the highest-paid actor in the industry at the time.
For the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno alone, McQueen was paid a million bucks up front which was already a pretty good score for back then, but on top of that, he banked a cool 10% of the film’s total gross. When all was said and done, McQueen walked away from that deal with an extra $15 million in his bank account. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to about $85 million today.
But all the money in the world couldn’t compensate for the fact that McQueen was a deeply troubled man who spent the first fifteen or so years of his life as a victim of abuse. As a teen, he only ever found any escape from his toxic home situation through a life of delinquency. This probably isn’t the same Steve McQueen that most people remember, but it’s the only one that ever existed. Sometimes the truth is a hard pill to swallow. This is the true heartbreaking story of Steve McQueen.
Steve’s Earliest Years
Steve bore a striking resemblance to his biological father but that’s about just as far as their familial relations went, as the two never really got to know each other. William McQueen was a stunt pilot who participated in barnstorming acts all across the Midwest. These popular aerial acrobatics shows featured prop planes and their immensely skilled pilots pushing their equipment and know-how to the limits while showing off their technical prowess and courage for all the world to see.
Just six months after he met and married Julia Crawford, William ran off and abandoned his pregnant wife. After she gave birth to little Terence Seven McQueen in 1930, Julia sent him off to go live with her family on a farm in Slater, Missouri, seeing as she felt utterly incapable of raising a small child all by herself.
This practice might sound pretty calloused by today’s standards, but it was common practice back in the 30s. McQueen would later recount his time there as being fairly pleasant. He lived on that farm with his grandparents and great uncle, Claude Thomson, who treated him like a son of their own.
Julia eventually met someone new and got remarried. Steve was about 8 at the time when Julia had her parents put him on a train to come to his new home in Indianapolis to live with her and his new stepdad. Even though the circumstances seemed pleasant on the surface, Steve’s homecoming wasn’t exactly a happy one.
Steve’s mother had been absent from her son’s life for so long that she seemed more like a stranger to him than family. When he left the farm in Slater behind, he left the freedom that that environment offered him behind as well. And besides that, his great-uncle Claude had grown to be one of his closest and most beloved heroes and friends. He would remain one of the most influential figures in Steve McQueen’s life.
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McQueen Struggled To Adapt To City Life
Growing up in Indianapolis was hard for Steve. His new step-dad would beat him for the slightest misdoing and his mom did nothing to stop it from happening. Steve also struggled in school. Even though he wasn’t officially diagnosed with anything until many years later, McQueen suffered from dyslexia which made his schoolwork especially difficult. To make matters worse, he also had frequently reoccurring ear infections which left him partially deaf.
As a teenager, McQueen joined a street gang and started living on the street to avoid the nightly beatings of his step-father. He turned to a life of petty crime to support himself until he was inevitably caught by the cops. Seeing Steve as essentially a lost cause, Julia once again sent him off to Slater to live with his family. He would never return to Indiana and he was perfectly content with that.
This same old cycle repeated itself over and over again. McQueen would live happily at his uncle’s property but would routinely be forced to leave at his mother’s request. Today, Steve’s Slater relatives would have had a strong legal case to retain custody of the boy, but things were a bit different back then.
Without a doubt, Steve’s uncle would have tried to keep him around if he could have. He had come to view Steve as his very own son. But during that era, interfering with family affairs, even with the child’s best interest in mind, was frowned upon.
His mother remarried once again and called for Steve to come live with her once again. This time around, however, his mom had relocated with her new husband to Los Angeles. Sadly, Steve’s new step-dad was also an abusive monster just like his mother’s previous husband. She sure knew how to pick ’em apparently.
Following the same pattern as before, Steve joined a street gang and started getting into trouble. No one was surprised when he once again found himself in police custody. His stepfather’s beatings then got more frequent and savage and eventually, Steve moved back to Slater again. But this time, he didn’t stick around very long.
Steve’s Life-Changing Transition
At 14, McQueen ran away from home. After getting arrested again, his mother had him legally declared as ‘incorrigible’ and had him signed over to the state. Even though his mother’s actions could easily be labeled as cold and selfish, being handed over to the state and subsequently placed into the California Junior Boy’s Republic ended up being one of the best things to happen to young Steve. It gave him an environment of structure and normalcy that was sorely lacking in his life up until that point.
Spending a couple of years with the Boys Republic, gave him confidence and a sense of contentment. The experience had calmed him down a lot, although a bit of his rebellious nature remained intact.
He would re-visit the California Junior Boys Republic on several more occasions over the next couple of decades, donating both his time and money to the boys in need. His visits were always pretty casual. McQueen would much rather shoot a game of pool with the kids than give them some kind of long-winded lecture.
Much of his giving to the organization remained pretty low-key. Meanwhile in Hollywood, McQueen became fairly infamous for some of his unorthodox contractual demands. He would often request items like razors and denim jeans, sometimes even by the truckload. It was only discovered years later that a lot of these items were being sent over to the Boys Republic.
McQueen’s Military Years
By the time he was 17, McQueen had already held quite a few different jobs before he decided to enlist in the Marines. At first, his service record was fairly, how shall we say, rocky, but eventually he found his way. He climbed the ladder somewhat quickly going from the rank of private to private first class in just a few short months. Then he incurred an infraction that bumped him back to private again. This same old pattern repeated itself another seven times.
His misdeeds included things like going AWOL for 41 days to napping while on duty to assaulting a police officer. But besides these glaringly obvious issues, McQueen performed his duties as a tank crewman admirably. And on one occasion, he saved the lives of five crew members who were sinking in an M46 Patton Tank during an Arctic training supersize.
If McQueen had pulled the same kind of crap that he did back then in today’s world, he would likely have been court marshaled or dishonorably discharged. But back then, the military tried their best to retain as many active-duty soldiers as possible after the great exodus of military personnel after World War II.
When Steve served, the US was caught in the middle of the Cold War and the Marines were a lot less picky for warm bodies than they are nowadays. McQueen completed his service and was honorably discharged in 1950 with the rank of corporal.
From Soldier To Actor
McQueen began studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and at HB Studio where he mentored under Uta Hagen in 1952.
Steve would earn extra money on the side by competing in motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway on the weekends. He quickly became an accomplished racer and went home each weekend with $100 in winnings in his pocket.
His first lead role in a film was in the low-budget sci-fi film The Blob in 1958. He followed that one up with roles in the films The St. Louis Bank Robbery and Never So Few which both hit theaters in 1959. In 1960, McQueen portrayed the character Vin in the star-studded film The Magnificent Seven. His next two big hit films were 1962’s Hell is For Heroes and The War Lover.
Coasting on a wave of newfound popularity, McQueen gave audiences another solid performance in the 1963 WWII film The Great Escape which featured his famous leap over the barbed wire on his motorcycle while being chased by Nazis.
The remainder of the 60s were pretty eventful for Steve as he appeared in such films as Soldier in the Rain in 1963, Love with the Proper Stranger in 1963, and The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968. In 1969, Steve took a little detour from the action genre by portraying Boon Hogganbeck in the family-friendly film The Reivers.
The 1970s were also pretty excellent for Steve McQueen. In 1971 he starred in the racing film Le Mans which later became a cult classic of sorts. In 1972 he starred in The Getaway and followed that up with 1973s Papillon. In 1974, McQueen starred in one of the biggest roles of his career in the disaster flick The Towering Inferno. The film was a huge hit but it proved to be one of the last film roles for him for several years. After a four-year hiatus, he returned to the screen again in 1978s An Enemy of the People.
McQueen wrapped up his film career with powerful performances in the unorthodox Western film Tom Horn and The Hunter which both came out in 1980.
McQueen’s Cancer And Death
Steve developed a persistent cough in 1978. The first thing he did was give up cigarettes and went on a round of antibiotics but his condition showed no improvement. In 1979, a biopsy revealed that he was suffering from pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos and lacks any known cure.
In 1980, McQueen’s doctors informed him that his cancer had metastasized extensively throughout his body. McQueen then traveled to Mexico to receive alternative cancer treatments since he figured he had nothing to lose at that point. If he was going to die, at least he would go out fighting.
In late October of 1980, McQueen traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua Mexico to have a tumor removed from his abdomen even though his US doctors warned him that he would likely not survive the procedure.
On November 7, 1980, McQueen died of heart failure at 3:45 am at the Juarez Clinic. He was just 50 years old.
Alright, we’ve pretty much run out of time, but at least we covered all the major chapters of Steve McQueen’s storied life and career. It certainly a shame how he went out though. He died much too young and probably would have gone on to accomplish quite a bit more if he had just had more time.
Anyway, now’s your turn to have your voice be heard. In the comments section, let us know what your favorite Steve McQueen film is between The Great Escape and The Towering Inferno.
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