By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
Bullitt. The Great Escape. Papillon. The Getaway. When Steve McQueen died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 50, the world lost a screen legend. Since then, his legend has continued to grow, as new generations discover the actor known as the King of Cool. Whether it’s his piercing blue eyes, his skill behind the wheel of a car, or just the fact that he was a great actor, there’s still no one quite like him. This month, AliveTampaBay salutes Steve McQueen. In this first of a series of articles, here are five things to know about this unique star.
1. He had a rough childhood, but never forgot where he came from.
McQueen’s early years were marked by physical abuse at the hands of his stepfathers and frequent moves between his mother’s house and his grandparents’. He was a gang member and was often picked up by police. After one too many brushes with the law, his mother sent him to the Boys Republic, a reformatory school in California. He eventually thrived in this environment, crediting the school with turning his life around. Later, as a film star, he often demanded free bulk items, like blue jeans and electric razors, in exchange for agreeing to do a film. It would be revealed later that McQueen was donating these items to the Boys Republic, where he regularly visited to talk with the students.
2. He got his start on Broadway…
After a stint in the Marines, McQueen returned to New York City, where he decided to get into acting. He used his G.I. Bill money to pay his tuition at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he appeared in many small productions before making his Broadway debut in A Hatful of Rain in 1955.
3….But television made him a star.
McQueen followed his future wife Neile Adams out to California later that year, where he caught the attention of an agent. After some appearances in small parts in movies and television (including a starring role in the cult classic The Blob), he landed the lead role in a television western called Wanted: Dead or Alive. This role allowed McQueen to showcase his unique acting talents, including an incredible awareness of the camera. On the show, he played a bounty hunter, a traditionally villainous role. In McQueen’s hands, however, the bounty hunter became an anti-hero, and with his signature sawed-off shotgun, he quickly became a television sensation. The show ran for three seasons, from 1958-1961, until his movie career took off.
4. He loved to play the anti-hero.
Following in the footsteps of his character from Wanted: Dead or Alive, McQueen played the anti-hero role in a string of movies. Often loners who were willing to sacrifice themselves because it would be the right thing to do, his characters were gamblers, thieves, hired-gun cowboys, and prisoners, setting the stage for parts played later on in the 1970s by actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
5. He enjoyed fast cars and motorcycles just as much as his characters did.
McQueen often played characters who drove fast and lived hard, and in his case life imitated art. In his early acting days, McQueen supplemented his income by racing motorcycles on the weekends. This practice paid off in films like The Great Escape, where his character steals a motorcycle from Nazi police and attempts to jump a fence over the border. Although the jump was performed by a stunt double to quiet studio insurance concerns, the riding up to that point was done by McQueen himself. He frequently performed some of his own driving in other movies, too, including the famous chase scene in Bullitt. McQueen also loved to fly and later got his pilot’s license, which was probably in his blood—his father was a stunt pilot.
Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.