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Star of the Month: Steve McQueen
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Steve McQueen - Thursdays in July


Steve McQueen, TCM Star of the Month for July, was known as "The King of Cool" during his heyday in the 1960s and early '70s, when he was one of the world's most popular and highly paid actors. Today, knowing how brief and turbulent his life was, audiences are likely to find a touch of pathos in his screen character of the alienated yet plucky outsider facing down hard times with a nonchalant shrug and a tight little smile.

McQueen's acting style was so natural and understated that, despite a string of strong performances in hit movies, he received only one Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It came for his portrayal in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as a man more comfortable with machinery than with people. That theme was repeated in other films and in McQueen's personal life through his affinity for fast cars and powerful motorcycles. His reputation as a "bad boy" and "man's man" seemed borne out by volatile relationships with the many women in his life.

Terence Steven McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, a suburb of Indianapolis, IN. His father, a stunt pilot in a "flying circus," left McQueen's mother shortly after marrying her. She found herself unable to care for a small child and placed Steve, for a time, in the care of his grandparents and an uncle in Depression-era Missouri. Periodically, young Steve returned to live with his mother in Indianapolis and later in Los Angeles. She remarried twice, each time to a man with whom Steve had a combative relationship.

Steve's life was complicated by the fact that he was dyslexic and, due to an ear infection when he was small, suffered a partial loss of hearing. By the time he was a teen-ager, he had been involved with gangs and petty crimes. His mother had him remanded to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, CA, which he left at age 16. He worked at various times as a circus roughneck, brothel attendant, carnival barker and lumberjack.

In 1947, McQueen joined the U.S. Marine Corps. After a stormy beginning--during which he went AWOL and served time in the brig--he settled into the discipline of military life and was honorably discharged in 1950. It was during this time that he discovered his love of machinery, serving as an armored-vehicle driver and claiming to have the only "souped-up tank" in the Corps.

While drifting in New York City after release from the service, on a whim and the suggestion of a friend, McQueen auditioned for famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who saw his potential and accepted him as a student. With financial assistance through the G.I. Bill, he also studied at the Actors Studio.

McQueen began playing small roles in touring companies and out-of-town productions, then made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the leading role of A Hatful of Rain as a replacement for Ben Gazzara. The role proved beyond McQueen's abilities at the time and he was fired after six weeks. Later, however, he played the part again more successfully and in a major tour.

In 1955, McQueen moved to California and began seeking work in Hollywood. He appeared in several TV shows including a two-part Westinghouse Studio One production and had an uncredited bit in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), the breakout movie of McQueen's later peer and competitor Paul Newman. McQueen made his debut as the star of a feature film with The Blob (1958), a campy B-movie horror thriller about a gelatinous, flesh-eating space creature.

McQueen's star continued to climb on television with appearances in two Western series: Tales of Wells Fargo starring Dale Robertson and Trackdown featuring Robert Culp. The latter show led to a spinoff, Wanted: Dead or Alive, which starred McQueen as Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the Wild West of the 1870s. The series, which debuted on CBS in 1958 and ran for 94 episodes, turned McQueen into a major TV star - and a new kind of Western lead, one with a distinct anti-hero vibe. Frank Sinatra asked for McQueen as a costar in Never So Few (1959), a drama set in Burma during World War II as Allied Forces fought the Japanese. Sinatra liked McQueen and saw to it that he was well-showcased, leading to favorable reviews and an enhanced reputation in films. Again, McQueen's love of mechanics shone through in his handling of knives, guns and a jeep he drove at high speeds. This was McQueen's first film with director John Sturges, who would prove influential in his career.

Sturges next directed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), a now iconic Western remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai, with Yul Brynner as the leader of a gang of gunmen that includes McQueen as drifter Vin Tanner. McQueen reportedly annoyed Brynner with scene-stealing bits of business that drew focus from the star but amused audiences.

After a mild MGM comedy, The Honeymoon Machine (1961), McQueen once again teamed with Sturges for The Great Escape (1963), the film that made him a superstar. In this action-filled story about a mass escape from a WWII P.O.W. camp (based loosely on an actual event), McQueen perfects his "anti-hero" image and is involved in some spectacular motorcycle stunts- some of which employed a double. He heads a strong cast that includes James Garner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Many have given Sturges credit for developing McQueen's screen image, but the director himself said that "Steve's own instinct guided him into being a star. He knew exactly what he was doing and where he was at every moment."

To enhance his credentials as a romantic leading man, McQueen next did four quieter and more sensitive movies. Soldier in the Rain (1963) is a gentle military comedy in which McQueen is an enlisted man in the U.S. Army who idolizes an older master sergeant (Jackie Gleason). In Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), a touching comedy-drama directed by Robert Mulligan, McQueen plays a musician who impregnates a naive shopgirl (Oscar-nominated Natalie Wood).

In Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), McQueen again plays a musician and is again directed by Mulligan. This time he's a rockabilly performer and would-be songwriter who is unwilling to face up to the responsibilities of having a wife (Lee Remick) and family. In Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid, a story about gamblers in Depression-era New Orleans, McQueen plays the title role of a poker player who challenges an older master of the game (Edward G. Robinson). This film offers McQueen a nice showcase surrounded by a colorful cast that also includes Ann-Margret, Karl Malden and Joan Blondell.

McQueen enjoyed another success with the title role in the Western Nevada Smith (1966), a character played earlier by Alan Ladd in 1964's The Carpetbaggers. Henry Hathaway directed McQueen and a strong supporting cast, led by Karl Malden and Brian Keith, which allowed the star to shine.

Next came McQueen's Oscar-nominated role in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as Jake Holman, a Navy machinist's mate on a gunboat in 1920's China. The film was nominated for seven other Oscars including Best Picture. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther felt that McQueen's performance contained "the most restrained, heartfelt, honest acting he has ever done."

1968 was a peak year for McQueen as he starred in his two biggest hits. Bullitt, an action thriller directed by Peter Yates, is perhaps the ultimate statement of "McQueen cool," and his car chase through the hills of San Francisco became an instant classic. The Thomas Crown Affair became McQueen's personal favorite among his films, maybe because his role as a wealthy, debonair businessman who masterminds robberies allowed for a change of image. Norman Jewison directed and Faye Dunaway costars as the insurance investigator closing in on Crown.

McQueen finished out the 1960s with The Reivers (1969), based on a William Faulkner story and set in the American South in 1905. This was followed by two box-office disappointments: the auto-racing drama Le Mans (1971) and Sam Peckinpah's contemporary Western Junior Bonner (1972). Much more successful was The Getaway (1972), Peckinpah's heist film with McQueen as a mastermind robber. This was the movie that introduced McQueen to second wife Ali MacGraw, who plays his wife and accomplice.

Papillion (1973), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and set in French Guiana in the 1930s, is based on the true story of a friendship that developed between Henri Charrière (McQueen) and Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) as they served prison time on the infamous Devil's Island. Hoffman, in character-actor mode, delivered a highly praised performance, although Jewison considered McQueen's performance "superior" and commented, "You'll see Dustin's acting, but you'll never see Steve's."

McQueen next joined an all-star cast in the blockbuster disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974). After a hiatus from the screen, during which he traveled about the country and raced motorcycles, he surprised everyone by starring in a film adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People (1978). Playing a bespectacled 19th-century doctor with a heavy beard that left him all but unrecognizable, he gave a performance described by The New York Times as "atypical and not very successful."

McQueen finished out his movie career in 1980 with two roles that were more in line with his perceived image, playing a hired gun in the Western adventure Tom Horn and a bounty hunter in the urban action film The Hunter.

By 1978, McQueen was suffering from a persistent cough and shortness of breath, and the following year was diagnosed with the cancer pleural mesothelioma. In mid-1980 he traveled to Mexico for three months of unconventional medical treatments. Later that year he returned to Mexico for removal of tumors in his neck and abdomen. Hours after the surgery on November 7, 1980, McQueen died in his sleep at age 50 in a clinic in Juárez. He was cremated and his ashes strewn in the Pacific Ocean.

McQueen was married three times, to actress Neile Adams (1956-72), actress Ali MacGraw (1973-78) and model Barbara Minty (January 1980 until his death later that year). He had a daughter by Adams, Terry Leslie and a son, Chad. His stormy love life once led daughter Terry to remark, "My father hated all women but me." McQueen's own self-analysis: "I may be screwed-up, but I'm beautiful."

by Roger Fristoe
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