Terrence Stephen McQueen (March 24, 1930 – November 7, 1980) was an American actor. His antihero persona, emphasized during the height of the counterculture of the 1960s, made him a top box-office draw for his films of the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He was nicknamed the “King of Cool” and used the alias Harvey Mushman in motor races.
McQueen received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles (1966). His other popular films include Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), The Cincinnati Kid(1965), Nevada Smith (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair(1968), Bullitt (1968), Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972), and Papillon (1973). In addition, he starred in the all-star ensemble films The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Towering Inferno (1974).
In 1974, McQueen became the highest-paid movie star in the world, although he did not act in film for another four years. He was combative with directors and producers, but his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command the largest salaries.
Terrence Stephen McQueen was born to a single mother on March 24, 1930, at St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. McQueen, of Scottish descent, was raised a Roman Catholic. His parents never married. McQueen’s father, William McQueen, a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, left his mother, Julia Ann (a.k.a. Julianne) Crawford,: 9 six months after meeting her.Several biographers have stated that his mother Julia Ann was an alcoholic.: 72 : 7–8  Unable to cope with caring for a small child, she left the boy with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Slater, Missouri, in 1933. As the Great Depressionworsened, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian’s brother Claude and his family at their farm in Slater.McQueen later said that he had good memories of living on the farm, noting that his great-uncle Claude “was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.”
Claude gave McQueen a red tricycle on his fourth birthday, a gift that McQueen subsequently credited with sparking his early interest in car racing. McQueen’s mother married and when the boy was eight, she brought him from the farm to live with her and her new husband in Indianapolis. His great-uncle Claude gave McQueen a special gift at his departure. “The day I left the farm,” he recalled, “Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present—a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case.” The inscription read “To Steve – who has been a son to me.”
Dyslexic and partially deaf due to a childhood ear infection, McQueen did not adjust well to school or his new life. His stepfather beat him to such an extent that at the age of nine he left home to live on the streets. He later recalled, “When a kid doesn’t have any love when he’s small, he begins to wonder if he’s good enough. My mother didn’t love me, and I didn’t have a father. I thought, ‘Well, I must not be very good.'”Soon he was running with a street gang and committing acts of petty crime. Unable to control his behavior, his mother sent him back to her grandparents and great-uncle in Slater.
When McQueen was 12, Julia wrote to her uncle Claude, asking that her son be returned to her again to live in Los Angeles, California, where she lived with her second husband. By McQueen’s own account, he and his new stepfather “locked horns immediately.” McQueen recalls him being “a prime son of a bitch” who was not averse to using his fists on McQueen and his mother. As McQueen began to rebel again, he was sent back to live with Claude for a final time. At age 14, he left Claude’s farm without saying goodbye and joined a circus for a short time. He drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles—resuming his life as a gang member and petty criminal. McQueen was caught stealing hubcaps by the police and handed over to his stepfather, who beat him severely. He threw the youth down a flight of stairs. McQueen looked up at his stepfather and said, “You lay your stinking hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill you.”
After this incident, McQueen’s stepfather persuaded his mother to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible, remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. Here, McQueen began to change and mature. He was not popular with the other boys at first:
“Say the boys had a chance once a month to load into a bus and go into town to see a movie. And they lost out because one guy in the bungalow didn’t get his work done right. Well, you can pretty well guess they’re gonna have something to say about that. I paid my dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being.”
McQueen gradually became a role model and was elected to the Boys Council, a group who set the rules and regulations governing the boys’ lives. He left the Boys Republic at age 16. When he later became famous as an actor, he regularly returned to talk to resident boys and retained a lifelong association with the center.
At age 16, McQueen returned to live with his mother, who had moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. There he met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and decided to sign on to a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. Once there, he abandoned his new post, eventually being employed in a brothel.Later McQueen made his way to Texas and drifted from job to job, including selling pens at a traveling carnival, and working as a lumberjack in Canada. He was arrested for vagrancy in the Deep South and served a 30-day assignment on a chain gang.
In 1947, after receiving permission from his mother (since he was not yet 18 years old), McQueen enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He was sent to Parris Island for boot camp. He was promoted to private first class and assigned to an armored unit. He initially struggled with conforming to the discipline of the service, and was demoted to private seven times. He took an unauthorized absence, going UA by failing to return after a weekend pass expired. He was caught by the shore patrol while staying with a girlfriend (Barbara Ross) for two weeks. After resisting arrest, he was sentenced to 41 days in the brig.
After this, McQueen resolved to focus his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines’ discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was assigned to the honor guard responsible for guarding the presidential yacht of US President Harry S Truman McQueen served until 1950, when he was honorably discharged. He later said he had enjoyed his time in the Marines. He remembered this period with the Marines as a formative time in his life, saying, “The Marines made a man out of me. I learned how to get along with others, and I had a platform to jump off of.”
In 1952, with financial assistance under the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner‘s Neighborhood Playhouse and at HB Studio under Uta Hagen. He reportedly delivered his first dialogue on a theatre stage in a 1952 play produced by Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. McQueen’s character spoke one brief line: “Alts iz farloyrn.” (“All is lost.“).nDuring this time, he also studied acting with Stella Adler, in whose class he met Gia Scala.
Long enamored of cars and motorcycles, McQueen began to earn money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway. He purchased the first two of many motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson and a Triumph. He soon became an excellent racer, winning about $100 each weekend (equivalent to $1,000 in 2021). He appeared as a musical judge in an episode of ABC‘s Jukebox Jury, which aired in the 1953–1954 season.
McQueen had minor roles in stage productions, including Peg o’ My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara.
In late 1955 at the age of 25, McQueen left New York and headed for Los Angeles. He moved into a house on Vestal Avenue in the Echo Park area, and sought acting jobs in Hollywood.
When McQueen appeared in a two-part Westinghouse Studio One television presentation entitled The Defenders, Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins took note of him and decided that B-movies would be a good place for the young actor to make his mark. McQueen’s first role was a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman. McQueen was subsequently hired for the films Never Love a Stranger; The Blob (his first leading role, science fiction); and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959).
McQueen’s first breakout role came on television. He appeared on Dale Robertson‘s NBC western series Tales of Wells Fargo as Bill Longley. Elkins, then McQueen’s manager, successfully lobbied Vincent M. Fennelly, producer of the western series Trackdown, to have McQueen read for the part of bounty hunter Josh Randall. He first appeared in Season 1 Episode 21 of Trackdown in 1958. He appeared as Randall in that episode, cast opposite series lead Robert Culp, a former New York motorcycle racing buddy. McQueen appeared again on Trackdown in Episode 31 of the first season, in which he played twin brothers, one of whom was an outlaw sought by Culp’s character, Hoby Gilman.
In interviews associated with the DVD release of Wanted, Robert Culp of Trackdown claims credit for bringing McQueen to Hollywood and landing him the part of Randall. He said he taught McQueen the “art of the fast-draw.” He said that by the second day of filming, McQueen beat him at it. McQueen became a household name as a result of this series. Randall’s special holster held a sawed-off .44–40 Winchester rifle nicknamed the “Mare’s Leg” instead of the six-gun carried by the typical Western character, although the cartridges in the gunbelt were dummy .45–70, chosen because they “looked tougher.” Coupled with the generally negative image of the bounty hunter, noted in the three-part DVD special on the background of the series, this added to the antihero image infused with mystery and detachment that made this show stand out from the typical TV Western. The 94 episodes that ran from 1958 until early 1961 kept McQueen steadily employed, and he became a fixture at the renowned Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, where much of the outdoor action for Wanted: Dead or Alive was shot.
At 29, McQueen got a significant break when Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis Jr. from the film Never So Few after Davis supposedly made some mildly negative remarks about Sinatra in a radio interview, and Davis’s role went to McQueen. Sinatra saw something special in McQueen and ensured that the young actor got plenty of closeups in a role that earned McQueen favorable reviews. McQueen’s character, Bill Ringa, was never more comfortable than when driving at high speed—in this case in a jeep—or handling a switchblade or a tommy gun.
After Never So Few, the film’s director John Sturges cast McQueen in his next movie, promising to “give him the camera”. The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he played Vin Tanner and starred with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, and James Coburn, became McQueen’s first major hit and led to his withdrawal from Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen’s focused portrayal of the taciturn second lead catapulted his career. His added touches in many of the shots (such as shaking a shotgun round before loading it, repeatedly checking his gun while in the background of a shot, and wiping his hat rim) annoyed top-billed Brynner, who protested that McQueen was stealing scenes. (in his autobiography Eli Wallach reports struggling to conceal his amusement while watching the filming of the funeral-procession scene where Brynner’s and McQueen’s characters first meet: Brynner was furious at McQueen’s shotgun-round-shake, which effectively diverted the viewer’s attention to McQueen. Brynner refused to draw his gun in the same scene with McQueen, not wanting his character outdrawn
McQueen played the top-billed lead role in the next big Sturges film, 1963’s The Great Escape, Hollywood’s fictional depiction of the true story of a historic mass escape from a World War II POW camp, Stalag Luft III. Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film’s notable motorcycle leap, which was done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins, who resembled McQueen from a distance.When Johnny Carson later tried to congratulate McQueen for the jump during a broadcast of The Tonight Show, McQueen said, “It wasn’t me. That was Bud Ekins.” This film established McQueen’s box-office clout and secured his status as a superstar.
Also in 1963, McQueen starred in Love with the Proper Stranger with Natalie Wood. He later appeared as the titular Nevada Smith, a character from Harold Robbins‘s novel The Carpetbaggers portrayed by Alan Ladd two years earlier in a movie version of that novel. Nevada Smith was an enormously successful Western action adventure prequel that also featured Karl Malden and Suzanne Pleshette. After starring in 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid as a poker player, McQueen earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as an engine-room sailor in The Sand Pebbles, in which he starred opposite Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough, whom he had previously worked with in The Great Escape.
He followed his Oscar nomination with 1968’s Bullitt, one of his best-known films, and his personal favorite, which co-starred Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn, and Don Gordon. It featured an unprecedented (and endlessly imitated) car chase through San Francisco. Although McQueen did the driving that appeared in closeup, this was about 10% of what is seen in the film’s car chase. The rest of the driving by McQueen’s character was done by stunt drivers Bud Ekins and Loren Janes. The antagonist’s black Dodge Chargerwas driven by veteran stunt driver Bill Hickman; McQueen, his stunt drivers and Hickman spent several days before the scene was shot practicing high-speed, close-quarters driving. Bullitt went so far over budget that Warner Brothers cancelled the contract on the rest of his films, seven in all.
When Bullitt became a huge box-office success, Warner Brothers tried to woo him back, but he refused, and his next film was made with an independent studio and released by United Artists. For this film, McQueen went for a change of image, playing a debonair role as a wealthy executive in The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway in 1968. The following year, he made the southern period piece The Reivers.
In 1971, McQueen starred in the poorly received auto-racing drama Le Mans, followed by Junior Bonner in 1972, a story of an aging rodeo rider. He worked for director Sam Peckinpah again with the leading role in The Getaway, where he met future wife Ali MacGraw. He followed this with a physically demanding role as a Devil’s Island prisoner in 1973’s Papillon, featuring Dustin Hoffman as his character’s tragic sidekick.
In 1973, The Rolling Stones referred to McQueen in the song “Star Star” from the album Goats Head Soupfor which an amused McQueen reportedly gave personal permission. The lines were “Star fucker, star fucker, star fucker, star fucker, star / Yes you are, yes you are, yes you are / Yeah, Ali MacGraw got mad with you / For givin’ head to Steve McQueen.”
By the time of The Getaway, McQueen was the world’s highest-paid actor, but after 1974’s The Towering Inferno, starring with his long-time professional rival Paul Newman and reuniting him with Dunaway, became a tremendous box-office success, McQueen all but disappeared from the public eye, to focus on motorcycle racing and traveling around the country in a motor home and on his vintage Indian motorcycles. He did not return to acting until 1978 with An Enemy of the People, playing against type as a bearded, bespectacled 19th-century doctor in this adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play. The film was never properly released theatrically, but has appeared occasionally on PBS.
His last two films were loosely based on true stories: Tom Horn, a Western adventure about a former Army scout-turned professional gunman who worked for the big cattle ranchers hunting down rustlers, and later hanged for murder in the shooting death of a sheepherder, and The Hunter, an urban action movie about a modern-day bounty hunter, both released in 1980.
McQueen was offered the lead male role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but was unable to accept due to his Wanted: Dead or Alive contract (the role went to George Peppard). He turned down parts in Ocean’s 11, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his attorneys and agents could not agree with Paul Newman’s attorneys and agents on top billing), The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, A Bridge Too Far, The French Connection (he did not want to do another cop film) Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Sorcerer.
According to director John Frankenheimer and actor James Garner in bonus interviews for the DVD of the film Grand Prix, McQueen was Frankenheimer’s first choice for the lead role of American Formula One race car driver Pete Aron. Frankenheimer was unable to meet with McQueen to offer him the role, so he sent Edward Lewis, his business partner and the producer of Grand Prix. McQueen and Lewis instantly clashed, the meeting was a disaster, and the role went to Garner.
Garner later for the interview said this:
Oh, McQueen. Crazy McQueen. McQueen and I get along pretty good, McQueen looked to me kind of like an older brother and he didn’t want to have much with me, till he got into trouble, then he’d call and, you know, he knew, I could tell him just what I thought. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. And then we had a falling out. It wasn’t a falling out, as i did Grand Prix. Steve was originally slated to do that movie, but he couldn’t get along with Frank Frankenheimer. So that lasted about 30 minutes, and I was in and Steve was out. And Steve went over to do Sand Pebbles, which went about year longer than they wanted to go. Big production spent a lot of money and stayed in China too long there, in Taiwan. So, when I got the part in Grand Prix, I called him. In Taiwan. And I started: “Steve, I want to tell you, before somebody else, that I’m going to do Grand Prix.” Well, there was about a 20 dollars’ silence there (laugh), on the telephone. He didn’t know, what to say, and finally said “Oh, that’s great, that’s great, I’m glad to hear that.”, because he planned to do Le Mans, which was another title at the time. But we were about to release, before he even got to that film. But he said: “Great, great, well, I’m glad to hear it; that’s good. You know, if anybody’s gonna do it, I’m glad, you’re going to do it. He didn’t talk to me for about year and half, and we were next-door neighbors (laugh). So, it got to him a little bit, finally by his son. Chad took him to go see Grand Prix. And from that time on, we were talking again. But Steve was a wild kid. He didn’t know where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do.
Director Steven Spielberg said McQueen was his first choice for the character of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to Spielberg, in a documentary on the Close Encounters DVD, Spielberg met him at a bar, where McQueen drank beer after beer. Before leaving, McQueen told Spielberg that he could not accept the role because he was unable to cry on cue. Spielberg offered to take the crying scene out of the story, but McQueen demurred, saying that it was the best scene in the script. The role eventually went to Richard Dreyfuss.
William Friedkin wanted to cast McQueen as the lead in the action/thriller film Sorcerer (1977). Sorcerer was to be filmed primarily on location in the Dominican Republic, but McQueen did not want to be separated from Ali MacGraw for the duration of the shoot. McQueen then asked Friedkin to let MacGraw act as a producer, so she could be present during principal photography. Friedkin would not agree to this condition, and cast Roy Scheider instead of McQueen. Friedkin later remarked that not casting McQueen hurt the film’s performance at the box office.
Spy novelist Jeremy Duns revealed that McQueen was considered for the lead role in a film adaptation of The Diamond Smugglers, written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming; McQueen would play John Blaize, a secret agent gone undercover to infiltrate a diamond-smuggling ring in South Africa. There were complications with the project which was eventually shelved, although a 1964 screenplay does exist.
McQueen expressed interest in the Rambo character in First Blood when David Morrell‘s novel appeared in 1972, but the producers rejected him because of his age. He was offered the title role in The Bodyguard (to star Diana Ross) when it was proposed in 1976, but the film did not reach production until years after McQueen’s death (which eventually starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in 1992).Quigley Down Under was in development as early as 1974, with McQueen in consideration for the lead, but by the time production began in 1980, McQueen was ill and the project was scrapped until a decade later, when Tom Selleck starred. McQueen was offered the lead in Raise the Titanic, but felt that the script was flat. He was under contract to Irwin Allen after appearing in The Towering Inferno and offered a part in a sequel in 1980, which he turned down. The film was scrapped and Newman was brought in by Allen to make When Time Ran Out, which was a box office bomb. McQueen died shortly after passing on The Towering Inferno 2.
McQueen with two forms of transportation – his horse, Doc, and his Jaguar XKSS (1960)
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. When he had the opportunity to drive in a movie, he performed many of his own stunts, including some of the car chases in Bullitt and the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. Although the jump over the fence in The Great Escape was done by Bud Ekins for insurance purposes, McQueen did have considerable screen time riding his 650 cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle. It was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen. At one point, using editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike. Around half of the driving in Bullitt was performed by Loren Janes.
McQueen and John Sturges planned to make Day of the Champion, a movie about Formula One racing, but McQueen was busy with the delayed The Sand Pebbles. They had a contract with the German Nürburgring, and after John Frankenheimer shot scenes there for Grand Prix, the reels were turned over to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule, and the McQueen-Sturges project was called off.
McQueen considered being a professional race car driver. He had a one-off outing in the British Touring Car Championship in 1961, driving a BMC Mini at Brands Hatch, finishing third. In the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks earlier) won with a Porsche 908/02 in the three-litre class and missed winning overall by 21.1 seconds to Mario Andretti/Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella in a five-litre Ferrari 512S. This same Porsche 908 was entered by his production company Solar Productions as a camera car for Le Mans in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans later that year. McQueen wanted to drive a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart in that race, but the film backers threatened to pull their support if he did. Faced with the choice of driving for 24 hours in the race or driving for the entire summer making the film, McQueen opted for the latter.
McQueen competed in off-road motorcycle racing, frequently running a BSA Hornet and using alias Harvey Mushman. He was also set to co-drive in a Triumph 2500 PI for the British Leyland team in the 1970 London-Mexico rally, but had to turn it down due to movie commitments. His first off-road motorcycle was a Triumph 500 cc, purchased from Ekins. McQueen raced in many top off-road races on the West Coast, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400, and the Elsinore Grand Prix.
In 1964, McQueen and Ekins were part of a four-rider (plus one reserve) first-ever official US team-entry into the Silver Vase category of the International Six Days Trial, an Enduro-type off-road motorcycling event held that year in Erfurt, East Germany. The “A” team arrived in England in late August to collect their mix of 649 cc and 490 cc twins from the Triumph factory before modifying them for off-road use. Initially let down with transport arrangements by a long-established English motorcycle dealer, Triumph dealer H&L Motors stepped-in to provide a suitable vehicle. On arrival in Germany, the team, with their English temporary manager, were surprised to find a Vase “B” team, comprising expat Americans living in Europe, had entered themselves privately to ride European-sourced machinery.
McQueen’s ISDT competition number was 278, which was based on the trials starting order. Both teams crashed repeatedly. McQueen retired due to irreparable crash damage, and Ekins withdrew with a broken leg, both on day three (Wednesday). Only one member of the “B” team finished the six-day event.UK monthly magazine Motorcycle Sport commented: “Riding Triumph twins…[the team] rode everywhere with great dash, if not in admirable style, falling off frequently and obviously out for six days’ sport without too many worries about who was going to win (they knew it would not be them)”.
He was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, McQueen’s Solar Productions funded the classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, in which McQueen is featured, along with racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith. The same year, he also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike.
In a segment filmed for The Ed Sullivan Show, McQueen drove Sullivan around a desert area in a dune buggy at high speed. Afterward, Sullivan said, “That was a ‘helluva’ ride!”
By testimony of McQueen’s son, Chad, Steve owned around 100 classic motorcycles, as well as around 100 exotics and vintage cars, including:
In spite of numerous attempts, McQueen was never able to purchase the Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt, which featured a modified drivetrain that suited McQueen’s driving style. One of the two Mustangs used in the film was badly damaged, judged beyond repair, and believed to have been scrapped until it surfaced in Mexico in 2017, while the other one, which McQueen attempted to purchase in 1977, is hidden from the public eye. At the 2018 North American International Auto Show the GT 390 was displayed, in its current non-restored condition, with the 2019 Ford Mustang “Bullitt”.
McQueen also flew and owned, among other aircraft, a 1945 Stearman, tail number N3188, (his student number in reform school), a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub, and an award-winning 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 biplane, flown in the US Mail Service by famed World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. They were hangared at Santa Paula Airport an hour northwest of Hollywood, where he lived his final days.