Steve McQueen transcended his role as an actor to become a cinematic icon. Earlier this year, Variety announced that a biopic is in the works based on the 2008 biography Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill. McQueen’s unconventional childhood, rocky adolescence, unlikely rise to fame and tragic early passing could have been the makings of a blockbuster. His characters often mirrored his own life experiences, from McQueen’s love of motorcycles, fast cars and drugs, to his three marriages and his battle against lung cancer. McQueen lived a life as dramatic as the roles he played.
McQueen was a Midwestern boy, born March 24, 1930 in Beach Grove, Ind. as Terrence Steven McQueen. His father, Bill McQueen, skipped town when Steve was six months old. His mother, Julia, was an alcoholic teenage runaway who abdicated complete responsibility for him when McQueen was only three.
He went to live with his maternal grandparents on his great uncle Claude’s farm in Slater, Mo. McQueen said his only happy childhood memories came from that farm, and his uncle Claude held a special place in his heart as his only father figure.
When McQueen was eight, his mother took him back to live with her and her second husband in Indianapolis. He didn’t adjust well, joining a street gang and committing petty crimes. Unable to handle him, Julia sent him back to the farm.
When McQueen was 12, Julia requested that he live with her and her third husband in Los Angeles. He and his new stepfather locked horns—McQueen rebelled and was sent back to the farm.
At fourteen, McQueen left the farm without saying goodbye and joined a circus passing through Slater in 1944. When that didn’t pan out, he reluctantly crawled back to Los Angeles to live with his mother and stepfather. As McQueen described his stepfather, “He was a prime son of a bitch,” who used his fists on him and his mother.
Caught stealing hubcaps, the police turned him over to his stepfather who beat him severely, a fight that ended with a tumble down a flight of stairs for McQueen. After that, his stepfather forced Julia to sign a court order attesting that Steve was “incorrigible” and remanding him to The California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, Calif.
Surprisingly, the youth facility gave him the structure he needed, and after a rocky few months, McQueen settled in and eventually became a role model for the younger boys. Throughout McQueen’s life, he made frequent donations of time and money to the institution. In the prime of his success, McQueen relied on secretaries, stamps, and preprinted signed photos to answer his fan mail, but whenever he received autograph requests from his alma mater, The Boys Republic, he insisted on answering personally.
Upon his release at 16, McQueen was returned to his mother, now living in New York City’s Greenwich Village. When he discovered that, instead of living in the apartment with his mother he was expected to live downstairs with a complete stranger, McQueen split and began supporting himself. He held a number of odd jobs including oil rigger, carnival worker and even a towel boy at a brothel. Then going from one extreme to the other, he enlisted in the Marines from 1947-1950.
The GI Bill gave McQueen a chance to get an education. Back in Greenwich Village, he began taking acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s legendary Neighborhood Playhouse.
Initially seen by his peers as a goof-off, McQueen admittedly considered acting a “silly game.” Regardless, Meisner recognized his rugged star quality and allowed him to continue his studies. Once McQueen found his footing on the stage, his desire to become a true actor kicked into high gear. Considered his first onstage role, he starred opposite Margaret O’Brien in 1954’s Peg O’ My Heart.
The Tough Road to the Big Screen
McQueen’s film career began in 1956 with a small uncredited part in Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman. Shortly after, he made his Broadway debut in Hatful of Rain. At this time he met his first wife Neile Adams, an established Broadway actress.
Married to Adams in 1956, McQueen’s acting career came to a standstill and, according to Adams in her memoir, McQueen spent his time racing cars and motorcycles while sponging off her blossoming stage career.
Adams convinced her manager, Hilly Elkins, to save McQueen’s foundering career. Elkins got him roles in B movies such as the 1958 cult classic The Blob, and a goldmine role as Josh Randall in the CBS series Wanted Dead or Alive.
McQueen soon tired of television work, and his eagerness to work in films made him a nightmare on the set. Fortunately, he was soon cast with Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach in the unforgettable 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven.
McQueen gained a reputation as being difficult to work with. He wanted the script to portray his character in the best light; to have the most poignant lines. He needed to be showcased as the star. Before he was a bona fide star, he was desperate to steal the spotlight from such big names as Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven) and Frank Sinatra (Never So Few). And McQueen knew how to play his cards right to make that happen.
Despite a few war-themed flops at the box office, including 1962’s Hell is For Heroes and War Lover, McQueen went on to make some great movies during the 1960s. The Great Escape hit theaters in 1963, and in 1965 McQueen starred in The Cincinnati Kid. He was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in The Sand Pebbles in 1966, and in 1968 the Thomas Crown Affair was released. Also in 1968, Bullitt was released with the classic car chase scene in which McQueen performed his own stunts.
McQueen’s Signing Style
It seems uncharacteristic of his tough guy persona, but Steve McQueen was an obliging signer for his countless fans. According to his first wife, McQueen reveled in the celebrity status he had worked so hard to obtain and genuinely enjoyed his fans’ attention. Occasionally, when the attention became an annoyance, McQueen was known to wear a disguise, but after brief periods of anonymity, he would get offended that no one recognized him and would drop it.
In her memoir, My Husband, My Friend, Neile McQueen Toffel recalls promoting McQueen’s movie The Sand Pebbles in New York City in 1966. “Still, he was grateful to his fans and never minded signing autographs…. His feeling was ‘I always wanted to be someone, you know? And now that I am, all I’ve blown is my obscurity and that’s not much to blow.’”
At a high point in McQueen’s career, due to the fan frenzy that ensued when they went out, he had a rubber stamp made of his signature and would sometimes carry a stack of pictures with him that he would pass out to fans.
During the making of Le Mans in 1970 McQueen’s signing habits changed. Following in the footsteps of Paul Newman, he adopted a new attitude with his fans: “No autographs. No exceptions.”
Released in 1971, Le Mans fulfilled McQueen’s dream of making the ultimate racing movie. Unfortunately, he focused more on impressing the professional drivers on set than the film—the plot suffered and Le Mans went over schedule and budget. Produced by his company, Solar Productions, the disappointment left McQueen bankrupt and his marriage in shambles.
Following two more box office disasters, The Getaway in 1972 finally scored a box office success and he met Ali McGraw, an actress whom many say was the love of his life. McQueen’s divorce from Neile, his wife of fifteen years, became final in 1972 and he married McGraw within a year. After the classic Papillion in 1973, a role many consider one of his best, came The Towering Inferno, a role that would make him the highest paid actor of the time.
Although successful professionally, the mid- to late 1970s were a dark time. McQueen abused drugs and became paranoid of others taking advantage of his fame. By the 1978 release of Enemy of the People, Steve was a shadow of his former self. Neile wrote of an occurrence in 1977 when Steve was out with Ali McGraw in Palm Springs. When a fan approached McGraw for her autograph, ignoring a bearded and gaunt McQueen, he rebuked “No, sorry. We don’t sign autographs.”
If you’re looking to add Steve McQueen’s autograph to your collection, be forewarned: the forgeries definitely outweigh the real deal. The value of his autograph has continued to rise over time. McQueen’s autograph on an album page or 5×3 card is worth $600 to $1,200, depending upon condition and signature boldness. Depending upon content, documents generally sell between $1,000 and $1,500. Authentically signed photos of Steve McQueen are very rare and, when available, sell from $1,000 to $6,000.
November 27, 1980
McQueen died in Mexico at the age of fifty, after a year-long battle with a type of cancer known as mesothelioma. True to form, he refused to go without a fight, electing a series of unconventional treatments not approved by the FDA. Although his life was short, McQueen lived it to the fullest and he became one of the most famous and beloved stars of the 20th century.