In the early 70s, actor Steve McQueen dominated Hollywood as the highest-paid actor in history. For the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno alone, McQueen received a million dollars upfront and 10% of the film’s gross—about $14 million dollars in total.
All that money masked a deeply uncomfortable celebrity who spent the first fifteen years of his life the victim of abuse, and finding escape in a life of delinquency. This is hardly the Steve McQueen people remember, but it’s the one that existed.
The resemblance between Steve McQueen and his biological father is uncanny, but the two never knew each other. William McQueen flew as a stunt pilot for a barnstorming act migrating across the Midwest. These immensely popular aerial acrobatics involved pushed prop planes and their pilots to the limit, required equal helpings of technical skills and raw guts. William McQueen would have zoomed into Indiana’s Marion County like a movie star.
Six months after meeting (then marrying) Julia Crawford, and start the height of the Great Depression, William McQueen abandoned his pregnant wife. Once Terence Steven McQueen arrived in 1930, Julia sent him to live with her family on a farm in Slater, Missouri, feeling incapable of raising a small child all alone. Harsh to 21st century ears, this practice was not uncommon in the 1930s. McQueen recalled a very pleasant childhood on the farm with his grandparents and great-uncle, Claude Thomson.
His mother Julia eventually remarried and, when Steve McQueen was eight, had her parents freight him to his new home in Indianapolis, Indiana, only a few miles from Beech Grove. It wasn’t a happy homecoming. More a stranger than a mother, Julia had been virtually absent young Steve’s entire life. In leaving Slater, he left the freedom of the farm and his beloved great-uncle Claude, who would remain the most influential figure in Steve McQueen’s life.
Life in Indianapolis was hard for the boy. McQueen’s new stepfather beat him for the slightest infraction and his mother did nothing to stop it. Steve McQueen’s suffered during school as well. Although unknown and undiagnosed at the time, McQueen’s dyslexia made schoolwork arduous and an ear infection had rendered him partially deaf, worsening his academic performance. To escape the frequent and ever-worsening beatings, McQueen joined a street gang and began living on the street and supporting himself with petty crime until he was eventually caught by police. Seeing the situation as untenable, his mother once again sent him to Slater. He would not reside in Indiana again.
The cycle repeated itself, with McQueen living happily at his uncle’s farm and forced to leave at his mother’s beckoning. Today, his Slater relatives likely would have had a strong legal case to retain custody of McQueen. No doubt his great-uncle Claude certainly would have tried; he had come to care for Steve as his own son. But in the 30s and 40s, interfering in familial matters, even at the child’s benefit, was taboo.
His mother remarried and sent for McQueen again. This time he moved to his mother’s new home in Los Angeles. Once again, his second stepfather abused the boy. Once again, McQueen joined a street gang. Once again, he was arrested. The stepfather’s beatings became frequent and frenzied and the teenage McQueen once again returned to Slater. This time he did not stay.
At 14, McQueen ran away from home. After another arrest, his mother declared McQueen “INCORRIGIBLE” and signed him over to the California Junior Boys’ Republic. As cold and selfish as his mother’s actions were, her abandoning him to the Boys’ Republic provided the structure and normalcy that McQueen lacked.
At the Boys’ Republic, the most effective tool in any teenager’s life, peer pressure, pruned his disruptive behavior. McQueen himself noted this transformation: “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.” Although he only resided at the Boys Republic for two years, the time had calmed the troubled boy. He emerged confident and content, but a touch of his rebellious nature remained.
He would visit the California Junior Boys Republic several times over the years, rarely publicizing the events, and donating both his money and time to the boys-in-residence. The visits were always informal, with McQueen more apt to shoot pool than deliver a lecture. Most of his giving stayed under the radar: McQueen earned a kind of notoriety for his contractural demands of shaving razors and blue jeans, sometimes by the truckload. It was later discovered these items were all sent to the Boys Republic.
After holding a variety of jobs, a seventeen-year-old McQueen enlisted in the Marines. His initial service record can be generously described as “rocky.” He started well, climbing from buck private to private first class in just five months. Then an infraction busted him down to plain, old private once again. This cycle repeated itself seven times. His infractions ranged from once going AWOL for 41 days to napping on duty to socking a police officer. Outside of these issues, McQueen performed admirably as a tank crewman and once helped pull five crew members from a sinking M46 Patton tank during Arctic training.
Similar infractions would likely result in a court marshal and/or a dishonorable discharge today. Not then. Between 1947 and 1950 the armed forces tried to retain as many soldiers as possible after the military exodus after World War II. This was at the height of the Cold War and, according to Marine Corps historian Sergeant Bobby Joe Harris, “The Marines weren’t as picky back then as they are today.” Eventually McQueen settled down and completed his service, honorably discharged in 1950 as a corporal. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Interested in acting, his success in Hollywood did not come instantly. In 1952, McQueen took advantage of the GI Bill and attended acting classes in New York, while spending his weekends earning prize money at motorcycle races. Bit parts in plays and television serials trickled in, but McQueen did not land any significant roles for years. His determination eventually paid off. In 1958, McQueen appeared in his breakout role as bounty hunter Josh Randall on Wanted: Dead or Alive.
His racing prowess served him well, especially in two of his most memorable and famous films, The Great Escape (1963) and Bullitt (1968). His motorcycle skills were so exceptional that, in The Great Escape, McQueen played both his character Captain Virgil Hilts AND several of the German motorcycle soldiers chasing him. Contrary to rumor, he did not perform the film’s most famous stunt, a dramatic motorcycle leap and slide into a nest of barbed wire. He was quick to credit that stunt to his friend and stuntman Bud Ekins.
While the 1960s treated McQueen well, the peace ended in 1969 when his close friends Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring were brutally killed by the Manson Family in the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders. During the investigation, police revealed that not only did Charles Manson include McQueen on a list of Hollywood celebrity “hit list” but Manson had expected McQueen to be at Roman Polanski’s Cielo Drive house the night of the murders. After this, McQueen always carried a pistol and insisted his then-wife Neile Adams carry one as well.
In 1973, tragedy struck again when his close friend Bruce Lee, then a quickly rising action star in Hollywood, died of a sudden brain hemorrhage. McQueen had taken martial arts instruction from Lee, and a kind of mutual envy made the men quick friends: McQueen wanted Lee’s martial arts skills, and Lee wanted McQueen’s fame. McQueen later served as a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral, along with another Lee student, James Coburn.
Stardom had made McQueen famous, wealthy, independent, and bored. By the time of The Towering Inferno‘s 1974 release, he had grown weary of Hollywood and decided to tool around the United States, first on his beloved Indian motorcycles and then in an old 1952 Chevrolet 3800 pickup, modified into a camper van. When not on the road, McQueen shambled around on his 500-acre Idaho ranch, riding horses, working, and enjoying the seclusion.
McQueen eventually returned to Hollywood, accepting an odd role as a heavily-bearded doctor in The Enemy of the People, a period piece based on a play by famed dramatist Henrik Ibsen. That was about as far away from Bullitt as he could get. The same year he returned to acting, McQueen also developed a constant cough.
50 years old and a heavy smoker since his teens, McQueen eventually sought medical help for the persistent cough. At first, doctors attributed it to chronic bronchitis, prescribed him a cycle of antibiotics, and insisted he quit smoking. He did as asked, but his condition did not improve.
The public was then learning of the destructive health effects of asbestos exposure, and McQueen thought his health problems were likely caused by the asbestos blankets and suit lining car racers often wore. Possibly, but when his doctors learned McQueen’s military duties had included peeling miles of asbestos pipe insulation with no protective mask, they thought that far more likely. Whatever the cause, the result would be the same.
His health worsened dramatically and, just after his final film The Hunter wrapped in 1980, McQueen was no longer the fit, handsome Hollywood star the world knew. He had grown gaunt and pale. Inactivity had slouched his shoulders and added a belly paunch. Doctors diagnosed his pleural mesothelioma as terminal, but McQueen fell under the spell of quack doctor William Donald Kelley, who claimed to cure cancer through a ridiculous combination of coffee enemas, shampooing (really), and frequent injections of fruit and nut extracts.
Kelley’s license to practice medicine had been revoked in 1976 for his refuted and useless treatments. A former orthodontist with no training in oncology, Kelley “treated” McQueen in Mexico and charged the wealthy actor over $100,000 for three months of this bizarre regime. It, of course, had no effect. Kelley readily advertise McQueen as his patient and even pronounced the actor cured in the press, all while numerous tumors grew throughout his body.
McQueen health worsened, as did his quality of life. In constant pain and wracked with tumors, Steve McQueen decided to have a five-pound abdominal tumor removed surgically. American doctors refused to perform the operation, sure the sickly actor’s heart could not weather such an invasive surgery.
Once again, McQueen traveled to Mexico. On November 6th, 1980, McQueen underwent surgery to have the surgery removed; 12 hours later, early on November 7th, he died in his sleep from heart failure. Just as the American doctors predicted.
His body’s trip from a Juarez mortuary to a chartered plane to California was McQueen’s final tragedy. Mortuary staff had informed reporters, who trailed the beat-up Ford LTD station wagon serving as the funeral director’s hearse. A snap-happy photographer joined them. The Ford inched through the traffic, with the driver loudly bellowing that he had a body in the back. When the casket arrived at Customs, the funeral director proudly and loudly proclaimed the body to be that of actor Steve McQueen.
Reporters gobbled this up. When the casket finally arrived at the jet, three anonymous friends of McQueen waited, all visibly furious at the clamoring crowd. One friend grabbed the photographer, yanked the camera off his neck and tore out his roll of exposed film, forever destroying any pictures of the indignity. He shoved the camera back in the photographer’s hands and said that if McQueen were alive, he would have beat the hell out of him. This was a good friend, whoever he was.
Upon his return to California, Hoosier Steve McQueen was cremated, his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean during a memorial service.
Author’s note: Originally, I planned on displaying one of the final pictures of Steve McQueen, when cancer had left him emaciated and pale. I thought it informative. After reading of his casket’s final trip to the Mexican airport, I decided not to. Informative or not, it’s not how McQueen should be remembered.
Instead, I’ll put up a favorite picture of an actor who survived an abusive home, served his country honorably as a Marine, donated generously and quietly, and endured a line of horrific personal tragedies…Yet always remained “The King of Cool.”
Author’s final note: And pardon my French, but that Ex-Doctor William Donald Kelley—who scammed hundreds of thousands of dollars from desperate people for fruit juice injections—is officially and absolutely an asshole.