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.