Steve McQueen Stories: A Life And Biography Filled With Greatness
Actor Steve McQueen and wife taking Sulphur bath at home, 1963. (Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Even though he passed away at the age of 50 in 1980, Great Escape (1963) and Bullitt (1968) star Steve McQueen is eternally cool. Throughout his short time on Earth he drank, he fought, and he tore around on motorcycles and in the fastest cars. The man was a legend who pulled himself out of a small town and became a larger-than-life celebrity, not just a man's man but also a style icon. There’s never been any star who's quite like McQueen, and really how can anyone stand up to the myth of this great leading man? Rather than focus on his untimely death, these are some of the most fascinating and fun stories about a legendary man.
He Was Supposed To Be At Sharon Tate's On The Night Of The Manson Murders
The murders of Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring along with their group of friends at Tate’s rented Cielo Drive mansion rocked Hollywood in 1969. Pretty much every celebrity of the day has a story about how they were supposed to be at Tate’s that night, but McQueen really was invited to dinner with Sebring and Tate, and it’s likely that if he hung out with them on August 8, 1969, he would have been another tragic bullet point in the horrific story of the Manson family. McQueen didn’t make the dinner because he "ran into a chickie and decided to go off with her instead.” After hearing about what happened he started carrying a gun with him everywhere he went.
He Broke Charles Manson's Nose In A Fight Once
Hollywood was much smaller in 1969, which meant that if there were some hot cat on the scene everyone was going to meet him. Before Charles Manson went completely off his rocker he managed to rub elbows with plenty of musicians and actors, one of them being Steve McQueen. It’s just that he rubbed McQueen the wrong way. A few months prior to the Tate murders, Manson approached McQueen outside of his production studio with a script in hand. It’s not clear what words were exchanged between the two men, but McQueen didn’t care for Manson and the two got into a fight that ended with McQueen breaking the cult leader’s nose.
He Was A Pallbearer At Bruce Lee's Funeral
One of the greatest frenemy rivalries of all time took place between Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, two incredibly tough actors who didn’t take guff from anyone. The two men were extremely competitive with one another in every aspect of their lives - from their martial arts training to the parts they received, with Lee always playing catch up with McQueen. However, when Lee passed away in 1973 McQueen dropped any pretense of a rivalry and attended his friend’s funeral as a pallbearer. McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill explained the actor’s struggle with attending the funeral:
It was a very emotional funeral, but McQueen was the only guy that didn’t cry or show his emotions. But that’s who McQueen was. And even though he didn’t show much emotion at the funeral, I think it must have deeply impacted him, because there were a lot of friendships in his life where people did die… McQueen saw a lot of darkness in his life, and this was just one of those episodes.
He Was Demoted To Private By The Marines Until He Saved So Many Lives That He Was Assigned To Guard The Presidential Yacht
McQueen was never great at playing by the rules, and even when he was in the military he wasn’t the kind of person to fall in line and start doing push-ups. Whenever he gained any status in the military he would end up getting knocked down to private. At one point he took an unscheduled trip with a girlfriend for a couple of weeks, once the MPs caught up with McQueen he spent 41 days in the brig.
Even though McQueen was a handful in the military, he managed to do some good. While on an arctic exercise he saved the lives of five Marines by pulling them out of a tank before it fell through the ice. He was moved from arctic detail and moved to the honor guard where he patrolled President Truman’s yacht until he was honorably discharged in 1950.
Sinatra Wanted McQueen For 'Never So Few'
One of McQueen’s big breaks came from the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra. Before beginning production on Never So Few (1959), Sinatra removed Sammy Davis Jr. from the cast after Sammy supposedly made negative comments about the Ol' Blue Eyes during a radio interview. Whether or not that happened or if Sinatra was just being paranoid is unclear, but what we do know is that his part went to McQueen. Sinatra liked McQueen; he made sure that he looked good on camera and was taken care of in a role that earned him good reviews. What more could you want out of an early role?
He Loved Driving In His Movies
McQueen loved to collect cars, motorcycles, planes, you name it - but he didn’t just like driving them when he was at home. He took any chance he got to tear around in a car or on a motorcycle onscreen, and more often than not if a character was a driver then he took the role. He was such a good driver that he often performed his own stunts in films like Bullitt and The Great Escape, which saw him pulling off stuff that no actor would be able to do today aside from Tom Cruise or someone with that kind of pull. McQueen even used his own 650cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle in many films, the guy seriously just liked to ride.
McQueen Was Really Good Friends With James Garner
Even though McQueen was a loose cannon who liked to take off in one of his many sports cars and disappear to the desert for a week, he also had friends. One of his closest pals was James Garner, an actor whom he saw as his complete opposite in their odd couple. He explained:
I could see that Jim was neat around his place. Flowers trimmed, no papers in the yard... grass always cut. So to piss him off, I'd start lobbing empty beer cans down the hill into his driveway. He'd have his drive all spic 'n' span when he left the house, then get home to find all these empty cans. Took him a long time to figure out it was me.
He Exercised For Two Hours A Day
Clearly, McQueen was a total babe. But he wasn’t one of those guys who just woke up and showed up on set. For all of his hard-partying ways he knew that physical fitness was important. In order to stay in such great shape, he worked out for two hours a day seven days a week in sessions that included everything from weightlifting to running five miles and even martial arts.
McQueen studied Tang Soo Do from ninth-degree black belt Pat E. Johnson, and somehow he was able to do all of this while pounding beers and allegedly smoking weed every day. The guy was seriously a physical specimen like no other.
He Was An Avid User Of Marijuana
There are plenty of stories of McQueen’s notorious marijuana usage, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who smoked a little to calm down every once in a while - he reportedly smoked every day. Photographer William Claxton said that McQueen was a daily marijuana smoker which is wild when you think of how great he was at driving and pulling stunts. According to his biographer he wasn’t just toking up, he was also a fan of the nose candy, although that’s never been authenticated. The one thing we do know is that he really liked to party and could be a handful, he was arrested in Anchorage, Alaska in 1972 for driving while intoxicated.
McQueen Fought For Top Billing On 'The Towering Inferno'
By 1974 McQueen was a huge star and he wanted to be treated as such. Specifically, he wanted people to know that he was the top dog in whatever movie he was starring. He wanted top billing so bad that he fought Paul Newman for the top spot in The Towering Inferno (1974), a bitter fight that had to be solved in the way the credits were arranged. Editors had to arrange the credits in a diagonal shape that technically gave McQueen and Newman top billing depending on how the title card was read. Aside from the diagonal arrangement of the credits, McQueen was mentioned first in the credits, something that gave him one more notch on his belt.
He Stole Scenes And Got On Yul Brynner's Nerves While Filming 'The Magnificent Seven'
Steve McQueen wasn’t a huge star when he was cast in The Magnificent Seven (1960), and because of that, he had to go to extreme measures to make sure he was noticed by the audience. Fans of the film know that he chews the scenery throughout the film by shaking around a shotgun, dusting his hat, and filling up the screen with big gestures.
Co-star Yul Brynner wasn’t happy with McQueen’s big timing and he complained about the young gun to anyone who would listen. McQueen didn’t care, he knew what he had to do. He said:
We didn’t get along. Brynner came up to me one day in front of a lot of people and grabbed me by the shoulder. He was mad about something. I don’t know what. He doesn’t ride well and knows nothing about guns so maybe he thought I represented a threat. I was in my element. He wasn’t. Anyway, I don’t like people pawing at me. I said, ‘Take your hands off me.’ When you work in a scene with Yul, you’re supposed to stand perfectly still ten feet away. Well, I don’t work that way. So, I protected myself.
McQueen Intentionally Injured Himself So He Could Appear In 'The Magnificent Seven'
When McQueen heard about The Magnificent Seven he wanted to be in the movie more than anything, there was just one problem. At the time McQueen was contracted to star in the TV western Wanted: Dead or Alive, and try as he might he couldn’t convince his agent to get him out of the show. McQueen went to the show’s producers and asked them to personally let him out of the contract but they said no dice. McQueen took his career into his own hands and crashed a Cadillac into the side of the bank which supposedly gave him whiplash. Thanks to the accident he got out of his contract and was able to star in the film.
Steve McQueen Had An Enormous Collection Of Cars, Bikes, And Planes
Steve McQueen loved hitting the blacktop more than anything else. He liked to tear through the desert and drive like a maniac in public races or just by himself. He had a car for every occasion, and his collection rivaled a car dealership. With more than 100 vehicles to his name, he could drive a new vehicle every day and never get bored. His son told GQ:
When my dad passed away he had 38 cars and about 140 motorcycles, not to mention he had a few planes too – World War Two vintage biplanes that he liked. I know he was fond of Porsche. One day he’d be driving a Porsche and the next day we’re in a 1953 Chevvy truck. He had different tastes.
His Personal Style Was Unplanned, And Perfect
To put it frankly, Steve McQueen looked cool. While some stars had a personal style that was clearly cultivated and worked out, McQueen’s look was simply McQueen - no fuss, no muss. He wore whatever he had around and didn’t care about whether or not he looked good. Most of his style was based around jeans and a shirt, and he was rarely seen in anything fancy. His son explained:
He would just get dressed in a quick second and always look great. I never saw him once get out of something to get into something else ... He would always say: ‘Just make sure you’re clean son. Just make sure everything’s clean’.
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