In the early years of Neile Adams and McQueen together, she was already a famous actress and he wasn’t, but his cool, rebellious image eventually shot him to the zenith of Hollywood stardom. To understand Steve McQueen and his appeal to the audience of the time, you have to go back to see how his character was wrought from his upbringing. Born in 1930 in Indiana, he moved around often during his childhood. His father left when he was an infant. Julia Ann, his mother, intermittently worked as an escort.
His mom had a drinking problem. Because of her lifestyle and profession, she was unable to cope with childrearing. She left him with her parents on their Indiana farm. His uncle was so close to him, apparently, he gave him a watch engraved with: “To Steve — who has been a son to me.” Later, when his mother had remarried, he returned to live with her but didn’t adjust well. He clashed with his stepfather, who beat him. Steve McQueen left home to live on the streets when he was nine.
Julia Ann sent him back to live with her parents on their farm but brought him back when he was 12. At that point, she had divorced her second husband and remarried. When Steve met his stepfather, they “locked horns instantly,” he said. Julia Ann’s new husband beat her and Steve, who began to rebel. Eventually — after another stint at the farm, running away to join a circus, and returning to his rebellious ways — his stepfather convinced his mother to place Steve in a reform school for juvenile delinquents.
After a tough start, Steve McQueen eventually acclimated well to his environment. He left when he was 16 and worked in odd jobs. He joined the Marines in 1947, where he was demoted no less than seven times back to private for his rebelliousness. After being sent to the brig for 41 days for going AWOL, he embraced Marine discipline and became serious. He redeemed himself when he saved five Marines’ lives in Arctic exercise. Later, he was selected for the President’s honor guard. Honorably discharged in 1950, he later spoke highly of his service.
Getting Into Acting
After temporarily returning to a life of petty crime, he used money from the G.I. Bill to study acting in New York in 1952. His first speaking role was in a Yiddish theater production. At the same time, he would supplement income by competing in motorcycle races, getting exceptionally good at racing. His enthusiasm for motorcycles and racing led him to consider going professional. His calling was acting, though, for which he did his own stunts. “If I hadn’t made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood,” he said.
Before he became a movie star, Steve McQueen enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology for fine arts, which later merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research to for Carnegie Mellon University. Specifically, he studied drama there, still a well-respected faculty. McQueen was expelled in the most fitting way possible after he thought it would be a fun idea to ride his bike around in the fine arts building. We can’t recommend doing anything that gets you kicked out of school, but he knew how to get expelled in style.
Steve McQueen and Neile Adams met in 1956 and instantly became romantically linked. They had a lot in common, as both hailed from broken homes and overcame adversity on their way to success. Once they got married, she put her own career on the side and focused on her husband’s. This was in line with his traditional beliefs for a man and woman’s respective places in the world. What he expected of his partner in each of his marriages was for her to take up the role of housewife.
“Hold On Tight”
“I had never been on a motorcycle before,” Neile Adams said, recalling her 1956 first date with a then-unknown Steve McQueen. “He said, ‘Get on and hold on tight.’ I was a convent girl, so I was used to being told what to do. That was the start of our romance!” When they married later that year, she couldn’t have guessed his love of life’s thrills would end the marriage — and eventually lead him to his untimely passing.
He gradually accrued roles starring in B movies. 1958 was a big year for him, as he had his break out role in Wanted, Trackdowns as a bounty hunter. Thanks to the rebelliousness and no-nonsense attitude he projected on camera, he soon scored key roles that would cement his path to superstardom, such as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Costar Yul Brynner was reportedly furious that Steve McQueen was stealing the show, despite playing a taciturn character. His body language and subtle movements threatened to steal the audience’s attention away from Brynner.
One of Steve McQueen’s breakthrough roles was The Blob, a B-movie about an alien entity brought to Earth in a meteorite. McQueen didn’t have faith that the movie would make a lot of money, so he chose a flat-out rate to star in the film. Unfortunately for him, he refused a more favorable contract that would have awarded him a smaller salary but a percentage of the box office returns. The movie ended up being a surprise success and McQueen missed out on a fat paycheck.
Even though he got his first taste of stardom on TV, by 1960 he would focus solely on movies. By the end of the decade, he was one of Hollywood’s most successful stars. Some of his most iconic movies included The Great Escape, Bullit, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Getaway, and Papillon. By 1974, he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Once he got to the top, though, McQueen didn’t act again for another four years. Having amassed a fortune, he preferred a life of leisure, racing, and women.
One of Steve McQueen’s most notable roles was in Bullitt, where he did many of his own stunts. McQueen was so involved in the project that he even designed a bucket seat so he and his doubles would be kept safe in the Ford Mustang he rides around in for the film. This Mustang GT 390 was modified with a drive train that matched his driving style. He filed for the patent two years after the film was released, in 1971. The following year, the patent was approved and issued.
Great Roles Passed Up
Even though he acted in some of the biggest blockbusters of the day, he turned down numerous roles in movies that would go on to be major hits. This includes Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ocean’s 11, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, A Bridge Too Far, The French Connection, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many more. It was his at times abrasive personality and egotism that clashed with colleagues and made him miss these major roles.
Difficult On Set
“Perhaps because Steve had been abused all his life he suffered from acute paranoia,” McQueen biographer Darwin Porter said. “If everything was going right he felt something was wrong. If there was no trouble he had to stir some up.” Porter credits this self-destructive quality for issues in life, from marital woes to being difficult to work with. “In the end, fewer scripts came his way and he had burned too many bridges. He was on his way out in Hollywood when he contracted cancer,” Porter alleged.
Temptations Of The Times
As Steve McQueen’s success came with the ’60s, he was subject to the decade’s viewpoints and trends. Neile Adams discovered early in her marriage to McQueen that he was also partaking in the illicit substance abuse associated with the ’60s, but it was the ‘free love’ revolution of the decade that she blames for bringing down their marriage. “Everybody was having free love,” she said, which had a negative effect on their marriage. “If he could get free love out there, why would he work hard for it at home?”
One of his numerous lovers was allegedly Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family. Jay Sebring, one of the victims, had even invited him to Tate’s home the night of the violent tragedy, although he never made it. McQueen was going to go with one of his girlfriends but spent the night with her instead. His extramarital intimacy saved him from being murdered, therefore. In addition, the media reported that Charles Manson had it out for McQueen because the actor had rejected a screenplay Manson wrote.
The Martial Arts Connection
McQueen worked out for two hours a day, which led him to embrace the martial art of Tang Soo Do. This led to an association with Bruce Lee that would blossom into a meaningful friendship for both of them. The two were so close that when Lee died unexpectedly in 1973, Steve McQueen was a pallbearer at his funeral along with Chuck Norris. In fact, McQueen and Norris were also friends. Norris said that McQueen tried to convince him to get into acting before that.
His first affair was with actress Lita Milan in Never Love a Stranger, one of his early movies from back in 1957, according to Neile Adams. McQueen claimed he had affairs with all of his leading ladies. “Steve told me after the picture that he had had a fling with her,” said Adams. “She would be the first in a long line of ‘flings’ that would plague us — me — throughout our married life.” Things eventually got to a breaking point.
Steve McQueen “always brought me presents when he had his affairs with flower children,” Neile Adams said. Their kids were unaware that the marriage was increasingly problematic, Adams recalled. “As kids, they were never exposed to the troubles that Steve and I had,” she said. “Steve had been an abused child, and often that results in an abusive parent.” Even when this was coupled with McQueen’s substance abuse, though, “he always stopped short of harming the children.”
“His conquest of women behind his wife’s back probably averaged about a dozen women a week- it was a little less than two a day,” said a friend of Steve McQueen’s. According to Porter: “He had too strong an attachment to his mother, who never gave him the love he craved. She kept rejecting him. But he was little better. He demanded fidelity yet was never faithful. He cheated on first wife Neile almost daily and didn’t hide his affairs from her.”
Dissolution Of Marriage
“Yet the day she admitted one affair in their entire 15-year marriage he practically killed her,” Porter continued. “He could never forgive her and filed for divorce.” Indeed, Adams recalled that McQueen tricked her into admitting she had had her own fling. He pulled a weapon on her and physically abused her. “Surprisingly and thankfully, he slowly straightened himself up and gave me a look of such hatred that I cringed,” Adams recalled. The couple divorced in 1972.
It’s no coincidence that 1972 was the year he divorced, as this was also the year he starred alongside Ali MacGraw in The Getaway. Their meeting on set kicked off a passionate romance that culminated in a wedding the following year. Marshall Terrill, another biographer, said they were “complete opposites, so they clashed despite their unbelievable passion.” MacGraw later admitted: “I wish we had both grown old sober. There were wonderful days and dreadful days. I’m not a victim in any way.”
“His three wives took on different roles,” said Marshall Terrill, another biographer. Adams “gave him that emotional support he needed and was the mother to his children, and understood him the best, giving him a long leash. Unfortunately, their marriage ended at the end of the ‘60s,” which Terrill notes was due to his insatiable appetite for women and freedom. “Ali MacGraw represents pure, unabashed passion. That’s what he had with her, but she was a very smart woman who had her own ideas about things.”
They separated in 1977 as Steve McQueen continued his same old ways. Marshall Terrill said that “by the time he married Barbara Minty, he had completely mellowed out. Of course, she was almost 25 years younger than he was and he had done this 180. There was no fight left in him regarding women. He had found the woman that liked what he liked, that did what he did, that served him hand and foot. He was at his most peaceful with Barbara.”
There was a shadow hanging over his January 1980 wedding to model Barbara Minty, as McQueen had been diagnosed with mesothelioma months earlier. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos, a material he was constantly exposed to. It used to be found in the protective helmets and suits that racecar drivers wore, which he donned for both races and stunts. In addition to this later exposure, he was exposed to massive amounts of asbestos in the Marines, as it was used as flame-retardant insulation for pipes on naval ships.
Kelley’s Controversial Treatments
Faced with a shocking diagnosis that he had cancer, Steve McQueen opted for unconventional means to heal himself. He employed William Kelley, whose methods were later debunked. Treatments included coffee enemas and injections with living cells from livestock. McQueen paid Kelley $40,000 a month for these treatments, even though they didn’t help the cancer get any better. Kelley announced that McQueen was in remission, yet the superstar died three months later. Kelley was later exposed as a quack.
Steve McQueen died in his sleep on November 7, 1980, from heart failure after an operation to remove tumors on his neck and abdomen. “I think Dad was finding his way to go to the next place,” said his son, Chad. “I remember, he would wake me up at seven in the morning to go to church, which never happened before he got ill. So I think he was looking for peace.” He became a born again Christian in his last days and died clutching a Bible given to him by evangelist Billy Graham.
Motorcycle Hall Of Fame
Steve McQueen is so associated with motorcycles and racing in general that he was inducted into the American Motorcyclists Association’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. This is because even two decades after his death, McQueen was still remembered for his positive message about motorsports and racing. Throughout his career, he did much to promote and expose motorcycles for the general public. He even funded the 1971 documentary film On Any Sunday about motorcycle racing.
Unfortunately, he never was able to obtain that Mustang, even though he tried several times. Regardless, McQueen had collected some 130 motorcycles by the time of his death. The majority of these were auctioned off in the four years after his death, but some of his collection was sold later. His 1937 Crocker sold for $276,500 at auction in 2006. In that same auction, the iconic blue sunglasses from The Thomas Crown Affair were sold for $70,200. His Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso was sold a year later for a frightening $2.31 million.
While First Blood (the first movie in the Rambo series) came out, it was hard to imagine anybody except for Sylvester Stallone playing the part of John Rambo, but the fact is it almost went to Steve McQueen years before he passed away. The movie was based on a 1972 book by the same name by David Morrell. In those 10 years, no less than 18 screenplays were written and a who’s who of Hollywood leading men were scouted out, including McQueen. In the end, he was deemed too old.
“He was a misfit, a bad boy and a rebel just at the time when that became a cool image in Hollywood,” concludes Darwin Porter. Even though Porter claimed McQueen “never got over his childhood scars” and “wanted to be perceived as a macho man’s man,” others remember him differently. Marshall Terrill wrote that McQueen’s “lasting legacy is this individual who represents freedom, who represents pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. A street kid that made it big. And that’s sort of the American dream, isn’t it?”