Bette Davis once asked Terence Steven McQueen, “Why do you ride those motorcycles like that and maybe kill yourself?” He replied, “So I won’t forget I’m a man and not just an actor.” In movie after movie–The Great Escape, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Bullitt–McQueen suggested that the terse tough guy with the tight lips and the dangerous squint did not suddenly become someone else when the cameras stopped rolling.
Everything about Steve McQueen was minimal: the hair (buzz cuts), the clothing (taut leather and denim), the body (trim, compact), the words (allegedly because he had a problem memorizing scripts). Strangely erotic to women and role-model-worthy to men, he represented the American male at its most proudly dysfunctional: the sexual conquistador/loner whose true passion was reserved for his own company–and the open road.
McQueen was linked to a gaggle of infamous beauties–Ann-Margret, Jacqueline Bisset, Faye Dunaway, Ali MacGraw, Sharon Tate–and he took his role as avatar of sexual freedom seriously. “Steve McQueen was notorious for orgies,” Robert Mitchum once said. “Honest-to-God Roman-type sex orgies. The guy always needed an audience.” The man who did more to popularize the cool of cigarettes than any performer since Marlene Dietrich died of lung cancer at the age of 50.
In His Own Words: “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”