Steve McQueen, Heroic Hollywood anti-hero

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s allure resides in his steely, blue-eyed gaze. Men see the guarded machismo they long to emulate; women see a man struggling to withstand life’s contradictions, and fall hopelessly in love. Some have said McQueen’s acting style was simply to open his eyes, with critics pointing out that as an actor McQueen never seemed to do much of anything, while his defenders admired the effortlessness of his performance.

Film historian David Shipman once said that “Steve McQueen can act with the back of his head. He can act without doing anything. His voice isn’t remarkable and he shows no sign of versatility. But versatility, where he is concerned, is immaterial. He has only to appear on the screen to fill it.”

McQueen was at his professional peak in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, one of Hollywood’s most successful, if not well-behaved, leading men. He made too few good movies—among them are The Magnificent Seven (1960), which marked the beginning of his legitimate stardom, The Great Escape (1963), which made him an American movie hero, The Sand Pebbles (1966), his only work nominated for an Academy Award, and Bullitt (1968), which showed the definitive McQueen heroic anti-hero and established a new genre expanded on by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry series and others.

McQueen was born Terrence Steven McQueen in 1930 in Slater, Missouri. When McQueen was six months old, his father abandoned the family, and McQueen’s mother could not raise him alone. He spent his first nine years on his great uncle’s farm. At nine, he went to live with his mother and stepfather in Indianapolis and Los Angeles, where he became a poor student and began “a little stealin’.” At 13, he was placed in a reform school, and his education ended 18 months later when he was released before completing the ninth grade. McQueen went into the Marines, where he had the equivocal experiences of winning a presidential citation for saving lives during a tank exercise and spending six weeks in the brig for going AWOL, being demoted from private first class to private “about seven times” in his three year hitch.

Steve McQueen The Great Escape

Steve in the iconic movie The Great Escape.

After an honorable discharge, McQueen went to New York where an actress friend suggested he take up the profession. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and with Uta Hagen, making his stage debut in a Yiddish theatrical production. His career consisted of small stage roles and the occasional television appearance until he replaced Ben Gazzara in the Broadway hit “A Hatful of Rain” in 1956. Two years and a couple of small film roles later, McQueen landed in Hollywood as the star of Wanted: Dead or Alive, in which he played bounty hunter Josh Randall and earned a national audience. Ironically, his last film was The Hunter (1980), in which he again played a bounty hunter. It was his last film before dying of a heart attack after a cancer operation.

Key Movies
An Enemy of the People (1980)
Tom Horn (1980)
The Hunter (1980)
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Papillon (1973)
Junior Bonner (1972)
The Getaway (1972)
Le Mans (1971)
On Any Sunday (1971)
The Reivers (1969)
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Bullitt (1968)
Nevada Smith (1966)
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965)
The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
The Great Escape (1963)
Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)
Soldier in the Rain (1963)
Hell Is for Heroes (1962)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Never So Few (1959)
The Blob (1958)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)