Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Happy 80th, Mr. McQueen

Today there are going to be many tributes to Steve Mcqueen. He would be 80 years old if he hadn't been stricken in 1980 by mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer almost exclusively attributed to asbestos exposure. So, here's a quick biography and a few interesting facts. Steve Mcqueen as we know him was actually born Terrence Steven McQueen on 24 March 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. Abandoned by his stunt pilot father, Mcqueen was sent to his maternal grandparents by his alcholic mother to live in Slater, Missouri. At the age of 8, Mcqueen was taken back by his mother to live in Los Angeles. This period was marked by familial unrest that no doubt contributed to his rebelliousness and involvement in petty crime. At the insistence of his stepfather, his mother sent him to the California Junior Boys Republic where he began to turn his life around.

Incorrigible even at the age of 42
1972 DUI mugshot in Alaska

At 16, McQueen left reform school to meet up with his mother then living in Greenwich Village. The reunion didn't last long and he left to the Dominican Republic as merchant mariner. Tremendously indisciplined, he was unable to fulfill that committment and found himself in Texas wandering from job to job working as a towel boy in a brothel, a carnie, a roughneck, and a lumberjack until his enlistment in the marines in 1947. His military career started rather inauspiciously with multiple reductions in rank and 41 days in the brig for being AWOL. That event provided the motivation for him to get his life in order and he developed into a model marine to the point of being assigned to an honor guard aboard President Truman's yacht. Upon discharge, Mcqueen used the GI Bill and the winnings from motorcycle racing to fund acting lessons and the rest is history.

Steve McQueen as Bullitt

While his filmography is well known, the roles he turned down are quite surprising. McQueen decided not to star in Ocean's Eleven, Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, The French Connection, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind after telling Steven Spielberg he couldn't cry on cue. The issue with Butch Cassidy was an inability to solve who would get top billing with Paul Newman.

So why do we love Steve McQueen so much? Our collective nostalgia resides in what McQueen represents. He embodies those manly virtues that we cherish and so rarely find especially in many of the new breed of actors. McQueen was a man of principle and conviction. He was a diehard Republican and supported the Vietnam War when both positions were extremely unpopular amongst the Hollywood set. McQueen was also very patriotic carrying the flag at the International Six Days Trials and hanging a giant American flag from his house when he found out he was on Nixon's enemies list. Tremendously generous, he never forgot those who helped him. His acting contracts were considered demanding to the extent that he requested bulk items such personal hygeine articles and jeans which he quietly donated to the reform school he attended when he was young. He frequently returned to the California Junior Boys Republic to encourage the young men; he even played pool there. His motorsports exploits are legion harkening back to an era of the true gentleman racer. He was a physical fitness fanatic despite his drinking and smoking. A martial arts master, McQueen was one of Bruce Lee's pallbearers with Chuck Norris. Exremely ingenious, McQueen even had two patents for a racing bucket seat and a transbrake. In short, Steve McQueen was a modern renaissance man.

Here is little gallery of Steve McQueen in action:

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