One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.
In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.
Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.
But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).
McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.
McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.
The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:
“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”
(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).
Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.
When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven
I just wanna drive my beautiful machine
Up north on some Sonoma country road
With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”
– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”
McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.
In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).
At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.
The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.
Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.
The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).
Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.
The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.
Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.
McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.