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Steve McQueen Was

The King Of Cool

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The Hollywood Legend — Who Would Have Been 85-Years-Old This Week If Cancer Hadn’t Dimmed His Star — May Have Last Appeared On Film More Than Three Decades Ago, But His Status As An Intransigent Rebel Persists


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 23, 2015 — Steve McQueen would’ve been 85 this week if cancer from asbestos exposure hadn’t killed him in 1980 at the age of 50. Yet, somehow it’s hard to fathom the iconic Hollywood star growing into venerable old age.

McQueen, ever the outlier with his self-assured, unflappable poise, oozed “cool.” He was a master at underplaying scenes while riveting attention directly on his performance – pretty much the definition of that elusive commodity called “star quality.” In The Magnificent Seven (his first breakout hit in 1960), McQueen practically stole the buckboard out from under presumptive star Yul Brynner by adding such scene-stealing idiosyncrasies as shaking a shotgun round before loading it and gauging the intensity of the sun via his hat rim – a case of very little action that telegraphed much more to the character.

In the years that followed, McQueen solidified his legend as an intransigent rebel in movies that – in the intervening decades – haven’t dated one iota.

The Sand Pebbles (his only Oscar nomination), Bullitt (featuring perhaps the greatest car chase in movie history), The Thomas Crown Affair (a suave, playboy McQueen for a change), The Great Escape (with inarguably the greatest motorcycle chase in movie history), Junior Bonner (along with J.W. Coop, the most realistic film ever made about the professional rodeo circuit), Papillion, The Getaway … the roster is long and illustrious.

And McQueen’s charismatic domination wasn’t contained to his movies. He stole more than scenes; he also stole wives. During the filming of The Getaway in 1972, Ali MacGraw, McQueen’s costar in the film, left her husband Robert Evans who was head of production at Paramount Pictures for McQueen whom she married the next year.

When a star shimmers so brightly – in McQueen’s case radiating at supernova levels – it’s doubtless hard to hide that light under a bushel (not that McQueen ever made the remotest attempt to do so except perhaps to his racecar and rodeo compadres who he respected tremendously). And just maybe to one actor in particular.

Years ago during some desultory interview we were having with Disney leading man Dean Jones about a film project now forgotten, he let slip that for years when he lived in Los Angeles he’d go dirt-biking on the weekends with McQueen in the Mojave Desert. Jones told us that there probably wasn’t a rock or cactus clump that he and Steve hadn’t ridden over or been pitched into.

“We’d end the days drinking beer, nursing our abrasions and laughing about our near misses,” he said.

We’ve always gotten a chuckle over that picture; the odd coupling of Walt Disney’s perennial G-rated leading man (The Love Bug, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo) laying a patch with one of filmdom’s most iconoclastic anti-heroes and loners. The idea that two men as polar opposite from each other on the acting and charisma spectrum as you can get, burned rubber (and some jumping cholla) out in the barren wastes north of L.A., is a tremendous kick.

And if you ask us, it makes McQueen even cooler!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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