Courtesy Marshall Terrill
A Missouri-native Bad Boy
All the girls wanted to date him, and all the boys wanted to be him; but this quintessential bad boy was just trying to find his way. Many will recognize his face from the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive or from movie roles in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape; however, Steve McQueen’s roots were planted in small-town Missouri.
Born in 1930 near Indianapolis to Slater-native Jullian Crawford McQueen, Steve was abandoned by his father before his first birthday. His mother eventually returned to Slater in 1933, and it was there that Steve lived with his grandparents and then his great uncle, Claude Thomson, on his farm just outside of town until 1944.
Throughout Steve’s childhood, Jullian tried to establish a stable life for herself and intermittently brought Steve to live with her. When he was in Indianapolis, however, he ran with a bad crowd and began to get in trouble for minor acts of juvenile delinquency. But Janice Sutton, his grade school teacher at the one-room Orearville School near Slater, remembers him as a smart aleck but not a real troublemaker. He wore a red baseball cap to school every day.
When Steve was 14, his mother took him away from Slater and his great uncle’s farm for the last time. She had married a man by the name of Berry, and the three of them moved to Los Angeles. After Steve rebelled against her and his stepfather, Jullian placed him at the Boys Republic School in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino, according to McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill. There, too, Steve initially rebelled, running away a couple of times. Eventually, he responded positively to the consistent pattern of daily life at the school. He was even elected to the student government at the institution. Although he was there fewer than two years, the experience was so important to him that he repeatedly visited there after he became an international film star, and he left a sizable donation to the school in his will.
After Steve left Boys Republic, having tried his hand at several occupations from carny to logger to seaman—he even claimed to have worked for a time as a “towel boy” at a bordello in the Dominican Republic—at the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1947, where he was assigned the job of tank driver. Cliff Anderson of Liberty was a sergeant who bunked across the room from Steve when they were both stationed at Quantico, Virginia. He remembers Steve was always the last one out of bed in the morning, and Cliff covered for McQueen several times when he returned late from his visits to a girlfriend in Baltimore.
Despite the shenanigans, his years in the Marine Corps, like his time at Boys Republic, instilled a degree of self-discipline in him and broadened his perspective on the world. After leaving the military in 1950, Steve went to the Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City. He worked at several jobs there, buying and driving motorcycles and sports cars around the village, earning the nickname “The Desperado,” Terrill says. He worked in a garage where he serviced James Dean’s motorcycle, before Steve himself had begun to study acting.
Throughout his life, Steve’s fascination with machines never waned. As a child, he was fascinated with a tricycle his uncle gave him as well as the other machinery on the Thomson farm. He helped build a hot rod from pieces of other vehicles before he was old enough to drive. He became a serious motorcycle and race car driver while he developed his acting career. He and a partner competed in the twelvehour Sebring endurance race in 1970, coming in a close second to Mario Andretti in a car that had less horsepower than Andretti’s. He once said he was not sure whether he was an actor who raced or a racer who acted.
At one crucial point, Steve was considering the options of either learning the trade of installing bathroom tile or studying acting as a friend had suggested. He later said he chose acting school because he thought he would meet more girls there, Terrill says. But some of the people who knew him as a child in Slater say Steve talked even then about becoming an actor someday. Steve earned a scholarship to Herbert Berghoff Drama School, a well-established acting school, and worked hard to learn his craft. He began to play minor off-Broadway roles and eventually took over the lead on Broadway in the play A Hatful of Rain, replacing Ben Gazzara. He traveled the country playing supporting roles before returning to New York City, where in 1956, he met actress Neile Adams. She went to Los Angeles to audition for a film role, and Steve followed her, proposing marriage. Neile devoted much of her energy to supporting the development of Steve’s career. Her manager got him the part of bounty hunter Josh Randall on the network television western series, Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Steve’s career took off when he was cast as one of The Magnificent Seven, along with Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. His status as a star was cemented when he played the iconoclastic Capt. Virgil Hilts, the “cooler king,” in the World War II drama The Great Escape, in which his character made a daring leap on a motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence. Throughout his career, Steve starred opposite several well-known leading ladies—Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld, Suzanne Pleshette, Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset—as well as actors Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman. He and Neile had two children: Chad, who followed in his father’s footsteps, both as a racer and an actor, and Terry, their daughter, who died in 1998. Chad’s son, Steve McQueen, named after his famous grandfather, is now an actor and appeared in the cable television series Everwood.
Steve and Neile divorced in 1972, and Steve subsequently met and married actress Ali MacGraw. Steve and Ali split up in 1976. Steve then met and fell in love with supermodel Barbara Minty, whom he later married. During the next few years, Steve and Barbara traveled the country indulging Steve’s passion for collecting antique motorcycles and biplanes. Both Barbara and Steve became licensed biplane pilots, and they moved to a house in Santa Paula, California, north of Los Angeles. After a four-year break from filmmaking, Steve and his company, Solar Productions, produced the last two films of his career: Tom Horn, based on a true story of the Old West, and The Hunter, in which he played a bounty hunter, a modern-day version of his television western character.
In 1980, Steve was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a virulent form of lung cancer, which often results from exposure to asbestos. At the age of 50, he died in a treatment center in Mexico. His remains were cremated and his ashes spread over the Pacific Ocean from a biplane, just as he had instructed.