Called “The King of Cool”, his “anti-hero” persona, developed at the height of the counterculture of the 1960’s, made him a top box-office draw of the 1960’s and 1970’s. McQueen received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles. His other popular films include The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon,, as well as the all-star ensemble films The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Towering Inferno.
Steven McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana at St. Francis Hospital. His father, William Terence McQueen, a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, left McQueen’s mother, Julia Ann (née Crawford), six months after meeting her. Julia allegedly was an alcoholic and sometime prostitute. Unable to cope with caring for a small child, she left him with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Slater, Missouri, in 1933. As the Great Depression set in shortly thereafter, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian’s brother Claude at his farm in Slater. McQueen was raised as a Catholic.
In 1947, McQueen joined the United States Marine Corps and was promoted to private first class and assigned to an armored unit. Initially, he reverted to his prior rebelliousness and was demoted to private seven times. He took an unauthorized absence by failing to return after a weekend pass expired, staying with a girlfriend for two weeks until the shore patrol caught him. He resisted arrest and spent 41 days in the brig. After this, he resolved to focus his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines’ discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was assigned to the honor guard, responsible for guarding then US President Harry Truman’s yacht. McQueen served until 1950 when he was honorably discharged. He later said he had enjoyed his time in the Marines
In 1952, with financial assistance provided by the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Purportedly, the future “King of Cool” delivered his first dialogue on a theater stage in a 1952 play produced by Yiddish theater star Molly Picon. McQueen’s character spoke one brief line: “Alts iz farloyrn.” (“All is lost.“). During this time, he also studied acting with Stella Adler in whose class he met Gia Scala.
In 1974, he became the highest-paid movie star in the world, although he did not act in films again for four years. McQueen was combative with directors and producers, but his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and racecar enthusiast. When he had the opportunity to drive in a movie, he performed many of his own stunts, including some of the car chase in Bullitt and the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. Although the jump over the fence in The Great Escape was done by Bud Ekins for insurance purposes, McQueen did have considerable screen time riding his 650cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle. It was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen. At one point, using editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike. Around half of the driving in Bullitt was performed by Loren Janes
On November 7, 1980, McQueen died of cardiac arrest at 3:45 a.m. at the Juárez clinic, 12 hours after surgery to remove or reduce numerous metastatic tumors in his neck and abdomen. He was 50 years old. According to the El Paso Times, McQueen died in his sleep.