In the Sixties, The Rat Pack was the very essence of cool. Its impeccably-dressed, hard-partying members — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop — ruled the Vegas Strip, performing on stage at the legendary Sands hotel.
They also teamed up for a string of movies, such as Ocean’s 11, Sergeants 3, and Robin and the 7 Hoods. What some may not know is that the close-knit group of entertainers came close to welcoming a new (albeit younger) member into its ranks: Steve McQueen.
It all started with a candid 1959 interview that Sammy Davis Jr. gave to a Chicago radio station. Asked about his good friend Frank Sinatra, Davis replied, “I love Frank and he was the kindest man in the world to me when I lost my eye and wanted to kill myself. But there are many things that he does that there are no excuses for. Talent is not an excuse for bad manners. I don’t care if you are the most talented person in the world. It does not give you the right to step on people and treat them rotten. That is what Frank does, occasionally.”
Uh-oh. Word of Davis’s candid, though on-target, remarks got back to Sinatra, who, suffice to say, was hurt and not at all happy. He cut ties with Davis for several months, dropping him from the Rat Pack and from the cast of the upcoming movie, Never So Few. Sinatra had purchased the film rights to this caper about a U.S. military intelligence group stationed in Burma, fighting the Japanese during the second world war. The co-starring role would have netted Davis a nifty $75,000.
Instead, Sinatra tapped an up-and-coming actor by the name of Steve McQueen to play the part (at the bargain price of $25,000). McQueen at the time was primarily a TV actor, best-known for the small-screen western series.
McQueen and Sinatra bonded instantly and became pals on the set. Not all that surprising, really. The two men had a lot in common. Both came from hardscrabble beginnings (Sinatra was born in a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the Great Depression; McQueen spent time at the Boys Republic, a private all-boys school for troubled adolescents in Chino Hills, California), both had huge chips on their shoulders, and both were a fascinating mix of macho and marshmallow.
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They also shared a love of practical jokes, pranking each other with firecrackers and prop machine guns between takes. Sinatra took McQueen under his wing and often instructed the film’s director, John Eliot Sturges, to give close-ups to his charismatic co-star. According to Marc Elliot, author of Steve McQueen: A Biography, the young actor would earn the ultimate accolade: an invitation into Sinatra’s tight-knit circle of Rat Pack friends.
After filming wrapped on Never So Few, Sinatra wanted McQueen to appear in the next Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11, about a gang of casino thieves trying to pull off a Vegas heist. Perhaps he believed McQueen could give The Clan a youthful dose of cool. But it wasn’t to be. McQueen was cautioned that he might hurt his chances of becoming a leading man if he was perceived as a member of Frank’s posse.
He turned the film down, and the role of Tony Bergdorf, one of Danny Ocean’s eleven buddies, went instead to Richard Conte. Sinatra, most likely hurt, would never again approach McQueen about a role, though the young actor’s instincts proved correct.
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McQueen would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars of the 60s and 70s, with box office hits like The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Papillon.