They said he could act with the back of his head. No dialogue or frills required—his mere presence loomed larger than life in every shot. Put him next to some of the finest actors in the business, and he would undercut every one of them simply by being in the frame. His piercingly distinctive blue eyes were set in a rough-hewn, unconventionally handsome face that rarely betrayed strong emotion. His smallest physical gesture was precisely calculated and gracefully executed. You couldn’t best him, you couldn’t buy him, you couldn’t touch him. He was the King of Cool. He was Steve McQueen.
He was the definition of a self-made man, working his way up from a horrific childhood of neglect, paternal abuse and a tough life on the streets to the gold-plated life of a Hollywood icon. He once said that he often had nightmares of everything he had gained being suddenly taken away from him. A man of many paradoxes, he was both humble and defiant, stingy and generous, gentle and violent, self-assured and insecure. Perhaps it was director Norman Jewison (Fiddler On the Roof) who summed him up best: “He was a loner, and he was troubled, and he was looking for a father.”
Everyone had a Steve McQueen story. His superior officers in the Marines could have told you how he spent 41 days in the brig for resisting arrest when caught AWOL. The young men at the Boys’ Republic where Steve had spent some of his teenage years could tell you how he regularly came back and visited the school after becoming famous, personally responding to every boy’s letters and financially supporting the school until his death. Magnificent Seven co-star Yul Brynner could tell you how McQueen stole scene after scene by deliberately throwing in extra, distracting bits of business. Bruce Lee could have told you about a hair-raising ride in Steve’s Porsche that had Lee cowering in the foot-well (and threatening to kill Steve when they stopped, causing a fearful McQueen to hit the gas again and refuse to slow down until Lee promised not to hurt him).
He was known to say that he lived for himself and answered to no one. Asked once if he believed in God, the actor brazenly replied, “I believe in me. God will be number one as long as I’m number one.” That philosophy informed much of his life. All the money, cars, alcohol, drugs and women that a man could ever want were at his fingertips, and it was only a matter of time before he became addicted in every way. Professional successes only inflated his ego. Wild experimentation with substance abuse drove him to the edge of mental stability. Though he tried to be a good father to the son and daughter of his first wife, his addictions, serial womanizing, jealousy and violence burned through two marriages.
By the late 1970s, his star was fading. The washed-up, aging characters he portrayed reflected where he himself was in his life and career. He felt empty and unsatisfied. He began turning down huge offers and retreating into his own private shell. He was also developing health problems with his lungs. Doctors told him he should move, so in the spring of 1979, he left Malibu for the small, quiet town of Santa Paula, where he ultimately married his third wife Barbara Minty. For a period of time, they lived in an airport hangar which he had filled with his entire motorcycle collection. He bought a yellow Stearman bi-plane and learned to fly it, quickly mastering the craft as he had mastered motor racing before.
The pilot who taught him was a man in his early 60s by the name of Sammy Mason. Self-described as cranky and difficult to get along with, he became fast friends with McQueen. As they shared long hours in the air, talking together about the meaning of life, Steve sensed that there was something different about him. The more time they spent together, the more he wanted to know what Mason’s secret was. One day he asked him outright. Mason sat down with the aging actor and explained what, or rather who, had made the difference in his life. The answer, he said, was Jesus Christ.
McQueen was intrigued… and so should you! To keep on reading…