Acton Institute Powerblog

The two lives of Steve McQueen

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The iconic star of such thrilling films as Bullitt and The Great Escape finally grew tired of the Hollywood life. His second life will undoubtedly prove more stunning that the first.

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Someone once said of Steve McQueen (1930–80) that his range as an actor was deep but not very broad. All right, I admit it—I said it in my 2001 biography of the all-American star who still looms over Hollywood like a sort of male equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, more than 40 years after his untimely death. I would propose that McQueen’s best films still stand head and shoulders above most of the dark, grim, plot-free, self-indulgent dramas or addled so-called comedies with which we’re bombarded today, and also that, on second thought, his range was altogether more varied, even idiosyncratic, than I once thought.

Many of us are familiar with the likes of The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), The Towering Inferno (1974), and the other big-budget romps that made McQueen a fixture in American life. His best films are both entertaining and uplifting, and united by a clear moral vision: Good will prevail over evil, but it’s going to take a while. As proof of this refreshingly nuanced approach to his craft, I offer two McQueen vehicles—Junion Bonner and The Getaway—released within a few months of each other 50 years ago, in one of which he plays a fading cowboy, and in the other a psychotic bank robber, and in both of which he comes across as a laconic, brooding loner emphatically on the side of the downtrodden and not of the ruling elite. Some things change. Some things don’t.

It wasn’t just that McQueen stretched himself as an actor in these two roles. Without descending too far into the briar-patch of psychiatry, perhaps they also represent the warring halves of the man himself. On the one hand, McQueen was a tough, scrappy exponent of the principle of doing it to the other guy before he did it to you. And yet he was also known to have a reflective, even philosophical side, preferring to spend his last years living not in Hollywood but on a suburban ranch where he flew vintage biplanes and collected Americana. McQueen’s friend and stunt double Bud Ekins—the man who performed the iconic motorbike scenes in The Great Escape—was one of the few invited to visit him there.

“I found Steve sitting in a rocker on his back porch, drinking out of a jam jar. In the field all around him were rows of antique gas pumps, barber’s poles, chairs, benches, battered old neon signs, and a huge beaten-up camper with a peace-sign painted on the door. There was also a shed with about two hundred jukeboxes, cash registers, and old-fashioned telephone booths. Steve told me he was done with all the phonies in Hollywood and wanted to open an antique store,” Ekins recalled.

Which brings us to Junior Bonner, an elegiac tale about an aging rodeo star struggling to survive in a cynical, Vietnam-era America he barely recognizes. Set in rural Arizona, it’s a bit like looking through the pinhole of a scenic souvenir charm at some cash-strapped 1950s county fair—the malfunctioning rides, the dusty streets, the red checkered tablecloth dresses, and the half-lit neon signs. Everything is antiquated, more than slightly shabby.

The forlorn mood is what director Sam Peckinpah (significantly dialing down the action from his Straw Dogs, let alone The Wild Bunch) captures so brilliantly in Bonner. Not much actually happens. The eponymous hero returns home for the annual Independence Day parade and rodeo. Not all is well with the family he left behind years earlier. Junior’s dippy brother is selling off their land for mobile homes, and his elderly parents, played by the wonderful Robert Preston and Ida Lupino, have long since reached a state of passive coexistence—at least until they settle on the back porch one hot afternoon, start sharing some memories, and, in a moment that’s both tender and funny, furtively sneak off upstairs. There’s nothing much to do around town except to go to bed, which explains the desperate and lonely adulteries and occasional geriatric fumblings that pass for sex. Maybe it wasn’t all strictly speaking autobiography for McQueen; he works here with bulls, not with his preferred real-life props of bikes and cars, but in its low-key way the movie has a reverential, gentle feel for the rural Midwest where its star grew up (at least before being committed to a California reform school at the age of 16), a thin strip of wilderness still clinging on.

True, Junior Bonner didn’t have much by way of a conventional plot. But it had McQueen. Things were obviously changing in 1972, both for America as a whole and its moviegoing public. People in that era still wanted heroes. But they no longer wanted monochrome ones like John Wayne and Henry Fonda. They liked it if their stars were a shade neurotic, with a bit of history. Clint Eastwood fitted this bill in his poncho-wearing, gunslinger days, and so here did McQueen. Few other leading men could have combined the same impeccable timing, virility, and quizzical “What now?” expression, and in general made more of a thin script, than he did in Bonner. Those few stray “yeps” and “nopes” shouldn’t have added up to much of a performance, but that came from the face. Junior and his world were part of the same peeling exterior—you knew even before McQueen spoke that his character had suffered. “If you really want to learn about acting,” Peckinpah would say, “watch Steve’s eyes in close-up.” Junior Bonner was a true dramatic movie and one of McQueen’s finest hours.

And now, as they say, for something completely different. Just five months later, McQueen starred in Peckinpah’s more characteristically gore-spattered The Getaway, a film which if nothing else spectacularly makes the point about his versatility as an actor. Indeed, it was almost as if he were one of the many Los Angeles–area residents already to have had their identities stolen. Perhaps it was an old platinum credit card, carelessly tossed in a Beverly Hills trashcan, which allowed the criminals to strike, or perhaps the purchase over the phone of a new leather jacket or racing helmet of the sort McQueen collected. Whatever it was, it’s difficult otherwise to reconcile the laconic, sweet, slightly ditzy cowboy of Junior Bonner with the black-suited, pre–Reservoir Dogs criminal psychopath, so full of spit, vinegar, and vengeance, on display here.

Basically, the movie’s the story of an imprisoned master thief, Carter “Doc” McCoy (McQueen), whose wife conspires for his release on condition they rob a bank in Texas. The heist, like all the best heists, comes with a double-cross, and the McCoys are forced to flee for Mexico with the police and criminals in hot pursuit. Anyone familiar with the plot of 2007’s No Country for Old Men need only think of that same yarn, with added love interest (Mrs. McCoy being played, in a further romantic twist, by the young Ali MacGraw, then married to polyamorous studio chief Robert Evans but soon to become the real-life Mrs. Steve McQueen), to get some of the flavor.

As usual on these occasions, the purity of artistic expression in The Getaway was matched by more narrowly material considerations on its principal’s part. At that point in his career, McQueen hadn’t had a commercial hit for five years, and among other outstanding debts he now owed the IRS close to $2 million. The economic pressure might have helped stir him from his normal pose of languid indifference to the demands of his career. In general, Hollywood’s leading box office star of the day hated to work, on the basis that, as he once confided, “If you don’t do a movie, you can’t be blamed for it,” and subjected himself to the ordeal only in the gravest financial exigency. The one-two punch of tax liens and his recently discarded first wife’s alimony demands surely impressed on him that he needed a smash.

“It made some dough,” McQueen duly reported a year later, when The Getaway’s opening take was added up. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Nor, however, was it a small deal, with eventual global receipts of $35 million, or some $200 million in today’s money. McQueen’s oft-stated first rule while actually on set was “anything for the picture,” including long rehearsals, multiple takes, unflinching realism (when called upon to hit one of his female adversaries, played by Sally Struthers of All in the Family fame, the actress told me, “Steve went straight for my kisser and knocked me out cold”), making for an end-product people admired not so much for the surface plot as the gory undercoat to it. In The Getaway’s climactic scene, all the surviving gang members converge on a flophouse in downtown El Paso for an apocalyptic shoot-out that made The Wild Bunch look like My Fair Lady: literally rivers of blood. There was no second rule. It’s possible there was also a vestigial touch of the actor’s sense-memory of his impecunious childhood involved. After a take that called for McQueen to lie in bed with $25,000 in real cash, the movie’s prop master found $250 still concealed on his person as he was leaving the stage. “Steve had the stuff in his mouth, his armpits, behind his legs … I was shaking him down while Ali was laughing her head off over this cheap movie star who was trying to steal money.”

In 1979, McQueen was diagnosed with terminal cancer and checked into a shady Mexican clinic run by an ex-dentist and organic-food salesman named Willian Kelley, and actually seemed to be getting better until he succumbed to a heart attack following a relatively minor medical procedure. Kelley, who himself later died of cancer, told me that the official “complications from surgery” version of events was a sham and that in fact “someone with access to Steve’s room” had deliberately injected him with a blood-clotting solution to induce a cardiac arrest. When I asked Kelley why anyone would do so, he replied that it was because McQueen was recovering under his care, and his survival would have been seen as an intolerable threat to the “mainstream cancer-treatment racket.”

Before Mexico, however, there was the ranch and Americana, and what was perhaps a surprising move to most. McQueen began attending worship services at the nearby Ventura Missionary Church, where he one day introduced himself—as though his face might not already be familiar—to the pastor, Leonard De Witt, informing him that he was sick and tired of Hollywood, had “led a godless life,” and was ready to be born again. Unsurprisingly, some of the actor’s old gang had a cynical interpretation of what followed. By then, the theory went, McQueen already knew he was ill; he would never have set foot in a church except as a kind of insurance policy. But set against this, there’s the testimony of De Witt himself, no soft touch when it comes to character judgment, who told me: “Steve made a genuine conversion. Christianity was all of a piece with his leaving Hollywood and searching for new values. That’s what we talked about for literally hours on end.”

The guy who tried to walk off with $250 of studio cash plastered to his frame was also capable of great generosity. “I believe that spiritual side to him was always there,” insisted Pastor De Witt, “and he was a living example of practical Christianity long before I met him, anonymously buying thousands of dollars’ worth of new sports equipment for schools and youth clubs, leaving expensive gifts at peoples’ doors in the middle of the night, and then giving them that ‘Who, me?’ look if they asked him about them.” De Witt summed it up this way: “Most of us are really two people, if not more. But the split in personality was unusually wide in McQueen’s case. You could even use the word schizophrenic. There was the tough guy, obviously, and just below that there was an endearingly vulnerable, sweet-natured kid signaling wildly to be let out. I think you can see both sides of Steve at work long before the day he knocked on my office door and asked to be baptized.”

Finally, Junior Bonner and The Getaway represent the artistic twin hemispheres of the McQueen universe, linked by his peculiar gift for inhabiting a role in front of the camera. Even when the script sags in parts, he imparts a certain dynamism and vibrancy to his mildewed character in the former film, and a palpable air of coiled menace that distinguishes a plot that otherwise has all the dramatic depth of an arcade game in the latter. The next time some flip biographer tries to say McQueen’s acting range was deep but not very broad, he or she should watch these two back to back, and repent. I hereby do so.

Christopher Sandford

Christopher Sandford is a British-born writer who now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest. He's the author of many books, including Union Jack, a bestselling account of John F. Kennedy's special relationship with the United Kingdom.