He was the ultra-cool male film star of the 1960s, and rose from a troubled youth spent in reform schools to being the world’s most popular actor. Over 25 years after his untimely death from mesothelioma in 1980, Steve McQueen is still considered hip and cool, and he endures as an icon of popular culture.
McQueen was born in Beech Grove, Indiana, to Julia Ann (Crawford) and William Terence McQueen, a stunt pilot. His first lead role was in the low-budget sci-fi film The Blob (1958), quickly followed by roles in The St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959) and Never So Few (1959). The young McQueen appeared as Vin, alongside Yul Brynner, in the star-laden The Magnificent Seven (1960) and effectively hijacked the lead from the bigger star by ensuring he was nearly always doing something in every shot he and Brynner were in together, such as adjusting his hat or gun belt. He next scored with audiences with two interesting performances, first in the World War II drama Hell Is for Heroes (1962) and then in The War Lover (1962). Riding a wave of popularity, McQueen delivered another crowd pleaser as Hilts, the Cooler King, in the knockout World War II P.O.W. film The Great Escape (1963), featuring his famous leap over the barbed wire on a motorcycle while being pursued by Nazi troops (in fact, however, the stunt was actually performed by his good friend, stunt rider Bud Ekins).
McQueen next appeared in several films of mixed quality, including Soldier in the Rain (1963); Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) and Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965). However, they failed to really grab audience attention, but his role as Eric Stoner in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), alongside screen legend Edward G. Robinson and Karl Malden, had movie fans filling theaters again to see the ice-cool McQueen they loved. He was back in another Western, Nevada Smith (1966), again with Malden, and then he gave what many consider to be his finest dramatic performance as loner US Navy sailor Jake Holman in the superb The Sand Pebbles (1966). McQueen was genuine hot property and next appeared with Faye Dunaway in the provocative crime drama The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), next in what many consider his signature role, that of a maverick, taciturn detective in the mega-hit Bullitt (1968), renowned for its famous chase sequence through San Francisco between McQueen’s Ford Mustang and the killer’s black Dodge Charger.
Interestingly, McQueen’s next role was a total departure from the action genre, as he played Southerner Boon Hogganbeck in the family-oriented The Reivers (1969), based on the popular William Faulkner novel. Not surprisingly, the film didn’t go over particularly well with audiences, even though it was an entertaining and well made production, and McQueen showed an interesting comedic side of his acting talents. He returned to more familiar territory, with the race film Le Mans (1971), a rather self-indulgent exercise, and its slow plot line contributed to its rather poor performance in theaters. It was not until many years later that it became something of a cult film, primarily because of the footage of Porsche 917s roaring around race tracks in France. McQueen then teamed up with maverick Hollywood director Sam Peckinpah to star in the modern Western Junior Bonner (1972), about a family of rodeo riders, and again with Peckinpah as bank robber Doc McCoy in the violent The Getaway (1972). Both did good business at the box office. McQueen’s next role was a refreshing surprise and Papillon (1973), based on the Henri Charrière novel of the same name, was well received by fans and critics alike. He plays a convict on a French penal colony in South America who persists in trying to escape from his captors and feels their wrath when his attempts fail.
The 1970s is a decade remembered for a slew of “disaster” movies and McQueen starred in arguably the biggest of the time, The Towering Inferno (1974). He shared equal top billing with Paul Newman and an impressive line-up of co-stars including Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn and Faye Dunaway. McQueen does not appear until roughly halfway into the film as San Francisco fire chief Mike O’Halloran, battling to extinguish an inferno in a 138-story skyscraper. The film was a monster hit and set the benchmark for other disaster movies that followed. However, it was McQueen’s last film role for several years. After a four-year hiatus he surprised fans, and was almost unrecognizable under long hair and a beard, as a rabble-rousing early environmentalist in An Enemy of the People (1978), based on the Henrik Ibsen play.
McQueen’s last two film performances were in the unusual Western Tom Horn (1980), then he portrayed real-life bounty hunter Ralph “Papa’ Thorson (Ralph Thorson) in The Hunter (1980). In 1978, McQueen developed a small but persistent cough that would not go away. He quit smoking and underwent antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath grew more pronounced and on December 22, 1979, after he completed work on ‘The Hunter’, a biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure for which there is no known cure. The asbestos was thought to have been in the protective suits worn in his race car driving days, but in fact the auto racing suits McQueen wore were made of Nomex, a DuPont fire-resistant aramid fiber that contains no asbestos. McQueen later gave a medical interview in which he believed that asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets could have been involved, but he thought it more likely that his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a troop ship while in the US Marines.
By February 1980, there was evidence of widespread metastasis. While he tried to keep the condition a secret, the National Enquirer disclosed that he had “terminal cancer” on March 11, 1980. In July, McQueen traveled to Rosarito Beach, Mexico for an unconventional treatment after American doctors told him they could do nothing to prolong his life. Controversy arose over McQueen’s Mexican trip, because McQueen sought a non-traditional cancer treatment called the Gerson Therapy that used coffee enemas, frequent washing with shampoos, daily injections of fluid containing live cells from cows and sheep, massage and laetrile, a supposedly “natural” anti-cancer drug available in Mexico, but not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. McQueen paid for these unconventional medical treatments by himself in cash payments which was said to have cost an upwards of $40,000 per month during his three-month stay in Mexico. McQueen was treated by William Donald Kelley, whose only medical license had been (until revoked in 1976) for orthodontics.
McQueen returned to the United States in early October 1980. Despite metastasis of the cancer through McQueen’s body, Kelley publicly announced that McQueen would be completely cured and return to normal life. McQueen’s condition soon worsened and “huge” tumors developed in his abdomen. In late October, McQueen flew to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico to have an abdominal tumor on his liver (weighing around five pounds) removed, despite warnings from his American doctors that the tumor was inoperable and his heart could not withstand the surgery. McQueen checked into a Juarez clinic under the alias “Sam Shepard” where the local Mexican doctors and staff at the small, low-income clinic were unaware of his actual identity.
Steve McQueen passed away on November 7, 1980, at age 50 after the cancer surgery which was said to be successful. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea. He married three times and had a lifelong love of motor racing, once remarking, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”.
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