Hollywood’s star-making machinery can be unforgiving in terms of longevity and staying power. Yesterday’s matinee idol becomes today’s has-been and is easily forgotten tomorrow. And yet, some manage to defy becoming merely a footnote for movie buffs and historians.
Steve McQueen was known as “The King of Cool” during his heyday, but might fall into the latter category for the younger set. However, a thrilling new graphic novel from MotorBooks, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group, captures McQueen’s larger than life legacy, as well as providing a great introduction for anyone not familiar with the actor’s life and work.
“Steve McQueen: Full-Throttle Cool,” written by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and illustrated by comic-book artist Greg Scott, serves up an impressive overview and story arc about McQueen. Both the narrative and artwork hits just the right mix — capturing the high points of the actor’s career — while also touching down on his formative years. The latter framed the basis for his film roles and rough-and-tumble off-screen persona. The fast-reading format is perfect for a life epitomized by speed, adventure, and a passion for cars and motorcycles, and the desire to race them throughout his life.
Fans will remember McQueen from his more popular movies, like “The Magnificent Seven,” his first major hit, “The Great Escape” (with future wife, Ali McGraw), “The Sand Pebbles” (his only Academy Award), and “Bullitt,” as well as “The Towering Inferno.” Many probably don’t know of McQueen’s tough beginnings.
Born Terrence Steven McQueen, on either March 21 or March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana, he was abandoned by his birth father when he was just six-months-old. His mother, Jillian, went to live with her parents, Victor and Lillian Crawford. Later, Jillian would leave the youngster for his grandparents to raise. Like many at the time, hit hard by The Great Depression, the Crawfords were forced to relocate, ending up in Missouri and moving in with Victor’s brother, Claude.
Uncle Claude became an important figure in McQueen’s life. While a stern man, and a disciplinarian, he also was fair and bought the youngster his first tricycle. The precocious McQueen became so good on the tricycle that he regularly beat the neighborhood kids in races. He never lost the racing bug.
Jillian returned when McQeen was nine, taking him back to live with her and her new husband in California. McQueen’s stepfather resented McQueen and beat him so badly that he ran away and lived on the streets. He began running with a street gang in Los Angeles, committing petty crimes. Run-ins with the law landed McQueen in reform school at the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. During his 14-month stint, McQueen discovered a mentor, Mr. Painter, who was one of the superintendents at the school. Painter expressed a belief in McQueen, helping him overcome dyslexia and become a model student.
After his release, McQueen became a merchant marine, a roughneck in Texas and even spent time as a lumberjack in Canada. He then joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was recognized for heroism after saving five shipmates from a sinking boat in the Arctic.
Honorably discharged from Marines in 1950, McQueen decided to reconnect with his mother, then living in Long Island, New York. This would end up being fortuitous, as it was here that McQueen began racing motorcycles and taking acting classes. As they say, “the rest is history.”
In terms of his Hollywood history, McQueen’s tour de force might be “Bullitt.” Playing the anti-hero — a role that McQueen cultivated and played in several films — McQueen nailed it with his portrayal of recalcitrant police lieutenant Frank Bullitt, of the San Francisco Police Department. His character also offered up an ironic twist, given that this self-confessed “bad boy,” a former reform school kid, ex-hobo and real-life tough guy, was now playing a cop.
“Bullitt,” filmed nearly 50 years ago, might seem like ancient history in our social media-infused times. However, McQueen’s car chase scene remains one of the most hair-raising in Hollywood’s movie archives. Better, it stands up well to any of today’s car scenes, and maybe more importantly — it doesn’t rely on special effects and stunt acumen — McQueen performed the entire sequence himself, filmed over a grueling 12-hour period.
If you watch just one McQueen movie, run out to your local video store (if there’s still one around) and rent this one — or download it. You’ll end up being riveted for more than 10 minutes, as McQueen chases two never-do-wells up and down the hillsides and inclines of the city by the bay. Keep in mind the time and the car designs, too.
We’re talking about All-American muscle cars, like the ’68 Mustang GT driven by McQueen, characterized accurately, I’d concur by Malachy McCoy, in his “Steve McQueen: The Unauthorized Biography,” as “big, soggy-springed American cars (that) came thumping down onto the flat of the intersecting avenues before rising in the air like ski jumpers only to land down on a lower level.” The other muscle car being pursued, a ’68 Dodge Charger, will be equally impressive for gearheads and car aficionados alike.
According to a crewman who witnessed the chase scenes, “McQueen must be a nut. He’s got a death wish or something.”
It’s McQueen approached everything in his life — with gusto and authenticity.
Apparently, many Hollywood-types, when offered a screening of “Bullitt” prior to the movie’s release, didn’t believe that it was actually McQueen behind the wheel for the entire sequence. They thought it was a stuntman doing the driving. What McQueen knew — and the film people didn’t — is that his experience driving grueling races like Sebring, with its twelve-hour endurance regimen, had prepared the American film icon well for this particular task at hand.
In 1979, during a routine physical, McQueen was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was an incurable form of the disease. He sought alternative treatments at a clinic in Mexico. On November 7, 1980, McQueen died of a heart attack following surgery associated with his treatment. He was only 50, with much so much more that he wanted to accomplish, including flying vintage biplanes, something he discovered in his 40s.
“Steve McQueen: Full-Throttle Cool” is an enjoyable read, one filled with new information about an iconic actor, someone whose off-screen persona was even larger than the characters he played on-screen.