McQueen, the Back Story
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
When we were kids, Steve McQueen was our hero. He was everything we wanted to be. It began with the black and white poster many of us had in those days (the poster taped on my brother’s bedroom wall for years). It was the legendary image of McQueen’s motorcycle jump in The Great Escape (on a TT Special 650 Triumph painted olive drab and made to look like a wartime BMW) as he and 250 POWs eluded German soldiers, a story based on real events. The motorcycle stunt though was pure McQueen, a 60- foot jump over a jack-legged, barbed wire fence spanning the Swiss border. The jump (and chase by German soldiers, one of which was actually McQueen on a motor-cycle) never happened in real life, but McQueen got it into the film, a sequence we knew he performed himself (he crash landed on his first try, unharmed, so stunt man Bud Ekins filled in), to this day one of the most memorable and dramatic sequences in filmmaking.
We knew, as 10-year olds, that McQueen personally got the sequence into the movie and rode the bike himself, something that said a lot about who he was in real life, and how we expected Americans to behave at the hands of bad guys when the bad guys had the upper hand—defiant, courageous and self-confi-dent. True, it was just a movie (if The Great Escape could ever be called just a movie) but it was McQueen’s doing, his fictional persona reflecting realities of his life.
How? McQueen, according to published reports, had a terrible childhood. His father, a barnstorm-ing pilot (a pursuit McQueen later took up) abandoned Steve’s mother in Indiana when Steve was an infant, and McQueen’s mother was an alcoholic (the more charitable of the descriptions we found) who shuffled him off to her parents, who later moved in with the grandmother’s brother, Steve’s great uncle, who was a healthy influence on McQueen as a boy. But then his mother took him in again, along with one physically abusive husband and then another. Steve’s first stepfather beat him badly, and Steve, age 9, warned the man he would kill him if he ever laid a hand on him again, then left home.
On the streets, he committed petty crimes and was later sent to reform school. Put simply, at the tender ages we were while admiring his feats of daring in The Great Escape, McQueen at those same ages in his own life was a battered child and juvenile delinquent.
Throughout his life though, Steve McQueen arrived as a rebel then turned himself toward self-improve-ment, but not always in a straight line. As a Marine, he was repeatedly demoted from corporal to private, yet in the Arctic he was credited with jumping into icy waters and saving five drowning men (other Marines did not survive). He was later chosen for a Marine Honor Guard on President Harry Truman’s yacht, where McQueen reportedly often played poker with the president.
As his third wife, Barbara Minty McQueen, told us (see cover story), Steve was a kind and generous man with a history of helping others, but also a bad boy who played by his own rules (not all that different from characters he played on screen). Self-confidant and headstrong, he transmuted challenging circumstan-ces, including his childhood, into something amazing, but not without detours along the way.
As a kid, a Marine, and a movie star, McQueen had run-ins with the law. In Germany during the making of The Great Escape, having received dozens of speeding tickets, he was repeatedly escorted to the set by police who consulted with director John Sturges about McQueen’s wild exploits in a sports car, passing other cars by driving off road in the countryside, even through an unsuspecting gaggle of poultry.
In an interview in those days, McQueen seemed to have an explanation for his fascination with speed (his foot in a cast, he finished in second place at Sebring in 1970 with co-driver Peter Revson, barely losing to Mario Andretti). Asked what he did to relax, he told the interviewer he felt most relaxed while driving very fast.
After making it in the movies, The Great Escape having launched McQueen from television’s Wanted Dead or Alive to super stardom, photographer William Claxton told A&E’s Biography series that he had a chance to speak with McQueen at the star’s impressive new Malibu home, a spread befitting his new found stature and income, and nicely appointed with the sports cars and motorcycles that were Steve’s passion. To Claxton, who had remarked at McQueen’s trappings, McQueen reportedly said with watering eyes, “Not bad for an orphan with no education.”
McQueen, it is also reported, was said to have been dyslexic, another strike against a guy who ran roughshod over such obstacles like humps on a motocross track (a sport he loved—ask Mike Art, owner of Paradise Valley’s Chico Hot Springs Resort, which McQueen wanted to buy from Art in the 1970s and then install a motorcycle dirt track).
In 1974, with the success of movies like Bullit and Papillion, McQueen was the highest paid movie star in the world, on his way to becoming an outstanding visual symbol of the 20th century with his after-death memorabilia sales ranking, according to Forbes, seventh in the world in the present day (up there with Marilyn and Elvis), and, more importantly, etching his character traits upon the psyche of a society hungry for the real deal and real men. He was, after all, Steve McQueen.
Making the rounds, we found people younger than 35 often do not know who McQueen was, and so let these words and images serve as an introduction. It’s hard to imagine how one would not know Steve McQueen, as it’s hard to imagine one not knowing John Lennon (or John Kennedy) but such is the state of cultural literacy and the quality of modern media—perhaps it has to do with the fact that quality old movies are not widely shown on TV anymore (or on iPads) as they once were.
Moving on, geographically and conceptually, McQueen, Montana, and Livingston is a no brainer. This is the place, after all, where people like him get away from people like everybody else. Had he lived another 35 years (instead of dying at age 50 of complications related to mesothelioma), he would likely have been a semi-regular or occasional drop-in at the Murray Bar, perhaps the Crystal in Bozeman, his trajectory in his later years having been decidedly down home, and for the fact that he searched for property here with Barbara. Indications point toward that as a real possibility (and we’d like to claim some part of McQueen as our own) given his attraction to Paradise Valley and his intent to settle down with his new bride away from the limelight.
Tragically, Steve McQueen left us too early. He made his great escape, but left such a legacy. “It was sad,” Mike Art told us, “to see him go.” There will never be another.