There has never been another actor quite like Steve McQueen. From his tough-guy looks to his penchant for fast cars and dangerous stunts, McQueen lived a life as fast and hard as any of the characters he played on screen. So, what kind of life shapes a man like Steve McQueen? Turns out, this legendary actor lived through a lot. How did he end up on the streets at nine? Or working in a cathouse in the Dominican Republic before he was 20? Whether it was his painful childhood, his unlikely rise, or his chilling end, there was never a dull moment in the life of Steve McQueen, Hollywood’s King of Cool.
1. He Had A Need For Speed
Terrence Stephen “Steve” McQueen wasn’t some pretty-boy actor who never got his hands dirty. McQueen spent most of his life racing anything that had an engine, from grueling endurance classics to wild offroad motorcycle races. It’s safe to say he got his need for speed from his father, William McQueen, who had one of the coolest jobs in history.
2. His Father Abandoned Him
William McQueen earned his keep as a stunt pilot in a flying circus, performing death-defying stunts in a rickety old biplane. It’s little wonder that his boy Steve grew up as an adrenaline junkie. But that’s about all that William McQueen gave his boy, seeing as he abandoned Steve’s mom Julia just six months after meeting her, leaving her pregnant and alone.
Steve McQueen’s mother never had much luck with men—and her son would pay the price for it time and time again.
3. His Mother Wasn’t Much Better
Unfortunately for little Steve, 20-year-old Julia Ann Crawford was not ready to be a mother. From her drinking problem to her penchant for violent men, she never made her son a priority. It was a blessing, then, when she sent her boy to live with his grandparents in Slater, Missouri. It would lead to some of the best days of Steve McQueen’s life—but trouble was always around the corner.
4. His Mom Made His Life Worse
McQueen remembered his days on the farm in Missouri as some of the happiest of his life, but they couldn’t last forever. His mother dragged him out of his idyllic, pastoral childhood and straight into a nightmare. Since he was dyslexic and slightly deaf thanks to a childhood ear infection, he struggled terribly in school—but if school was bad, his life at home was even worse.
5. His Home Life Was Painful
Julia’s new husband had a violent temper, and he frequently beat young Steve McQueen. It got so bad that McQueen actually ran away from home to live on the streets…at just nine years old. In the blink of an eye, he went from having a loving family and a simple life on a farm to living on the streets of Indianapolis, afraid for his life. It’s little wonder, then, that the boy started down a dark path.
6. He Fell In With A Bad Crowd
Before long, McQueen joined up with a street gang in Indianapolis. At a time when most kids are playing with friends and stressing about homework, Steve McQueen was prowling the city committing petty crimes. His mother had never been there for him, but even she started to realize that her son was headed for a life behind bars. She decided to do something about it—but as always, that meant passing the buck.
7. His Mom Pulled The Same Thing Again
It had worked once, so why wouldn’t it work again? Julia sent McQueen back to live with his family in Missouri. I can only imagine the relief that the boy felt to return to the country, but his sojourn didn’t last long this time. When McQueen was 12, his mother’s marriage to her no-good second husband disintegrated and she moved to sunny Los Angeles to get a fresh start, bringing her boy with her.
It was going to be better this time, right? Well, Julia rarely stayed single for long. She’d married for the third time, and in case you couldn’t tell, she wasn’t exactly into “fatherly” types.
8. He Was Trapped In A Terrible Cycle
12-year-old Steve and his newest stepfather hated each other from the second they met. Like his mom’s last husband, this guy drank and beat both of them. Before long, McQueen was back in the same cycle of rebellion and lawbreaking. Can you see where this is going? His mom threw in the towel once more and sent Steve back to Slater.
But McQueen’s time on the streets had begun hardening him. The quiet, country life couldn’t contain him anymore, and this trip to Missouri would be his last.
9. He Joined The Circus
At 14 years old, Steve McQueen snuck away from his great-uncle’s farm and never looked back. He didn’t even say goodbye. Maybe he took inspiration from stories about his absent father, but McQueen wanted a life of adventure—and he found it almost immediately. He joined a circus for a time, but apparently, he wasn’t the rodeo clown type.
He didn’t last long at the circus, and soon enough, McQueen found himself back in LA with his mother and stepfather. But this time, things were different. He was growing up—and he’d gained a dark side.
10. His Stepfather’s Last Attack Was Brutal
Upon returning to LA, McQueen went straight back to his life on the streets. At one point, officers caught him stealing hubcaps and dragged him back to his mother’s place. There, his stepfather was waiting, and as soon as the officers left, he beat McQueen as he had so many times before. The attack culminated in McQueen’s stepfather throwing him down the stairs.
Who knows what it was, but this beating wasn’t like the others. This time, something in McQueen finally just…snapped.
11. He Made A Dark Threat
Lying at the foot of the staircase, Steve McQueen looked up at his stepfather and uttered a chilling threat: “You lay your stinking hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill you.” There must have been something in his eyes, because this time, his mother and stepfather believed him. Their relationship had been terrible for years, but this was something new.
This marked the start of a new chapter in the life of Steve McQueen.
12. He Was Incorrigible
McQueen’s mother usually had one play: Send him back to Slater. That had stopped working, so this time, she took drastic measures. Her husband had her sign court papers that legally declared McQueen incorrigible. It let them send him to the California Junior Boys Republic, a boarding school for troubled youths in Chino.
The experience would eventually see Steve McQueen turn his entire life around—but it began like any other nightmare.
13. Life At Boarding School Was Miserable
Boys Republic was no summer camp. Regular life at the school was hard enough, but as a newcomer, the other boys tormented McQueen when he first arrived. Not only was he an outsider, but whenever he did something wrong, the teachers punished his entire class, not just him. This made him a pariah, and he received further beatings from his classmates.
But, as time passed, things changed. McQueen started to fit in for the first time in his life—and it left a lasting impression.
14. Things Started Looking Up
Though the place felt like a prison at first, it turns out the boarding school was exactly what McQueen needed. By the time he left at 16, he was a completely new person—and he never forgot the school that shaped him into the man he became. Even when he was rich and famous, McQueen returned to the Boys Republic to speak with students for the rest of his life.
McQueen had finally broken out of his life of petty crime—but that doesn’t mean he settled down. In fact, this is when his life really went off the deep end.
15. He Fled To The Sea
Steve McQueen lived more in his late teens than most of us live in our lifetime. After leaving Chino, he met up with his mother in Greenwich Village, New York—but he didn’t stay in the Big Apple for long. He met a pair of Merchant Marines and they persuaded him to take his life to the sea. Soon enough, he found himself aboard a ship bound for the Dominican Republic.
If you think that suddenly signing up with the Merchant Marines as a teenager is wild, just wait til you hear what he did next…
16. His Teenaged Jobs Were Ridiculous
Apparently, the sailor life just wasn’t it for Steve McQueen. As soon as he arrived in the Dominican Republic, he abandoned his post. Instead, he took a job…At a cathouse. The bohemian chapter of McQueen’s life had officially begun. He didn’t stay there for long, though, eventually finding his way back to Texas to work in a carnival. Then he ended up in Canada, working as a lumberjack.
Steve McQueen was never a man to be tied down easily, and he jumped from job to job, city to city, country to country, for around two years, all before he was even 18.
17. He Joined The Marines
The Navy sounds like a strange place for a restless soul like McQueen, but that’s where he ended up in 1947. He wasn’t yet 18, but he got his mother to give him special permission. Turns out, she was willing to do just about anything to get rid of him, and the Marines probably seemed better than the streets. McQueen enlisted with the Marines and headed off to boot camp.
So, how do you think the consummate rebel did in the Navy? Yeah, it didn’t go great…
18. He Couldn’t Stop Rebelling
McQueen got off a decent start in the Armed Forces, earning a promotion to private first class—but it didn’t last long. He just couldn’t help but rebel against authority, and he ended up getting busted down to private seven times. But demotions were the least of his troubles. After authorities caught him in dereliction of duty, staying with a girlfriend for weeks after his leave had finished, they arrested him. As you can imagine, McQueen didn’t “go quietly.” He resisted and got himself 41 long days in the brig.
OK, so he got off to a rocky start as a Marine—but eventually, a new side of him started to emerge.
19. He Performed A Truly Heroic Act
His time in the brig seems to have straightened him out a little, because McQueen shaped up and became a model Marine after. The highlight of his career came during a brutal Arctic exercise. While training in frozen waters, McQueen’s ship suddenly hit a sandbar, throwing several men into the waves. McQueen dove in and pulled five other Marines ashore before they succumbed to the frigid waters, saving their lives. Maybe there was more to this rebel than met the eye?
But this isn’t the story of Steve McQueen, famous marine. By now, McQueen was 22 years old, and it was about time he found his true calling.
20. He Took To The Stage
It was 1952, and Steve McQueen had tried just about every job under the sun, except the one we know him for: Actor. Well, if we know one thing, it’s that McQueen never shied away from new experiences. He took his money from the G.I. Bill and started taking acting classes in New York City under teachers like Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen.
Acting was a whole new world for him, and he took to it quickly. Plus, it came with its fair share of…”perks.”
21. He Started Dating Actresses
Throughout his career, Steve McQueen’s love life was always a topic of fascination for the tabloids. He jumped from one beautiful actress to another, and that started back in his early days taking acting classes in New York City. He began dating another hopeful young student—actress Gia Scala. Scala never quite achieved McQueen’s level of success, but she appeared in dozens of Hollywood films throughout the 50s and 60s.
The pair had a wild fling, but it didn’t last long. Maybe Scala didn’t approve of how McQueen spent his weekends…
22. He Had An Insane Side-Job
The G.I. Bill helped McQueen get a foothold in New York City, but it couldn’t pay the bills forever. Fortunately, McQueen had other skills that could help with that: He started racing motorcycles every weekend to support his fledgling acting career. And, of course, he was good at it. Pretty soon, he was making around $100 every weekend, the equivalent of about $1,000 today.
If things had gone differently, McQueen might have become a professional racer—but stardom awaited him on screen.
23. He Found Love In LA
The opportunities McQueen was looking for just didn’t exist in New York City, so in 1955, he moved out west to try his luck in Hollywood. It was there that he met his first love. Around a year after arriving in LA, Steve McQueen married a gorgeous actress (shocker). Her name was Neile Adams, and the couple would go on to have two children together.
Their marriage would eventually go up in flames, but at least the early years were filled with happiness. Just as McQueen was starting a family, his career started taking off too.
24. His First Big Role Was Embarrassing
McQueen fared a lot better in Hollywood than in New York. Soon enough, he even had a starring role in a feature film. Sure, the film was The Blob, a schlocky B-movie that opened alongside I Married a Monster From Outer Space, but it helped put McQueen on the map. It also helped him land a role in a TV pilot for a new western series.
The show was called Wanted: Dead or Alive, and its rugged, antihero bounty hunter Josh Randall cemented Steve McQueen as a star. But this was just the beginning.
25. He Made It
With Wanted: Dead or Alive, Steve McQueen had finally hit the big time. Some of his most iconic roles came next, including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. It had taken about a decade, but Steve McQueen had officially arrived—and Hollywood’s newest leading man quickly set himself apart from his peers.
Anyone who worked with him could tell you, Steve McQueen was willing to do things that no other actor would—or could, for that matter.
26. He Had No Fear
Unsurprisingly, Steve McQueen often ended up in movies where he had to ride motorcycles or drive fast cars. For most actors, a stunt double would do the majority of the actual driving—but McQueen wasn’t most actors. Directors quickly realized that McQueen could drive/ride better than most of their stuntmen, and McQueen ended up filming many of his action scenes himself.
In fact, in The Great Escape, you can actually see McQueen, dressed as a German soldier, on a motorcycle, chasing…himself.
27. His Biggest Movie Almost Destroyed Him
In 1968, McQueen landed the most iconic role of his career: Bullitt. A movie about a tough, San Francisco cop who drives a Mustang and gets into a thrilling car chase through the winding streets of the city? What could go wrong? Well, actually, it turns out, a lot could go wrong. In fact, despite the final result, Bullitt very nearly killed McQueen’s career.
28. He Blew A Massive Contract
Between the perfectionism of director Peter Yates and McQueen himself, Bullitt went massively over budget, much to the horror of Warner Brothers studio execs. Before filming, McQueen had a massive contract with the studio that would have seen him make seven more movies, but after the Bullitt debacle, they’d had enough.
They canceled the contract before the movie had even come out—which turned out to be one of the stupidest moves in history.
29. He Got The Last Laugh
Yeah, Bullitt went over budget. It was also a smash hit with critics and audiences alike, raking in 10 times its inflated budget. So, Warner Brothers did what any self-respecting Hollywood studio would do: They came running back to McQueen with their tails between their legs, begging him to sign another contract. But they’d burned that bridge.
I bet telling Warner Bros. to screw off felt pretty darn good. Bullitt was the peak of McQueen’s career—but the problem with peaks is, there’s nowhere to go but down.
30. His Marriage Fell Apart
While McQueen’s career was thriving, his marriage was on the rocks. Steve and his wife Neile had started growing apart, and her 1971 abortion pushed their relationship to its breaking point. They’d been together for over 15 years, but that didn’t stop McQueen from falling into the arms of another woman. And, if that’s not bad enough, McQueen’s affair was with one of his costars.
31. He Was Unfaithful
Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw had instant chemistry on the set of The Getaway. The only problem was, both of them were married. But MacGraw’s marriage was apparently just as frayed as McQueen’s, and the pair began a secret affair. Unfortunately for them, few affairs in Hollywood stay a secret for long.
32. He Swapped One Wife For Another
The tryst with MacGraw was the last straw for McQueen’s wife. It also just so happened to be the last straw in MacGraw’s marriage too. Neither of them wasted any time, and within just a year, they’d divorced their spouses and married each other. Just like his last marriage, this one would burn out before long—the difference was, this one would burn a lot brighter, and a lot faster.
33. Their Relationship Was Rocky
Many of Steve McQueen’s friends called Ali MacGraw the love of his life—but their relationship was never simple. As MacGraw herself put it, “There were many times that were just wonderful and there were many times that were just ghastly.” McQueen was a mercurial man, and living with him wasn’t exactly easy. Then, as if their marriage wasn’t stressed enough, a tragedy made things so much worse.
34. They Suffered A Tragedy
Ali MacGraw suffered a miscarriage during her brief, fiery marriage to Steve McQueen. Between the horrible loss and their tumultuous relationship, this marriage was doomed. Despite their love for each other, McQueen and MacGraw just couldn’t make it work, divorcing in 1978. But McQueen hadn’t been alone in years, so it was only a matter of time before he found someone new.
However, if you’re Steve McQueen, you don’t just go to a bar and try out some pickup lines. No, his dating strategy this time around was a whole lot crazier than that.
35. He Had A Weird Way Of Asking Girls Out
How does a megastar meet girls? He has his agent set up a date, apparently. Not long after his split from MacGraw, McQueen laid eyes on an utterly entrancing woman. Not on the street—he saw her in an advertisement. But this is Steve McQueen we’re talking about, so that wasn’t about to stop him. He had his agent track down the model from the ad and set up a date.
Her name was Barbary Minty, and she became McQueen’s third and final wife.
36. He Wasn’t As Faithful As He Seemed
For most of his life, McQueen was a serial monogamist, but he still had his fair share of flings. He had an affair with actress/model Lauren Hutton in the early 1960s, while still married to his wife. He also had an affair with Barbara Leigh, his co-star in Junior Bonner, shortly before he met Ali MacGraw. But those trysts paled in comparison to his wildest affair.
37. His Craziest Affair Was With A Bombshell
Mamie Van Doren was one of Hollywood’s great, incorrigible starlets, and she claimed to have a sordid affair with McQueen in the 1960s. The pair would party long into the night, taking hallucinogens together—all while McQueen was still married with kids. Though many people close to McQueen would vouch for him as an all-around great guy, it seems as though women were always his greatest vice, and they brought out his dark side.
38. He Went Into Hiding
In the mid-70s, while arguably the biggest star on the planet, Steve McQueen stepped away from it all. He disappeared from the public eye, stopped appearing in movies, and spent his days driving around the country in a motor home, racing motorcycles wherever he stopped. While the appeal of acting eventually waned for him, racing always had his heart.
But maybe that wasn’t his only reason for stepping away. Turns out, McQueen had some skeletons in his closet.
39. He Had Demons
Between his up and down career and his tumultuous love life, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Steve McQueen suffered from addiction issues throughout his life. By the 1970s, he was nearly at rock bottom. He smoked like a chimney, including pot, started using coke frequently, and drank heavily. He pretty much covered all his bases when it came to substances.
40. His Demands Were Bizarre
While at the height of his powers as a movie star, Steve McQueen could make pretty much any demand he wanted—but the demands he did make seemed completely bizarre. He would frequently agree to appear in a movie only if the studio provided him with a seemingly random list of items: Electric razors, jeans, and other basic supplies in bulk.
Obviously, these were not things that a movie star like Steve McQueen needed, so what gives? Well, it turns out, there was a heartwarming reason behind McQueen’s rider.
41. He Had A Heart Of Gold
Remember the boarding school where McQueen spent his early teenage years? Well, despite his rocky start there, he never forgot about the place. It became a home to him as so few places had, and for the rest of his life, it held a special place in his heart. He donated all those supplies from his riders to the school, and he’d often return to spend time with the students, shooting pool and telling them about his experiences.
With his violent past, his many affairs, and his addiction issues, it’s easy to paint Steve McQueen as a deeply troubled man, but there was always another layer to find.
42. He Received Devastating News
Around the time his marriage to Ali MacGraw disintegrated, Steve McQueen developed a persistent cough. Not too surprising, given how much he smoked, but even when he quit, the cough remained. He tried antibiotic treatments, but still, he couldn’t stop coughing. He finally went in for a biopsy—and the result was devastating. Doctors found pleural mesothelioma in his lungs. In other words, Steve McQueen had cancer.
The news was heartbreaking enough, but it gets worse. The cause of McQueen’s illness was also tragic.
43. His Cancer Was Preventable
There are many types of cancer that can’t be prevented, but there was a specific culprit behind McQueen’s pleural mesothelioma: Asbestos. McQueen was exposed to the carcinogenic material throughout his life, from removing asbestos insulation from ships as a marine to acting around asbestos sound-proofing on sound stages. There was even asbestos in the protective helmets and suits McQueen wore while racing.
Though no one knew any better, Steve McQueen spent most of his adult life inhaling the dangerous material—and it finally caught up to him.
44. His Secret Was Revealed
McQueen tried to keep his diagnosis hidden for as long as he could, but within months, the National Enquirer had gotten a hold of the story and revealed his illness to the world. A massive outpouring of support followed, but no one could do anything to help him now. Secret or no, his cancer was terminal. But that doesn’t mean Steve McQueen was going down without a fight.
When American doctors told McQueen there was nothing they could do, he started to look elsewhere—and it led him to a truly twisted character.
45. He Took Desperate Measures
There was nothing anyone could do to save Steve McQueen, but he wasn’t about to admit that. He traveled to Mexico, seeking advice from a quack named William Donald Kelley. Kelley falsely claimed he had a method that could cure cancer, and McQueen was desperate, so he listened. He underwent “treatment” with Kelley—and it involved operations that ranged from bizarre to horrifying.
46. His Treatments Were Chilling
Under Kelley’s instruction, McQueen received coffee enemas, daily injections of cow and sheep cells, constant massages, and doses of a toxic “miracle cure” called laetrile. And, as if these humiliating, uncomfortable, and ineffective treatments weren’t bad enough, Kelley had the audacity to charge the desperate McQueen $40,000 a month.
Did we mention that “Doctor” William Donald Kelley had had his medical license revoked years before this? And did we mention that he had only been a freaking orthodontist? But McQueen had absolutely no options, so he listened to Kelly anyway. Sadly, it only made his final days more painful.
47. He Made One Last Hail Mary
In October 1980, McQueen flew down to Mexico one last time. He had a massive, five-pound tumor on his liver, but his American doctors told him they couldn’t operate on it. It was too large, and he was too weak—there was no way his heart could stand the operation. Still, McQueen had come this far, so he wasn’t about to stop now.
Under the pseudonym “Samuel Sheppard,” McQueen signed himself into a small, Juarez medical clinic. None of the doctors even knew his real identity—not that it would have made a difference.
48. No One Could Save Him
Steve McQueen passed from heart failure at 3:45 am on November 7, 1980, at the clinic in Juarez, not long after his surgery. He was only 50 years old. It was just like his doctor had said: The cancer was terminal, and there was nothing anyone could do. But no one could say that Steve McQueen went down without a fight.
49. He Was Ice Cold
A lot of movies hire real professionals to teach actors about the characters they’re playing, and Bullitt was no different. Producers brought in some grizzled old officers to show McQueen the ropes. They figured they’d give him a good scare by taking him to an actual morgue; after all, there’s a morgue scene in the movie. I imagine they were looking forward to spooking this Hollywood pretty boy—but McQueen’s ice-cold reaction left them stunned.
On the day of the morgue visit, McQueen casually walked into the morgue munching on an apple like it was just any other day. From that moment on, he’d gained the officers’ respect.
50. He Had A Dark Connection
If anyone doubted the dark side of fame, the Manson killings made it abundantly clear—but not many people realize how close they hit to home for Steve McQueen. Not only was he friends with both Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, but around the time of the killings, the media published an alleged celebrity hit list that featured McQueen’s name.
McQueen grew increasingly paranoid and took to carrying a pistol with him at all times.