Known as the “King of Cool,” Steve McQueen was one of the great movie stars of Hollywood during his lifetime. Whether it was a cop film, a Western, a war film, or a heist film, McQueen’s smoldering good looks and tough swagger were unforgettable to audiences of the 60s and 70s. Beyond acting, though, McQueen was also mad for that life of action. Motorcycles, cars, planes, you name it. Of course, behind the scenes, McQueen’s star power led to increasingly hostile interactions with his co-stars and crew, especially if things didn’t go his way. Here are 44 intense facts about Steve McQueen.
Steve McQueen Facts
1. Not a Good Start
Terrence Stephen McQueen was born in the Indianapolis metropolitan area on March 24, 1930. McQueen’s father, a stunt pilot named William McQueen, had abandoned McQueen’s mother just six months after the two of them had met.
2. Shared Custody
The Great Depression wasn’t a good time for a single woman to raise a small child, so McQueen’s mother sent her son to live with her own parents and uncle, Claude. McQueen spent his childhood living on a farm with his grandparents and great-uncle, sporadically returning to live with his mother—more on that later.
3. Giving Back
McQueen was known for long lists of demands during his heyday. On top of being one of the highest-paid stars of the 1960s, McQueen insisted on receiving multiple electric razors and pairs of jeans whenever he arrived on a new film production. Much later, it was discovered that McQueen had been donating these items to Boys Republic, the school for troubled youths where he himself had spent time.
4. My Collection
Understandably, Steve McQueen owned many motorcycles and cars during his lifetime. These included a 1958 GMC Pickup Truck, a 1951 Chevrolet Styline De Lux Convertible, a 1956 Jaguar XKSS, and a 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster 1600 Super.
5. First and Last Hurrah
Steve McQueen’s first taste of real fame and stardom came from his work on the Western television series Wanted Dead or Alive. McQueen starred as Josh Randall, a former Confederate-turned-bounty hunter. The series ran for three seasons until 1961, by the end of which McQueen had already broken into the film industry. It was the last time that he ever appeared on television.
6. It’s on Now!
While McQueen was living in Malibu, he was next-door neighbors with Keith Moon, the legendary drummer in The Who. A consummate party animal, Moon infuriated McQueen by constantly leaving the bathroom light on at night and thus making it impossible for McQueen to sleep. After McQueen confronted Moon without success to change the situation, the Hollywood action star finally grabbed a shotgun and shot out Moon’s bathroom light from his bedroom window!
7. The Chances You Miss
In case you think that McQueen was being too extreme when he deliberately crashed his own car so he could appear in a famous film, consider the fact that his contract with Wanted Dead or Alive caused him to reject a role in the hit classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In case you’re wondering, he was offered the role that was played by George Peppard in the final product.
8. Runaway Rebel
As a child, Steve McQueen was physically abused by his first stepfather. Things became so brutal for the nine-year-old that he found it preferable to live on the streets. It was there that he joined a local gang of juveniles who committed various acts of petty crime. He was eventually sent back to his grandparents and great-uncle in Slater by his mother.
9. Staying Fit
Being a rugged Hollywood star with a strong appeal to men and women both, Steve McQueen maintained an intense exercising regimen. This regimen consisted of workouts that lasted two hours daily. Aside from weightlifting, McQueen also ran five miles daily at one point in his life.
10. People’s Champion
While McQueen was filming the 1973 period piece prison drama Papillon, the producers struggled to raise more funds to complete the film. After three weeks of people not getting paid, McQueen personally threatened to walk from the production if finances weren’t restored immediately. Thankfully, this did the trick, and production resumed as usual.
11. Is There an Echo in Here?
When McQueen was 12, he was once again reunited with his mother, who had remarried a second time and was living in Los Angeles. However, things were even worse for McQueen, whose new stepfather was even more violent towards mother and son. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McQueen once again became a juvenile criminal again.
12. Facility to Save Future Felons
At the age of 14, after a particularly nasty incident—more on that later—McQueen’s mother and stepfather had him committed to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. This was a school for juveniles that promised to straighten them out. In McQueen’s case, this effort was successfully implanted. Though he was quick to admit that he’d had a rough time with them, McQueen always maintained that he began to turn his life around in that school.
13. Dispelling a Myth
Contrary to popular belief, McQueen was not trained in Tang Soo Do martial arts by Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. It was, in fact, McQueen’s son who trained with Norris, while McQueen himself trained with Pat E. Johnson. That said, McQueen did serve as a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral, alongside Norris.
14. War of the Egos
One of the main reasons why Steve McQueen won the role of Vin in The Magnificent Seven was because the film’s star, Yul Brynner, personally requested that McQueen be cast. Ironically, Brynner greatly regretted this decision as the two men clashed frequently on set. During their scenes together, McQueen would make gestures or movements to deliberately draw audiences’ eyes to him rather than Brynner.
For his part, Brynner became paranoid about these movements and also wanted to appear taller than McQueen in the film. Even though he was already an inch taller than McQueen, Brynner arranged it so that he stood on a small mound of earth whenever they were standing beside each other.
15. Diverse Resume
Before he ever became a famous actor, Steve McQueen worked a variety of jobs as a young man. Among these were a lumberjack, carnival barker, merchant marine, and even a towel boy at a brothel!
16. Hey, That’s Me!
Like so many other figures of Classical Hollywood, McQueen was recently represented in Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood of the 1960s. McQueen was portrayed by English thespian Damian Lewis.
17. Familiar Faces
During his film career, McQueen appeared in three films directed by John Sturges which also co-starred Charles Bronson. These films were The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Never So Few.
18. No Thanks!
After The Towering Inferno, Steve McQueen spent a good portion of the next decade turning down multi-million dollar offers to appear in major films. These films included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Death Wish, Superman, Dirty Harry, Deliverance, Apocalypse Now, A Bridge Too Far, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
McQueen had actually planned to retire from acting after The Towering Inferno, which might explain why he suddenly decided to reject all those would-be hit films.
19. Wait, I Want This One!
In contrast to his turning down acting in all those aforementioned hit films, McQueen did pursue the possibility of making a film adaptation of David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood. However, he wasn’t able to net the part of John Rambo due to concerns about his age. Instead, the role went to fellow Republican actor Sylvester Stallone, securing a second franchise for himself after Rocky.
20. If I Had to Choose…
Of all the classic films that he was a part of, McQueen admitted several times that Bullitt featured his favorite character to play.
21. Join Me, Robbie!
Another member of the cast of McQueen’s Bullitt who thought highly of his own performance was actor Robert Vaughn. The irony there, however, was that Vaughn had repeatedly rejected acting in the film as he thought the story was nonexistent and meaningless. It was McQueen who demanded that Vaughn, with whom he’d co-starred in The Magnificent Seven, be in the film.
The studio offered more and more money to Vaughn until he relented and joined the film. Vaughn and McQueen later collaborated on The Towering Inferno years later.
22. That’s a Good Idea!
In 1976, McQueen brought up the idea for a film involving a music star being protected by a bodyguard from a stalker. The film, initially seen as a vehicle for McQueen and Diana Ross, was shelved for nearly 20 years until it was finally made as The Bodyguard in 1992, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.
23. Don’t Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story!
The Great Escape has gone down as being one of the most famous films ever made about the Second World War, as well as being one of the biggest hits of McQueen’s career. It was a chance for him to show off his skills with a motorcycle as he eludes Nazis chasing him down. Of course, this was exactly the reason why he agreed to do the movie in the first place.
The motorcycle chase scenes during the climax of the film had nothing to do with the true story behind the film, it was just an ego-stroking condition that McQueen insisted on before he agreed to be in the film.
24. We’ll Say I Did it, Okay?
Speaking of motorcycles and The Great Escape, McQueen was so passionate about being filmed riding motorcycles that he even went in disguise to play one of the Nazi motorcyclists chasing his character in the film. Unfortunately for McQueen fans, though, the biggest stunt of the film—where McQueen’s character makes a 60-foot jump over a barbed-wire fence—eluded McQueen.
His attempt to perform the stunt resulted in him crashing the motorcycle, leading to his friend, Bud Ekins, to do the stunt instead.
25. Come on Back!
Naturally, a film as successful as The Magnificent Seven ended up getting a sequel. McQueen was asked to reprise his role of Vin, but while he was initially interested, he turned the movie down as he thought the script was too inferior. Meanwhile, Yul Brynner, who became the only one of the original cast to reprise his role, maintained that he would only act in the film if McQueen was not involved.
Quite a departure from Brynner insisting on McQueen’s casting in the first film!
26. Family Business
McQueen is not the only person in his family to enter the acting industry. You might be familiar with his grandson, Steven R. McQueen, who starred in The Vampire Diaries and Piranha 3D.
27. Hollywood Rivalry
One of the most star-studded films that McQueen worked on (and that’s saying a lot) was The Towering Inferno. One of McQueen’s co-stars was Paul Newman, himself an established movie star at the time. Despite this, McQueen was given the larger role with more lines. Ironically, however, McQueen insisted on Newman getting an equal amount of lines in the film.
This was due to McQueen being convinced that he was better than Newman, and he wanted to prove it without any advantages to his side. For another layer of irony, McQueen was previously meant to co-star with Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but an argument over billing and star power led him to backing out.
28. That Famous Day
In a remarkable coincidence, McQueen’s birthday (March 24) was the same day that 76 Allied prisoners broke out of the German POW camp Stalag Luft III. And yes, this event was the historical basis for McQueen’s later hit film The Great Escape.
29. Toxic Work Environment
One of the last films of McQueen’s career was the western film Tom Horn, released in 1980. The production was riddled with problems, as McQueen was already in ill health due to the cancer inside of him—he incorrectly thought that he had a serious case of pneumonia. Another issue was the fact that McQueen alienated or fired five different directors from the project. It’s long been rumored that McQueen directed most of the film himself.
30. Come at Me, Bro!
During the 1960s, the womanizing McQueen ended up in a bitter love triangle involving celebrity affairs. He’d spent part of the decade fooling around with actress Mamie Van Doren, but she’d also had a romantic fling with controversial mogul Howard Hughes. Hughes was especially possessive of Van Doren, leading McQueen to publicly vow that if Hughes didn’t leave Van Doren alone, McQueen would break his nose.
Rather than take on the King of Cool in a fistfight, Hughes backed down.
31. Steve & Sam
In 1972, McQueen made two films with controversial filmmaker Sam Peckinpah: Junior Bonner and The Getaway. Peckinpah and McQueen also came close to working together on at least four other films (The Cincinnati Kid, The Wild Bunch, Convoy, and The Gauntlet) but either because they abandoned the projects or were fired (in Peckinpah’s case), these collaborations didn’t work out.
32. It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows
Speaking of The Getaway, this neo-noir crime film turned out to be one of the biggest financial hits of both McQueen’s and Sam Peckinpah’s careers. However, it wasn’t an easy production to work on. For one thing, there was great concern about the public scandal when McQueen and his co-star, Ali McGraw, began an affair which led to McGraw divorcing her husband to marry McQueen.
Another issue that came up during filming was the fact that McQueen had arranged to have final cut privileges on the film, which infuriated his director, Peckinpah. McQueen and Peckinpah, who was struggling with alcoholism, frequently got into loud arguments. One such incident led to McQueen throwing a champagne bottle at Peckinpah’s head!
Ironically, it had been McQueen who had gotten Peckinpah hired due to their good working experience on the rodeo film Junior Bonner.
33. Players Get Punished
Since we brought up that love affair between McQueen and Ali McGraw in 1972, it’s long been rumored that there was a far-reaching consequence for McQueen’s film career. The year after, McQueen gave what many have said was his best onscreen performance in the historical prison film Papillon. However, despite the universal praise that he received, McQueen didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his troubles.
Many have said that this was because McGraw’s ex-husband was the powerful Hollywood producer Robert Evans, the man behind The Godfather and many other classics. Allegedly, it was Evans who caused McQueen to get blackballed. It didn’t help McQueen’s case that he was romantically linked with several other married women in Hollywood as well.
34. The Beginning of the End
McQueen’s final film was The Hunter in 1980. During filming, McQueen suffered a health issue when he performed a scene in which his character runs down the street and around a corner. When he didn’t reappear after “cut” was called, McQueen was found unable to catch his breath. He was officially diagnosed with lung cancer the month after the film wrapped production.
35. A Happy Ending After All
For what it’s worth, McQueen and Yul Brynner eventually reconciled, but only when McQueen was dying of cancer. At one point, McQueen called an incredulous Brynner and thanked him for never getting him fired from The Magnificent Seven, even though it could very well have been a possibility for Brynner to do so. For his part, Brynner graciously accepted McQueen’s thanks, which also served as an apology of sorts.
McQueen later explained that he felt he owed his career in part to Brynner. Both men died of cancer within five years of each other.
36. Where’s Steve?
Due to his early death, Steve McQueen never lived to see his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was dedicated on June 12, 1986. Anyone interested in visiting it should go to 6834 Hollywood Boulevard.
37. What Needs to be Done
One irony about McQueen’s hit series Wanted Dead or Alive was that McQueen’s commitment to the series almost prevented him from making his name internationally with the classic hit Western called The Magnificent Seven. McQueen had to go to rather extreme lengths to get the chance to make that movie while also keeping his contract with Wanted Dead or Alive.
McQueen managed it by deliberately crashing his car, taking time off to “recover” from his “accident,” and going south to make The Magnificent Seven while he was on leave.
38. Only One?
Despite his stardom and wild success as an actor, Steve McQueen was only ever nominated for one Academy Award during his lifetime. This was for the 1966 war film The Sand Pebbles, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards in total. Unfortunately for the cast and crew of The Sand Pebbles, none of the eight nominations led to wins. McQueen lost the Lead Actor Oscar to Paul Scofield for his performance in A Man for All Seasons.
39. Farewell to the King of Cool
By October 1980, McQueen was in dire conditions due to cancer. Against the advice of American doctors, McQueen flew to Mexico to undertake a highly risky surgery to have an abdominal tumor removed from his liver. True to the warnings that his heart wouldn’t be able to handle the operation, McQueen died of heart failure after surgery was completed.
He was 50 years old.
40. Bluff Called
Before he played a hard-as-nails L.A. cop in the film Bullitt, McQueen rode around with police officers in preparation. The officers in question wanted to see what McQueen was really made of, so they took him to the morgue to gauge his reactions. Allegedly, McQueen came in while casually eating an apple.
41. Domestic Violence
Remember how we hinted at a particularly brutal episode in Steve McQueen’s teenage years? When he was 14 years old, McQueen was apprehended by police for stealing hubcaps. Instead of being arrested, however, McQueen was handed to his stepfather, who delivered a brutal beating against his stepson. McQueen fought back, which escalated the fight to the point where McQueen’s stepfather threw him down a flight of stairs.
Reportedly, the young McQueen looked up from his fall and promised his stepfather, “You lay your stinking hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill you.”
42. Narrow Avoidance
On August 8, 1969, McQueen was invited by Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring to join him for dinner at the home of his friends Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. McQueen initially agreed to attend, but a rendezvous with a woman led to him backing out at the last minute. Late that night, Tate and Sebring were among the people brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family.
43. Living in Fear
What makes Steve McQueen’s near brush with death at the hands of the Manson Family all the more eerie was that his name reportedly had top priority on Charles Manson’s celebrity death list. This left a profound effect on McQueen; he allegedly carried a concealed gun on his person for the rest of his life.
44. Love Never Dies
Although McQueen and Ali McGraw divorced in 1978 after just a few years of marriage, McQueen’s friends revealed after his death that he carried a torch for McGraw, and that she was the love of his life.