Once the highest-paid actor in the world, in the 1970s, it’s hard to imagine that Steve McQueen, the legendary “King of Cool,” endured so many hard knocks in his youth. A victim of circumstance in his adolescence, he bounced from home to home in a proverbial game of round robin, as he moved from his mom’s to his uncle’s then back to his mom’s. Stability wasn’t anything McQueen would know until much later on in his life, and even then, it was sparse at best.
A loud-mouthed, stubborn ruffian — a troublemaker — in his teenage years, the atmosphere with his mom and her new husband was thick with tension. One confrontation between his stepfather and him turned violent, and McQueen found himself at the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, Calif., when he turned 14. While conformity was never quite his “thing,” he adjusted to life in the boys’ home until his mom brought him to live with her in Greenwich Village in New York City.
At the tender age of 17, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, traveling around the world, and was given the honor of guarding then-President Harry Truman’s yacht. Honorably discharged in 1950 at age 20, he moved back to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to study acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. He also earned money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway.
Though his acting career didn’t take off overnight, he was once quoted as saying, “If I hadn’t made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood.”
His rough, tough, but devishly handsome, bad boy persona launched his acting career. Though his first leading role was in the semi-comical horror flick The Blob, he landed several major gigs that propelled his career into high fame, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape with the famous motorcycle leap, Love With the Proper Stranger and Bullit, for which he received an Oscar nomination. But arguably, one of his best roles was when one of the greatest love stories in America’s history befell him.
One night in New York City, he came across an up-and-coming Broadway star. Her name was Neile Adams.
“I was at Carnegie Hall … and was about to go right into the show. As I came down the stairs and out the door — the place was crowded — I saw him coming toward me. He had a dog with him…. We looked at each other, something went on,” Adams recalled. “As he was going to pass me, he said, ‘Hi. You’re pretty.’ No one had ever stopped me on the street before…. I replied, ‘Wow! You’re pretty, too.’ ”
For the next two weeks, McQueen, then 26 years old, would do whatever he could to be around Adams, 23. “He would have been called a stalker” in today’s terms, Adams said, laughing.
Soon after that, he moved in with her. Four months later, he married her — a quiet, but fun, ceremony, and a honeymoon in Tijuana. They stayed together for 15 years and had two children, Terry and Chad. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the idea of free love frayed their marriage, but according the Adams, the love they shared never died. Though Adams and McQueen divorced in 1972, they stayed close friends, soul mates tied at the hip, says Adams.
Unfortunately, McQueen’s final performance wouldn’t be in a death-defying motorcycle jump or in a heroic scene to save the damsel in distress, but rather in a fight with cancer.
McQueen had been exposed to asbestos in his early adulthood when he was working on boats in the Marines and side jobs in New York. He had also been exposed to asbestos in his racing/acting career, as asbestos wraps were used for insulation from toxic gases released during accidents. In 1979, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma due to the asbestos exposure. His doctors advised him to move inland, away from the damp, salty ocean air, where he had been living. That is when he moved to a 5-acre ranch in Santa Paula.
In Santa Paula, he learned how to fly planes and married his third wife, Barbara Minty. He also attended Ventura Missionary Church — a new path he discovered through his pilot teacher. Though he was in the little town for just a short time, his doctors were concerned that the pesticide drift from the fields posed a new threat for McQueen. In a last-ditch effort, he went to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for a nontraditional treatment to save his life. It failed, and he died there on Nov. 7, 1980.
Though McQueen has been gone for 30 years, his daring feats and cool attitude live on. Mimicked by the most famous stars in Hollywood and still worshipped by fans decades later, his legend has stood and continues to withstand the test of time. Please enjoy this tribute to “Steve McCool.”
The King of Cool Returns to Hollywood, the 30th anniversary tribute to Steve McQueen, will be held at ArcLight Hollywood, Cinerama Dome, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, Calif. The event is open to the general public. General Admission is $35 each; VIP tickets, which include entrance to the reception, are $45 each. For tickets and further information, please call Marie Bobin at 213-884-7005, and visit online at www.julesverne.org. For more information about Neile Adams and Steve McQueen and to purchase a copy of her book, My Husband, My friend, go to myhusbandmyfriend.com.
“I scrounged around for the next couple of years, trying to get the scam on the human race and just where the hell I fitted in — I discovered there were no openings.”
Newlywed Neile Adams captured on film by hubby Steve McQueen in Tijuana on Nov. 2, 1956. This was their sole wedding picture. Steve refused to have his picture taken in this surrounding. He thought it would come to haunt him someday, says Adams. Theirs was, at first, a whirlwind romance, married only four months after they first met. Their marriage lasted 15 years. (Photo by Steve McQueen)
“You see, I don’t believe in that grabbin’ and grabbin’ and stuff in’ yourself and not givin’ anythin’ or puttin’ it back.”
Steve won this car in a poker game. It’s an MG TC, which was first launched in 1945. He wrecked it when he hit a huge pothole while going too fast on the streets of New York City, circa 1953-54. (Photo by John Waggaman, Neile Adams Collection)
Steve at the Paramount Studios gym during a break while filming Love With the Proper Stranger in 1963. (Photo by John Dominis)
“In my own mind, I’m not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.”
Steve and Neile at the Solar Drive house with the car they bought for $5,000, circa 1960s. The XK-SS is now owned by the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles and is valued at $3 million. (Photo from Neile Adams Collection)
Referred to as “Steve and the Bimbettes” by his wife at the time, Neile Adams, this photo was taken at the race track in Le Mans in 1970, where the picture of the same name was being filmed. (Photo from Neile Adams Collection)
“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”
Steve, circa 1970, at CBS offices on Radford in North Hollywood. The Solar offices were headquartered there, and Steve’s office had just been decorated by Phil Abramson, who was a friend and a wonderful set designer, according to Neile. Bullitt had just been released, and he was riding high, as was Solar, Neile Adams and Steve’s production company. Le Mans was just about to start filming. (Photo by Mel Traxel, Neile Adams Collection)
Pictured, Steve and his daughter, Terry, at Santa Paula Airport in 1979. He had just taken her up in one of his Stearman planes. With the onset of the flu, which turned into pneumonia and finally what doctors surmised to be valley fever after innumerable tests, he was told to leave the damp beach environment and move inland where there was a gentler climate. He bought a 15-acre ranch in Santa Paula in July of 1979. There, he starting building a house while collecting all sorts of antique airplanes, antique toys, juke boxes, dolls and anything his heart desired. He looked happy there. He had just finished Tom Horn and was getting ready to film what would be his last movie, The Hunter. Eventually, after the film, he was advised to move away from the pesticides that permeated the air in agricultural Santa Paula. He passed away before he got the chance to celebrate Christmas with all of the family together in Sun Valley, where he had a new log cabin. (Photo from Neile Adams Collection)
“There’s something about my shaggy-dog eyes that makes people think I’m good.”
The McQueen Family at TCM’s King of Cool showing, May 24, 2005. Pictured from left to right, Chad McQueen (son), Jeanie McQueen (daughter-in-law), Madison McQueen (granddaughter), Neile Adams (matriarch of the McQueen family), Molly Flattery (granddaughter), Chase McQueen (grandson) and Steven R. McQueen (grandson). Steven R. McQueen looks likely to be the next McQueen to break through. He is one of the stars in the Vampire Diaries.
In 1986, Steve McQueen gets his star on the "Walk of Fame" on Hollywood Boulevard with his first wife (of 15 years), Neile Adams, and their children, Terry and Chad, present to honor him. (Photo from Neile Adams Collection)
Steve was 38, Neile was 35. They were on the set of Bullitt in San Francisco in 1968 during a break. It was his 38th birthday and she had come up to visit. (Photo by Mel Traxel, Neile Adams Collection)
The McQueen family was in Westwood in 1969, just taking a walk, when Steve spotted a photo studio and decided they should go in and have a picture taken. This picture was under his direction and he called it their Andy Hardy picture. He loved this, according to Neile. (Photo by Karl Gene, Neile Adams Collection)