The Case for Steve McQueen, Icon

The actor, driver, womanizer, and ex-Marine lived one hell of a life.

Steve McQueen is every magazine editor, fashion designer, and gender studies professor’s go-to archetype of 20th-century male cool for a reason. Just take a few hours and watch one of the classics – The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair – or even one of the lesser-known movies that helped build his reputation, like Nevada Smith. McQueen’s characters have gravity and an existential smirk, which is why his movies age as well as anything starring Bogart or Mitchum. On the occasion of Spike TV’s I Am Steve McQueen, a documentary tribute with his family’s seal of approval that will air tomorrow night at  11 p.m., here is our five-point argument for why McQueen will always be “The King of Cool.”

1. He was a rebel before he played them. McQueen’s hardscrabble, depression-era childhood led to gang membership, petty crime, and reform school. In 1947 he joined the Marines and his time there plays like one of his movies. He made Private First Class, but had difficulty with authority, earning demotions, and once spent 41 days in the brig for extending a weekend leave with his girlfriend to two weeks. Still, he left the service a hero after saving five men from a tanker wreck.

2. He had a way with the ladies. He was married three times – the second time to actress Ali McGraw – but the notorious ladies’ man was romantically linked to a host of Hollywood A-listers, including Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, and Bette Davis.

3. He was nearly a victim of Charles Manson. McQueen was invited to actress Sharon Tate’s house the night she and four others were butchered by Manson followers but decided at the last minute to stay home. Turns out he was on Manson’s bad side for rejecting a Manson screenplay.

4. He loved stunts for stunts’ sake. It’s well known that McQueen performed many of his own stunts, especially in cars, on motorcycles, and in dune buggies. For The Great Escape, McQueen was not allowed to perform the famous 60-foot fence jump for insurance reasons, but that didn’t stop him from trying it on his own. He crashed, but was unharmed.

5. He had an identity crisis. “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts,” McQueen famously said. In fact, if he’d never acted, he would have died a pretty distinguished racer. In 1961 he finished third in the British Touring Car Championship. Nine years later, he won in the three-liter class at the 12 Hours of Sebring and missed the overall victory by 23 seconds. On two wheels, he competed in the West Coast’s biggest off-road races, including the Baja 1000 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. In 1978, McQueen was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.