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Steven Terrence McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana. One of the most popular film actors of the 1960s and '70s, Steve McQueen was known for his rugged good looks and cool, tough guy persona. Some of most memorable films include The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and The Getaway (1972).
McQueen barely knew his father, Terrence, who abandoned Steve and his mother, Julian, when he was only a few months old. More interested in her own life, Julian soon left Steve in the care of his great-granduncle Claude Thompson. He stayed with his great-grand-uncle on his farm in Slater, Missouri, for many years, hearing from and seeing his mother from time to time.
When McQueen was around 12 years old, he reunited with his mother after she remarried. They eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, where he got involved with some local gangs. He got caught stealing hubcaps from cars twice, and his mother decided to send him to reform school.
Feeling abandoned once again by his mother, McQueen was sent to the California Junior Boys' Republic in Chino. He initially struggled in this new environment, frequently breaking the rules and even escaping several times. Befriend by a member of the staff, McQueen eventually settled down. He later believed that the experience changed his life, saying, "I would have ended up in jail or something. I was a wild kid," according to My Husband, My Friend, by McQueen's first wife, Neile McQueen Toffel.
McQueen's mother never visited him during his time at Boys' Republic and rarely wrote to him. Despite his own hard feelings, McQueen agreed to join his mother in New York City in 1946. The 16-year-old arrived there to find out that his mother had put him up in another apartment instead of letting him live with her. McQueen soon took off, becoming a merchant mariner for a short time aboard the SS Alpha. The job didn't work out either, and he left the ship while it was docked in the Dominican Republic.
Before making his way back to the United States, McQueen worked in a brothel as a towel boy for a time. He returned home and began a series of odd jobs around the country, including working on oil rigs and in a carnival. In 1947, McQueen enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and became a tank driver. Showing his rebellious streak, he ended up in the brig for extending a weekend pass into a two-week holiday. McQueen was far from the model soldier. "I was busted back down to private about seven times. The only way I could have been made corporal was if all the other privates in the Marines dropped dead," he said, according to Marshall Terrill's Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel.
After being discharged from the Marines in 1950, McQueen spent some time in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., before returning to New York City. He hung out in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, a Bohemian enclave at the time. For a time, McQueen seemed aimless, moving and changing jobs frequently. He discovered his calling with the help of a girlfriend who was also an aspiring actress. With support from the G.I. Bill, McQueen enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse run by Sanford Meisner in 1951.
McQueen's first role as an actor was a bit part in a Yiddish theatrical production. He only had one line and was cut from the show after four nights. Despite this setback, it was apparent that McQueen had talent. He won a scholarship to study at the Uta Hagen-Herbert Berghof School in 1952. A few years later, McQueen was accepted to the prestigious Actors Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg.
In 1956, McQueen made his one and only appearance on Broadway. He took over the leading role from Ben Gazzara in A Hatful of Rain, playing junkie Johnny Pope. On the big screen, McQueen had a small part in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which starred Paul Newman. He felt a rivalry with Newman, a fellow member of the Actors Studio.
While more parts came his way, McQueen did not experience his first big career breakthrough until 1958. He starred in the television western Wanted—Dead or Alive as bounty hunter Josh Randall. The show became a big hit, and McQueen started to attract more attention from Hollywood. In 1959, he starred in the crime drama The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. McQueen also appeared with Frank Sinatra in the war drama Never So Few that same year. Around this time, he discovered a passion for race-car driving. McQueen was already a longtime fan of motorcycles.
In 1960, McQueen had a leading role in the western The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson. His television show ended that same year, giving him the opportunity to take on more film roles. With 1963's The Great Escape, McQueen earned top billing, showing the world that he was a bona fide movie star.
More box-office hits followed, including gambling drama The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Western Nevada Smith (1966). McQueen received his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his work on The Sand Pebbles, a military drama. In the film, he played a Naval engineer stationed on a gun boat in China during the 1920s. McQueen scored another success with the romantic crime caper The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 with Faye Dunaway as his love interest.
That same year, McQueen made movie history with one of the all-time best car chases in Bullitt. He played a San Francisco cop who pursued suspects through the city's hilly streets in one of the wildest rides ever filmed. He tried to tap into his love of car racing in 1971's Le Mans, with only limited success. In an effort to have more creative control, McQueen formed First Artists Productions with Barbara Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman that same year.
Turning to more weighty material, McQueen had better success with Junior Bonner (1972). He played the title character in this well-received family drama directed by Sam Peckinpah. Also in 1972, McQueen starred in The Getaway with Ali McGraw. He and McGraw began an affair during filming—McGraw was married to film executive Robert Evans at the time. Their relationship became a scandal in the press. The couple married in 1973. McQueen had been previously married to dancer and actress Neile Adams with whom he had two children, Chad and Terry.
Personal Setbacks and Related Health Issues
McQueen won accolades for his performance in Papillon (1973), starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in the prison drama. He played a hero in the disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974). But his personal demons began to eclipse his talent. He drank and used drugs, and his relationship with McGraw became increasingly stormy. Both of his ex-wives later stated that he could be physically abusive and was often unfaithful.
Returning to the big screen in 1978, McQueen starred in An Enemy of the People based on the play by Henrik Ibsen. He was almost unrecognizable in the film with his long hair, beard, and heavier physique. Audiences did not know what to make of their action hero's portrayal of a scientist fighting against pollution. After this project failed at the box office, McQueen went on to more familiar roles. He starred in the western Tom Horn (1980) and the modern action-thriller The Hunter (1980).
By this time, however, McQueen was terribly ill. He had been experiencing flu-like symptoms and respiratory problems for a while before it was discovered that he had cancer. An X-ray taken in late 1979 showed that he had a tumor in his right lung. The doctors said that his type of cancer stemmed from exposure to asbestos and was known to be aggressive and terminal. A short time after receiving this diagnosis, McQueen married model girlfriend Barbara Minty. The couple had met while McQueen was still married to McGraw, and they wed in January 1980.
McQueen spent the final months of his life in a clinic in Mexico, seeking alternative therapies for his cancer. He died on November 7, 1980, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after undergoing surgery to remove several tumors. McGraw once described McQueen as a "combination of farm boy and street tough," and it was the mysterious mixture that helped him leave an indelible impression on the world of the film.
McQueen made headlines posthumously in 2013, when his 1952 Chevy pickup truck—the last vehicle he ever drove—was scheduled to be auctioned off on July 26 by Mecum Auctions. At the time of his death, the actor, a longtime car and motorcycle enthusiast, reportedly owned more than 60 classic/rare vehicles.