“I don’t believe in that phony hero stuff.” Steve McQueen’s rebel attitude probably ruffled quite a few feathers among the pretentious powers-that-be in Hollywood, but fans duly rewarded the number one box office phenomenon’s straightforward creed by regularly flocking to such classic, adrenaline-soaked movies as The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon.
Marshall Terrill, the reigning King of Cool’s biographer, concurs: “McQueen was heroic but at the same time he came across a real human being…as if you somehow knew him personally.” In the premiere installment of an exclusive, definitely mammoth two-part interview, Terrill demonstrates a genuine knack for encapsulating why moviegoers still connect with an actor who starred in only 26 films before his premature death of mesothelioma in 1980.
McQueen’s longevity and mystique have been nothing short of amazing during the dawn of the new millennium. In Forbes Magazine’s latest poll, he landed at an impressive No. 9 on the 15 Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. No doubt McQueen would find the recognition highly gratifying, as his competitive streak to become the best at his craft, whether in acting or racing, never abated.
A hard-hitting journalist with over 25 years spent researching McQueen and the author of five books exploring his favorite subject, Terrill immediately received worldwide acclaim for his first biography, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, published when the author was just 29 years old in 1993. An instant bestseller, the biography has experienced several reprintings and has been optioned for a feature film starring Academy Award-nominated Jeremy Renner, best known for his devastating turn in the recent Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker.
Seventeen years later, after considerable experience as a beat newspaper reporter and a dozen or so biographies to his credit, Terrill felt the urge to revisit his debut “baby” after gaining access to additional McQueen insiders and heretofore unavailable research.
The well-received 600-plus page Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon incredibly unearths long-forgotten friends in the late actor’s boyhood home of Slater, Mo, his previously unknown half sister – Teri McQueen – and his private nurse’s day-by-day diary kept during the star’s valiant cancer battle.
Terrill respects and admires his subject, yet he doesn’t sugarcoat McQueen’s notoriously temperamental ego, womanizing, partying, illicit drug taking, and sometimes downright cold business decisions, presenting them in an even-handed light. In his breezy conversation below, Terrill leaves no stone unturned, pretty much covering every facet of McQueen’s fascinating existence and noteworthy encounters with fellow luminaries including John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Paul Newman.
Unsurprisingly, the diligent journalist remains a busy guy. Two collaborative music-themed books are on the horizon – Guitar With Wings and Rock and a Heart Place with Beatles insider Ken Mansfield. The former is Paul McCartney and Wings lead guitarist Laurence Juber’s memoir while the latter combines nearly 20 comprehensive interviews with noteworthy rock and roll musicians who experienced a transformative Christian rebirth.
The Marshall Terrill / Steve McQueen Interview (Part One)
Can you recall the first movie where you saw Steve and became hooked?
At that time, Bullitt played continuously on Channel 20 in Washington D.C., where I spent a good portion of my youth. But The Getaway was the first motion picture I saw of McQueen’s. I’m a military brat and so when we moved, and my parents were out looking for a home, they’d drop us kids off at the movies and we’d spend the entire day there.
I must have seen Papillon as a kid at least 10 times. When The Towering Inferno debuted in December 1974, a buddy and me went to a midnight showing the day it came out. But here’s the funny part – the 9 p.m. show was sold out, and it was apparent the midnight showing was also going to be a sell-out.
I told my friend there was no way in hell I as going to miss this movie, and so I simply walked up to the front of the line and cut in front of some lady! She must have sensed my determination and didn’t say a word. But boy did she stare daggers at my back the whole three hours I waited for the next showing…that kind of tells you how much I loved McQueen.
It’s hard to explain why McQueen was so likeable to me at such an early age. He was heroic but at the same time he came across a real human being…as if you somehow knew him personally. His acting is so layered and honest. He was able to communicate and appeal to a lot of different people. It’s really head-spinning when you start to examine his acting and appeal. I can’t think of anyone today who has the same appeal, which is why McQueen is so missed.
Off-screen, what was Steve like as a person?
Let me be clear, I never met McQueen when he was alive, so I can only give you my opinion based on the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with friends, family, business associates and those who have had encounters with McQueen, which is really the basis of Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool.
McQueen is perhaps the most multi-faceted and complex person I’ve ever researched. He was the epitome of yin and yang – sweet and scary; caring and selfish; cocky and insecure; funny and humorless; generous and thrifty. He was every emotion you could think of, which makes him absolutely fascinating to a biographer.
Was Steve’s relationship with his mother perpetually rocky?
Sadly, it appears that way. Any way you look at it, Jullian was not very maternal and judging strictly on her actions, she was very young when she had Steve, and there’s no question that often times he felt emotionally abandoned.
Over the years, he grew resentful, even though he loved his mother. Her excessive drinking also caused him turmoil, and I don’t think he ever fully trusted her or reconciled his feelings for her when she died.
I think he was ready to forgive her when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, but by then it was too late – she died. Think about this: both of his parents were dead by the time Steve turned 35. That’s emotionally devastating.
Based upon your interviews, how did folks remember Jullian?
I’ve heard mixed reviews. I remember Gene Lesser, Steve’s roommate in Greenwich Village, said she was a beautiful woman who commanded attention and was extremely sexy and charismatic.
Others felt she was spoiled and only thought about herself. I felt bad for Julian, because you have to remember, it was a man’s world back in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Women had limited options when it came to employment, so she became heavily reliant upon men to help her get by.
She obviously had a problem picking good men with the exception of Victor Lukens, who was perhaps the love of her life. From what I heard through Victor’s widow, his relationship with Jullian was tempestuous, and he got tired of her drinking. Jullian had mellowed quite as she grew older, but Steve kept her at arm’s length because of all of the hurt he endured as a kid, teen, and young adult.
She owned an antique business in San Francisco the last few years of her life. Maybe that’s where McQueen’s love of old things came into play when he decorated his home and hangar in Santa Paula.
Steve’s father was William Terrence McQueen. He abandoned Steve and his mother at an early age, and Steve only found him several months after his death in 1959. So, how did you locate him over 50 years later?
Let me say first and foremost, that was the most exciting part of this book – tracking down William McQueen. It always bugged me that no one knew anything about William, and it was almost as if he were a ghost.
When I did the first book back in 1993, I didn’t have a clue as to how to find him, and public information back then was not only a minefield but wasn’t as open as it is today. After my tenure as a journalist, I finally had the skills but didn’t know where to start.
So I looked at one of the ancestry websites to see if there was anything on McQueen’s family tree that might help me out. From what I understand, the Mormon Church updates the site on a constant basis, and when I looked up McQueen, it had his father’s birth date and the date of his death.
It was the first time I had ever seen any information on William McQueen other than his name. From this information, I was able to get his death certificate. From his death certificate, I was able to determine what his occupation was (he was a Merchant Marine, not a barnstorming pilot), his last known address (Long Beach, California), the cause of death (cirrhosis of the liver), and his social security number.
The social security number allowed me access to his military file, which contained his photos, his various tours of duty, and where he traveled in the years after he left Jullian and Steve. And then it made sense how William was able to stay under the radar and evade Steve all those years – he was constantly out to sea.
How did you track down Mike Sedam, the son of William’s best friend, Paul Sedam?
I finally found Mike through Veronica Valdez. She’s the real life Nancy Drew and put the pieces of the puzzle together while I was writing the text. If it weren’t for her, many parts of McQueen’s history would have remained dormant.
She spent hours in the library looking at old articles and microfiche as well as the Internet, piecing together McQueen’s family roots. She also made sense of it for me as well by describing all the different scenarios that could have played out. In many instances, her hunches were correct and that’s how we were able to piece together a lot of things.
For example, she found out William McQueen’s family moved from Tennessee to Los Angeles when he was a young boy. Later, when William left Jullian and Steve, I was at a loss where to look.
She said, “Where do you go when you leave your wife and child? You go back home.” Next, she got a hold of the Los Angeles City Directory for 1930, and there his name was. I said, “How in the hell did you figure that out?” She said, “That’s because you don’t think like a woman.”
And she’s absolutely right…I think chronologically and sometimes have on blinders and move straight ahead. She thought peripherally and outside the box. Veronica not only brought those skills to this book, but she’s a huge McQueen fan, so she was absolutely motivated to find out the truth.
She was dogged in her research, even going to neighborhoods and knocking on doors, chasing down leads. She reminded me of the old school gumshoe who got all of her information first hand. Talk about fearless.
One of the most important discoveries in your research concerned the revelation that Teri McQueen was Steve’s half-sister.
Teri’s name was in William’s military file, listed as a dependent. When I saw that, I went, “Holy s**t…Steve has a half-sister!” Once I discovered that information, I called Veronica Valdez, the chief researcher on this book, to help me find Teri.
We figured based on the information we had Teri had to be about 70 years old, and there was a good chance she was still alive. Veronica checked through various databases, and we narrowed down our search.
But we couldn’t locate a good phone number for Teri, so I had to hire a private investigator to visit Teri’s daughter and pass along the message that I knew who she was and that I’d like to talk to her. Her daughter passed along the message to Teri, who in turn called me.
I started off the conversation with, “I don’t think you’re going to believe me, but my research shows you are Steve McQueen’s half-sister.” She said, “Yes, I’ve known this information my whole life.” I was stunned and asked, “Why have you kept this a secret for 70 years?” She said, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”
She provided to me her birth certificate, photos of William, correspondence from William to her mother (Alma Doris Moody), and stories about William that correlated with the information I had already compiled.
She also told me a story about leaving a note for Steve on the set of Bullitt in San Francisco in 1968, where she lived at the time. She said she left it with someone to pass along to Steve, and that Steve never attempted to get in touch with her.
So while he knew of her existence, he made a conscious decision not to reach out. It also must be pointed out that I went looking for Teri; she didn’t come looking for me.
Actually, she is now relieved that she no longer has to hide who she is (she took her husband’s last name for almost her adult life), and I think the fact it has gone public has been therapeutic for her. By the way, she is a very lovely, nice lady possessing a wonderful and engaging personality.
Did you find any evidence of William and Paul Sedam’s “Butch and Sundance years?”
The “Butch and Sundance” years were stories that were passed on by Paul’s son, who is in his late seventies today. Mike, by the way, actually met Jullian in the 1950s. He was told a lot of those stories by his father, who died in 1984.
Some of the things he had told us were documented by old news stories, so we had some proof that what he was saying was true. And here’s what solidified everything: Teri told me that her mother said if she ever wanted to get in touch with her father, to contact Paul Sedam. But she asked Teri not to contact Paul, and so out of respect for her mother, she never did.
How did you convince Teri to make her first public appearance?
Teri lives in the Midwest and met with me and Veronica in Slater, Missouri, in April 2010 for Steve McQueen Days. She wanted to reconnect with Steve in a spiritual and emotional way, as well as her father, whom she never knew. No one other than Veronica or myself knew the truth, and Teri was able to tag along anonymously. She made herself known to the world the following year.
What was Slater like in the 1930s?
It was a thriving little city known as a “rough railroad town” throughout the state. It had a Main Street with about fifty merchants, a pool hall, a movie theater and about four pharmacies. Of course, when the Great Depression hit, the town was thrown into great financial despair.
At first, Steve lived in a 10×20 railroad ‘cook shack’ with his grandparents, Lillian and Victor Crawford. It had no running water, electricity, or toilet facilities.
Steve later moved in with his great uncle, Claude Thomson.
Claude was a prosperous hog farmer and owned about 320 acres of land. Steve, like all other kids at that time, worked the farm and learned his values and principles from Uncle Claude, who was Steve’s first father figure.
Because Steve’s early life was so hectic, there was no real stability. Both of his parents were alcoholics, he was passed around to relatives, and Uncle Claude was the first one to give him a stable home life.
Steve remembered, “He was a very good man. Very strong. Very fair. I learned a lot from him.” One of the principles he learned from Claude was a strong work ethic. “When I’d get lazy and duck my chores, Claude would warm my backside with a hickory switch. I learned a simple fact: you work for what you get,” said Steve.
What was the most important lesson Steve took away from his Slater experience?
Perhaps his sense of right and wrong. McQueen once said, “I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It gives you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which is lacking in our society.”
How much has Slater changed in the past 80 years?
It’s changed a lot, but the people have not. They’re the best, and they’re like family to me. If you follow America’s economic journey, the places that were prosperous in the 19th and early 20th Centuries were agricultural and textile communities.
Slater fell into the former as the area’s fertile soil made it some of the finest farmland in the country. When the Chicago and Alton Railroad pulled out of Slater sometime in the 1940s, the town was greatly affected, and it has had to change and transition with the times.
Many of the buildings on Main Street from when the time Steve was there are still standing, so it’s easy to envision what life was like then.
Claude Thomson’s home is also still there, and I make it a point to visit the owner every time I come to Slater. His name is Harold Eddy, and he grew up on the farm next to Steve.
About a week before the festival I call him and say, “Mr. Eddy, I’m coming to town, and I’d like to see the house.” He and his wife are so gracious that they never say no, but I never come empty handed, either. I always have a signed book for them.
During Steve’s lifetime, did the city recognize him in any manner?
Steve told a reporter in the late 1950s, “I hated farm life and didn’t get along with small-town people. I guess they were just as glad to see me go as I was to get out of there.”
Those words stuck with the town for many decades, and they have the attitude of, “Well, if you don’t like me, then screw you. I don’t like you either.” In 1978 the town celebrated its centennial and extended an olive branch to McQueen, who never bothered to reply.
But in the last year of his life, he was feeling sentimental, and his wife Barbara told me he wanted to take a road trip to Slater. Soon thereafter, he wasn’t feeling well (he had been diagnosed with cancer) and canceled the trip.
In March 2007, it all changed. Me, Barbara, Pat Johnson and Loren Janes reached out to Slater Main Street News editor Jean Black, who helped organize the first annual Steve McQueen Days Festival.
She said no one from Slater thought we were going to attend, and when it was confirmed we were coming, 2,000 people showed up. It was amazing.
Someone in the audience asked Barbara if it was true that Steve hated Slater, and she said, “Steve never hated anything. The only thing he ever hated was when he ran out of beer.” The crowd ate up her down-home humor, especially when a farmer asked Barbara if it was coincidental that he married all brunettes.
Barbara answered, “Sure, Steve married all brunettes; but don’t forget, there were a lot of blondes in between.” The place went nuts, and everybody fell to the floor with laughter. Right then and there is when everything changed. They all fell in love with Barbara in that very instant, and in turn, fell in love with Steve. I credit Barbara McQueen for turning those ill feelings around. Slater is becoming well known again.
How do you rate Steve’s successful three-year Western series, Wanted: Dead or Alive?
It was a good show for its time. It’s funny looking back because all of the initial reviews commented on its violent content, and McQueen was always forced to defend the show.
What was most important about Wanted: Dead or Alive was that it was a valuable learning experience for McQueen to hone his craft; how to specifically act for the camera. By the time he was finished the series, he transitioned smoothly into feature films and created a very strong film persona.
Do you think Steve might have returned to television?
No, I don’t think so. Remember how much McQueen wanted to get out of Wanted: Dead or Alive? He always thought of himself as a movie star, and television served a means to an end. Television for him was a grind – twelve-to-fifteen-hour days, and sometimes they shot an entire episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive in a day.
When he made the transition to film, he’d make one movie a year for three months at a time and had the rest of the year off. I think he had enough of television after three years of WDOA.
Did Steve eventually become proud of his role as Josh on the show?
I believe he did. He stated in many interviews “Ol’ Josh” gave him his break in show business. Let’s just say he didn’t bite the hand that fed him and always gave proper credit to the series for giving him his start.
For newcomers to Steve’s illustrious body of work, what film(s) would you direct them to see?
The Magnificent Seven; The Great Escape; Love with the Proper Stranger; The Cincinnati Kid; The Sand Pebbles; The Thomas Crown Affair; Bullitt; The Reivers; Junior Bonner; The Getaway; Papillon and Tom Horn. This roster of films gives a good sampling of McQueen’s range as an actor and demonstrates why he was so popular with audiences.
Pick some of your favorite McQueen roles.
Papillon and The Getaway are my two favorite McQueen movies. Papillon shows McQueen’s depth as an actor. He should have won the Academy Award for his performance.
And for some reason, The Getaway, because I’ve always felt that it captures McQueen’s true intensity and personality. In his performances he was always a bit restrained, but in The Getaway, he lets loose, and you get a sense of who McQueen was in his private life.
On the other hand, is there a McQueen film that you don’t care for?
Well, there was the whole slew of B-movies in the late ‘50s – The Blob, Never Love a Stranger, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. But that’s simply because he had not defined who he was as an actor. In Never So Few, you catch the first real glimpse of the McQueen persona, which he had defined and perfected in the next decade.
When he became popular, Soldier in the Rain, Baby the Rain Must Fall, and Nevada Smith were my least favorites. And because I’m not a racing fan, I find Le Mans boring and unwatchable.
But Le Mans is a testament to McQueen’s star power at the time – how many other major movie stars can get away with carrying an entire picture with a dozen lines of dialogue? I promise you that would never happen in today’s industry.
I’d enjoy hearing a good story about The Blob, still a perennial cult classic.
Where do I begin? So many interesting stories about The Blob in this new book, but the funniest story was told by co-star Aneta Corsaut. She said everyone connected to [The Blob] was religious because the production company made Christian films and The Blob was their first foray into the mainstream.
She said Steve drove everyone on the set crazy and the filmmakers would go into daily prayer meetings—they would pray to everything, including the makeup brushes. Corsaut said they would always finish by saying, “And God save us from Steve McQueen!”
On a more serious note, the executive producer on that movie said that he constantly preached the gospel to McQueen and even gave him a Bible and dog-eared the page for John 3:16.
When he told me that, I got goose bumps, because as you know, McQueen was clutching the Bible when he died in Mexico, and the page was opened to John 3:16. His gravitation to Christianity was a slow 20-year evolution, but I believe it started on The Blob.
Did The Blob score at the box office?
It was Paramount Picture’s No. 1 grossing movie of 1958 and was a bona-fide smash. Like the Hula-Hoop, coonskin caps, and TV dinners, The Blob crossed over into the realm of 1950s pop culture.
That was in large part due to the kitschy title song (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David under the phantom group The Blobs). The song, which ultimately sold three million copies, was a glorified radio jingle for the movie.
The Blob also provided grist for comedians and television personalities who found the movie’s title too hard to resist as a punch line. Steve Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope mentioned The Blob every time they needed a sure-fire laugh from audiences. Today it is just one tier below The Rocky Horror Film in terms of camp classics.
Did Steve come to grips with his role in the cult classic as he got older?
I’m not so sure he did. Howie Fishlove, who worked with Steve on The Blob, was also an extra on The Hunter, which was McQueen’s last movie. He reintroduced himself to Steve on The Hunter after twenty years, and Howie said Steve remembered him.
Not long into their conversation, Howie mentioned that he had a blooper reel of the movie and offered to get Steve a copy. McQueen told him, “Burn it!” Fishlove said McQueen was dead serious.
Is there a McQueen film that you have re-examined and perhaps changed your mind about his performance?
Yes, and it happened most recently. A buddy of mine burned a copy of The Honeymoon Machine  for me, and I watched it on a plane on my personal DVD player. I was astonished to discover that McQueen was actually quite funny in the film. I had only really given him credit for being funny in The Reivers, but he’s excellent in The Honeymoon Machine.
Why did Steve tend to get into trouble on movie sets?
In the case of The Great Escape, McQueen was frustrated that his role wasn’t clearly defined, and rightly so. I imagine that played a part in his behavior on the set. Combine that with the fact he was off the picture for six weeks with nothing to do, he created his own chaos to pass the time. He was not a guy who sat around waiting for something to happen.
While shooting Le Mans, there was also frustration but for different reasons. He had the pressure of the entire movie being on his back, and the studio was threatening to take control. The movie took a big toll on McQueen and it played a major part in the demise of his relationship with his agent Stan Kamen, Solar Productions, his movie company and his marriage to first wife Neile.
So absolutely, McQueen displayed lots of reckless behavior, both in Hollywood and overseas. The thing to keep in mind is that it was a different time. Journalists turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of stars (and U.S. presidents) because they had to keep their sources.
Today it’s completely flip-flopped. The press look for stars to mess up because they’ll get a great scoop and know it will play big. Ten years ago you’d never see an affair as front page news. Today it’s routine. There just weren’t as many paparazzi back in McQueen’s day and the era of instant information has changed everything.
Was there ever a film where Steve didn’t argue with his director?
Yes, there were quite a few directors he got along with. He worked well with John Sturges in Never So Few and The Magnificent Seven (but then they feuded on The Great Escape and their friendship sadly ended on Le Mans).
He got along with Don Siegel in Hell is For Heroes; Robert Mulligan on Love with the Proper Stranger and Baby the Rain Must Fall; Henry Hathaway on Nevada Smith; Robert Wise on The Sand Pebbles; Peter Yates on Bullitt; Sam Peckinpah on Junior Bonner; Franklin Schaffner on Papillon; Irwin Allen and John Guillermin on The Towering Inferno and Buzz Kulick on The Hunter.
He also got along with Norman Jewison on The Cincinnati Kid but was a pain in the ass on The Thomas Crown Affair three years later. But that’s because McQueen was insecure about himself in the role, not because of Jewison.
The reason why he was difficult on film set was because many times, he functioned best when there was chaos. In many instances, if was no chaos then he had to create it. Psychologist Peter Witt, who wrote the foreword to Legend and analyzed McQueen’s behavior throughout the book, said that because his early life was so chaotic, he was at his functional peak when stirring the pot.
Who do you think Steve enjoyed working with the most?
There’s no doubt he enjoyed working with his friend Don Gordon, who co-starred with McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive, Bullitt, Papillon and The Towering Inferno. McQueen also enjoyed working with Ben Johnson, Eli Wallach and specifically requested to work with LeVar Burton on The Hunter.
But the actors who got the best out of Steve were the ones he perceived as threats: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and Yul Brynner. He was particularly motivated in The Magnificent Seven, Papillon and The Towering Inferno.
Regarding Steve’s co-stars, who coaxed the best performance out of him?
I’d have to say off the top of my head Dustin Hoffman for Papillon; Faye Dunaway for The Thomas Crown Affair; Edward G. Robinson for The Cincinnati Kid and Robert Preston for Junior Bonner.
McQueen did his best work when he knew he was going up against someone formidable. And he was especially amped when acting opposite Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno.
How would you categorize McQueen and Newman’s relationship in real life?
Psychologist Peter O. Whitmer believes that Steve had what he called a “weird professional sibling rivalry” with Newman. Whitmer thinks it stemmed from the fact that Steve never had a brother with whom to go through this rite of adolescent passage, and that Newman fit the bill.
I believe they liked each other as people, but Steve was jealous that Newman got to the top much quicker than he did. This rivalry manifested itself again on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Steve refused to do the movie based on the grounds that he would not get top billing.
It finally came to a close when McQueen finally got top billing and the more dominating part in The Towering Inferno. Let me point out it wasn’t a one-way street – according to a few new accounts, Newman also made sure to guard his territory.
Inferno screenwriter Stirling Silliphant told a very funny story about how the two stars went back and forth with him regarding their lines, and sneaking behind each other’s backs but never directly confronting the other.
In retrospect, did Newman speak about McQueen on-the-record?
That’s a very interesting question because I’ve never come across an article or interview where Newman commented on the record about McQueen either during his lifetime or after his death. I find this very telling given that Newman lived almost 30 years after McQueen passed away.
There is a relatively new book out by Newman’s lifelong friend, A.E. Hotchner, called Paul and Me. Hotchner writes about visiting Newman on the set of The Towering Inferno. He said that Newman was very unhappy with himself and McQueen, going so far as to call him “chicken s–t” for counting up the lines in the screenplay and demanding parity.
This proves what I’ve always felt about superstars: there’s no room at the top for anyone else. Look at Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson – who were their best friends? The answer is nobody.
Perhaps a question out of left field – was Steve friendly with John Wayne?
McQueen greatly respected the Duke and held him up as the gold standard for movie stars. I remember hearing a story most recently from Barbara McQueen. She was looking over pictures in Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool and spotted the two pictures of McQueen and Wayne.
She chuckled and then told me this great story. She said the two legends were at an awards ceremony in the 1960s and were either presenters or co-presenters. They were hanging out backstage, waiting to go on, when Wayne didn’t feel like going to the restroom or there wasn’t enough time to find a restroom, and so Wayne took a leak against a wall or curtain.
She said that Steve started laughing and joined in, also relieving himself. Barbara said Steve remembered the encounter with a huge smile. After we both finished laughing, I said, “Oh, why did you have to tell me that story after the book was published?”
What connection did Elvis Presley have with the King of Cool?
I did a book with Memphis Mafia member Sonny West called Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business . He told me a story of how the two met one day on the way to the studio in the mid-’60s. Elvis was in a limousine when McQueen pulled up on a motorcycle. They were pleasant to each other but the exchange was brief.
The two legends really collided when they were competing for the affections of actress Barbara Leigh, who I also wrote a book with, entitled The King, McQueen and the Love Machine, in 2002. She was Steve’s co-star in his 1972 rodeo western, Junior Bonner.
Before she met Steve, Barbara was dating Elvis and Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio executive Jim Aubrey in August 1970. She then got the role of “Charmagne”, and she and Steve started seeing each other on the set of Junior Bonner, and even after the movie was completed.
Barbara, Steve, and Elvis had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the people they were dating. I have a sneaking suspicion Steve knew she was still seeing Elvis and that Elvis knew she was seeing Steve.
So when Elvis would call, he’d ask, “How’s that motorcycle hick”? And Steve would ask, “Was that the guitar hick?” It wasn’t often that McQueen or Elvis had to compete for a woman, but Barbara Leigh, who was a stunner, was quite worth the chase. She’s a very sweet lady and still as sexy as ever.
When you got down to it, Barbara was really in love with James Aubrey. She knew Elvis would never give up other women and realized she and Steve weren’t a great match. I don’t know of Elvis and Steve meeting again after their relationships with Barbara ended.
Did Steve regret turning down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for The Reivers?
I have never heard any stories saying McQueen regretted turning down Butch Cassidy. In his mind, if he didn’t get top billing, then there was nothing else to discuss.
Personally, I would have loved to have seen him in this role…it was so perfect for McQueen. He would have brought great intensity to the part, and I believe he was short-sighted about the star billing. He would have also been excellent in Apocalypse Now, The Bodyguard, The Driver, and A Bridge Too Far. Apocalypse Now would have stretched him as an actor.
The film I regret seeing him turn down the most was director William Friedkin’s The Sorcerer. That’s a very good film with Roy Scheider in the lead role, but McQueen would have given it another dimension and made it a classic.
Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) would have pushed McQueen to greatness on that film. It’s a shame that he didn’t make that movie, because right around the time he did An Enemy of the People in 1977, he could have used a box-office hit.
Of the numerous scripts that McQueen turned down that were relegated to the proverbial dustbin, is there one that deserves to be revisited in modern times?
Robert Downey, Jr. has been working the last five years to get Yucatan off the ground. I think it’s great because this was the one film McQueen wanted to do most but got shelved because of the collapse of Solar Productions after Le Mans in 1971. Once it gets made, I believe the film would be a great opportunity for people to rediscover McQueen’s work all over again and think about the possibilities of what could have been.
Was Papillon Steve’s greatest acting role?
Yes, it’s my personal opinion that Papillon was his greatest role because his performance captures the essence of needing to be free despite the costs. His character experiences many torments and hardships to achieve his goal.
The maturity that McQueen brings to this piece of work is impressive as he shows great valor but is also unafraid to be shown at his worst, especially in the scenes where he has been in solitary confinement and in an appalling state.
McQueen had the skill and security in himself to play a character that by the end was ravaged of his good looks. He was now confident enough as an actor to stand aside from his image and let his acting do the talking.
In terms of preparation, he knew he was up against Dustin Hoffman, who was part of this new crop of young actors taking the acting world by storm. You can tell by McQueen’s performance that he was inspired.
How did Steve’s three marriages impact his life and career?
Neile McQueen represented Steve’s struggle to get to the top and his halcyon years as a movie star. She was ambitious and highly talented, breaking into the world of entertainment just as Steve wanted to do.
Ali MacGraw seemed to fill the gap in his life during the transition from established star to the start of middle age; she was America’s sweetheart and the ideal other half of Hollywood’s power couple. Her presence defined the final stretch of McQueen’s domination of the film industry, the reconciliation of his alpha-male status with middle age, and his withdrawal from public life while they spent five reclusive years in Malibu.
Finally, Barbara Minty represented a sense of peace and contentment. During this period, McQueen settled comfortably into middle age and was intent on finding peace—and himself—on his own terms.
What is the story behind Steve tending bar at a funky Agoura Hills restaurant?
The establishment was called The Old Place, and it catered to an eclectic mix of bikers, actors, beach bums, cowboys, and local characters who made the establishment their own.
He first started going there in late 1972, but he might have moonlighted there after The Towering Inferno, circa ’74, ’75, and ’76. Flo Esposito, who was a bartender at The Old Place, told me Steve had the kindest heart of any man she had ever met.
McQueen often worked behind the bar, pouring beer and wine and serving patrons. Esposito, who spent many evenings with McQueen, said it was therapeutic for him, because he didn’t have the pressure of the media spotlight on him.
I thought it was interesting from a psychological point of view. He was the world’s highest paid movie star, but tending bar made him happy and relieved the pressure he was feeling.
Another odd but true tale… Steve donned a hard hat and tool belt and snuck around as a telephone repairman.
That was a story told to me by McQueen’s former New York City roommate, Gene Lesser. He said after The Towering Inferno, McQueen was burned out and was tired of being recognized by the public.
He said McQueen used to come by his office, albeit dressed up in a hard hat and tool belt, and lie on his couch and talk for hours about the old days and what he was currently up to.
That, combined with his long hair and beard, provided a cover for McQueen so he could move about freely. Escapism was a major theme in McQueen’s life and his movies.
Why did Steve take such a long sabbatical from films after 1974’s The Towering Inferno? Did he think this was a mistake upon reflection?
In Life and Legend I discuss this in great detail. I think it was several things – he was burned out from the film industry, he had surpassed his rival Paul Newman, and he finally had the money to take a long break.
Also, once you reach the pinnacle of your career, like he did with The Towering Inferno, how do you even attempt to come back because you know the next thing you do will not measure up? Those were, I believe, all the things going through McQueen’s head at the time.
With that said, I don’t think McQueen ever regretted this decision because it’s what his body and head required. When your instincts tell you to take a break, you should listen. The break realistically was only for two years, not five. I’m sure no one counted on An Enemy of the People getting shelved, which added to the length of time the public hadn’t seen him.
An Enemy of the People certainly had a convoluted production schedule.
The film was a 33-day shoot, which commenced on Sept. 28, 1976. After a long and arduous testing period, the movie saw a limited release in about a dozen cities in March 1978. Warner Brothers didn’t know how to market the film because it was McQueen in an Ibsen play.
He chose to go totally against type and rather than try and misrepresent the film, the studio canned it. My personal belief is that he chose the project to sabotage his First Artists deal [McQueen’s production company; Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and Sidney Poitier were also partners], but then he fell in love with the picture after its release. McQueen found himself in a real Catch-22.
The movie finally came out on DVD in 2009 and is available for sale, so if you’re a fan and are curious, you should check it out to see what all the fuss was about.
With Tom Horn and The Hunter both appearing in 1980, do you think Steve would have continued making movies at a regular rate as opposed to his creative dry spell in the late ‘70s?
I believe McQueen would have made movies sporadically in more cameo/character driven roles as he grew older. McQueen was at a place in his life where he no longer had to prove himself and wasn’t as driven as he was in his 20s and 30s.
It was apparent to me he wanted to enjoy his life, his planes, his cars, motorcycles, and antiques. He would have been in a position like Marlon Brando where he was always going to be in demand, and would have been paid well to come out of retirement.
Was there a film Steve really wanted to make after The Hunter until cancer eroded those plans?
He was prepping The Last Ride, a story about former bikers who are now middle-aged and take “one last ride” before they enter maturity. Columbia Studios was going to make the movie with Chuck Bail, Steve’s friend, as director, and Steve had already committed to the project.
Everything was a go until March 1980, when the news broke that McQueen had cancer. This story is covered in Legend and is heartbreaking to read, because he would have been so good in the role.
The premise of Wild Hogs , starring John Travolta, is similar to The Last Ride, but took a more comedic approach. I think The Last Ride would have been more somber and melodramatic. I still think it’s a great idea for a movie, and I hope one day a studio will revive the idea just as they are trying to do with Yucatan.
When did Steve have to give up flying during his bout with cancer?
My research shows he had his last flight around late May/early June 1980. Remember, he checked into the Plaza Santa Maria in Mexico on July 31, and everything ceased after that. I remember Mike Dewey, who was a pilot, told me the sad story that once McQueen’s belly became bloated, he was ashamed of his appearance and started cutting himself off from the public.
What is your view on Steve’s decision to go to Mexico for alternative cancer treatment?
It’s a tough call because it was a dire situation. It’s not a black and white issue. McQueen was definitely told by doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital that he had three months to live and to get his affairs in order. Being a fighter his whole life, he didn’t take the news well and decided to go to Mexico.
You also have to remember the era – it was a time where alternative cancer therapies started getting a lot publicity, and the public felt as if the government were hiding things about cures to cancer. McQueen was naturally suspicious, so this fed into his paranoia.
Barbara said to me it was a very confusing time, and what Dr. Kelley said made sense at a time when nothing else did. And I must take some blame here as well – in 1993 when I did Portrait, I spoke to several of the Kelly people and intimated that his work had some validity.
Now that I’m older (and because I re-read and examined Teena Valentino’s diary for Legend), I no longer feel that way. There were things going on at the Plaza Santa Maria that I feel were not cool.
Mainly, Steve was pressured by Dr. Kelley and the Plaza administrators to issue a press release touting the program and that he was being healed. You don’t put that kind of pressure or guilt on a cancer patient. They knew that a thumbs up from Steve McQueen would have driven a lot of business their way, and applied pressure on him to go public with his treatment by touting Kelley’s program, going so far as to write a press release for him.
Now, here is where it gets murky: I’ve met several members of the staff there, and they’re all good people who had their heart in the right place. Many of them had family members at the clinic who had cancer, and they saw Dr. Kelley as a righteous man who tried to help when no one else would.
My personal belief is that Dr. Kelly absolutely believed 100 percent what he was doing was right and medically sound. Personally, I don’t think Dr. Kelley’s methods worked, and that you cannot cure cancer through diet.
So with that said, if Dr. Kelley felt so strongly about developing a cure for cancer, why not go back to medical school and become an oncologist? And then if you still don’t believe in those traditional methods, then develop alternative ones as a medical doctor. That’s what I’d ask him if he were alive today.
There’s no harm in thinking outside the box, but you also have to play by the rules. He was a dentist, not an oncologist. It’s like somebody practicing law but not actually having a law degree. He should have, at the very least, graduated from medical school before treating cancer patients.
I don’t believe Dr. Kelley originally had bad intentions; remember, McQueen sought him out. Kelley didn’t go to McQueen. However, I believe over time Kelley mentally unraveled due to tremendous stress, the fact that he was never taken seriously by the medical community, and was under constant government supervision.
I think he was banned by 17 different medical organizations at the time. I remember reviewing an old article from 1980, and the reporter made a point of showing readers that Dr. Kelley wanted to see his press credentials, because he wanted to ensure he wasn’t a government agent.
Dr. Kelly began writing racist literature, and in his 1999 updated version of One Answer to Cancer, he claimed a government agent came into McQueen’s room in Mexico and injected a blood clotting medication in his IV.
Kelly didn’t say that in 1980; he said McQueen died of an embolism. It’s very clear his paranoia worsened over time, and it’s all a direct link to his medical treatment of McQueen.
Now that I’m 50 and exactly the same age that McQueen was when he died, what would I do in his shoes? You’d better believe that I would never go to Mexico for cancer treatment. I would get treatment here in the States or in Germany.
I know plenty of people who have been treated for advanced cancer in the States and have survived. The other option, which is what actor Michael Landon did, was to accept the diagnosis, go home, and be comfortable. Surround yourself with family and friends, and die in peace.
The things McQueen endured in Mexico, and the indignity he suffered immediately after his death were humiliating. It was no fun to write about it, but in doing so, my hope is to dissuade people from going to Mexico for cancer treatment.
You mean to tell me some little clinic in a dirty, dusty back road in Mexico is going to hold the cure for cancer and be able to keep it from the world? It’s just not logical, and for McQueen to go there was a mistake. But that’s my opinion.
But it was his decision and no one else’s. He did what he felt was best for him, and who am I to say he made the wrong choice? All I can say is that it’s not the choice I would make for myself today.
Where were you when Steve passed away?
I was 16 years old at the time of McQueen’s death. I remember first learning of his cancer when Parade magazine ran a picture of he and Barbara McQueen at the Tom Horn premiere in Oxnard, California. I remember it was in the Q&A section as soon as you open the magazine, and I think this was after the news broke that he admitted he had cancer but was not dead. I was crestfallen.
I had seen both Tom Horn and The Hunter at the movies that year, and McQueen was very much on my radar because had reemerged in the public spotlight. He died Nov. 7 and John Lennon died a month later on Dec. 8, 1980. It was not a good year.
When I reflect back on that time it’s something I try and block out. I was living in Washington D.C. and it was the cold of winter when they were taken from us. Looking back I associate cold and dark winters with their two deaths. It took a long time for me to get over their deaths.
Decades later, it’s tough for me to see film footage of that era. And if it’s hard for me, can you begin to imagine what it must be like for their family and loved ones? These two men were robbed of the opportunity to live a full life, and the world was robbed of two great talents. The world misses them, which is why they live on.
Did Steve realize how much his fans loved him?
I believe he did, but his vision of his popularity was skewed. He rated his success in terms of box-office receipts. Plus, he lived most of his adult life in Southern California where everyone “loved him.”
Fame scared him to a certain degree, which is why he didn’t hide but mostly ducked the whole Hollywood experience. I think he retained his edge by remaining the Hollywood outsider, which is why he chose to live privately. He said more than once, “To have your obscurity and keep your identity is the ultimate.”
For this I completely respect him because it shows he wanted a balance in his life. Living in Hollywood can make any celebrity unbalanced, and McQueen gets major kudos for being his own man.
If Steve was among the living, what would you envision him doing?
I see him as a semi-retired actor, living the good life on a ranch somewhere. McQueen always lived his life out of the spotlight, and I think he would have come out of retirement for a good role (and a hefty paycheck).
Look at all of the same people of his era – Newman, Eastwood, Beatty, Redford – they all continued to work, albeit sporadically, and were able to find vehicles to support their ages. McQueen would have easily slid into a leading role or extended cameo. Eastwood is the exception in this group. He doesn’t seem to ever want to stop working, and God bless him. He’s amazing.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! PART TWO, the conclusion of the Marshall Terrill in-depth interview, is also available for your viewing pleasure. Entitled “How a Military Brat Got Hooked on the Razor Sharp Mystique of Steve McQueen,” Terrill shares behind the scenes tidbits about the celebrities he interviewed for his various McQueen projects, why the King of Cool abhorred interviews and tended to play mind games with the press, and what he might have said to McQueen if the two had crossed paths. Along the way, Terrill roundly debunks five individuals who claim they’re related to the King of Cool, often for personal gain.
- Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Barbara Minty McQueen recently sat down and spoke about “Tom Horn,” her husband’s penultimate film. In “Every Little Girl’s Dream: Being on the ‘Tom Horn’ Film Set with Steve McQueen”, the former model delivers humorous, often poignant anecdotes about landing smack dab near the Arizona-Mexico border for an extended stay in a vintage camper, dressing up like a frontier woman, how her father became a shotgun carrying extra, eavesdropping on dirty jokes courtesy of cowboy Slim Pickens, and the time James Garner showed up at her door unannounced.
Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr
Exclusive Interview: Actress Lee Purcell was a familiar face to cinema enthusiasts in the ’70s and ’80s, appearing in such popular films as Charles Bronson’s action flick “Mr. Majestyk”, the cult surfing drama “Big Wednesday”, the high school dramedy “Almost Summer”, and Nicolas Cage’s breakout movie, “Valley Girl”. Incidentally, her first film was “Adam at 6 A.M.”, only the second starring role for the phenomenal Michael Douglas. Produced by Steve McQueen’s Solar Productions, “Adam at 6 A.M.” slipped by with relatively little notice in 1970. In an in-depth commentary marking the anniversary of McQueen’s passing, Purcell remembers her mentor with a fiery passion, including the time he took her on a 100-mile-per-hour cruise in his Porsche down the bustling streets of Los Angeles.
Further Reading: The strikingly stone-faced Charles Bronson appeared in 160 television and film productions during an impressive 50-year career. He inexplicably never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. To read a special, in-depth birthday profile detailing exactly who the “Once Upon a Time in the West” silent hero was behind his tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, actress Lee Purcell, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
- Further Reading No. 2: John Wayne certainly had no plans to retire after his unintended swan-song, “The Shootist,” opened to excellent reviews but slow box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery in late spring 1978, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the project, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with one of his recent costars. Little has been known about the unfinished film until now. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to “‘Beau John’: The Untold Story of John Wayne’s Last Project.”
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Oscar winner Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots, including drinking pal John Wayne in “The Comancheros” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In Part One of a just-released interview entitled “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”, author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital, and much more.
*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. The above interview was originally conducted over a three-year period and published in multiple abbreviated articles beginning in October 2010. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.