Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 12/2/12

I first saw Steve McQueen on the big screen when my parents took me to see The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968. Like many paying customers, they found the then revolutionary split screen technique rather disconcerting although it was used to great effect that same year in The Boston Strangler”.

The “King of Cool”, as he was already referred to, was sartorial elegance personified, yet at the time I had no idea what a radical departure the role of Thomas Crown represented from his normal screen persona, or how unsuitable for the part he had been initially considered by Hollywood agent Norman Jewison. By the end of the 60’s McQueen was undoubtedly living the good life but ahead of him lay a mid life crisis that would ultimately destroy his first marriage and pitch him into the most self indulgent movie production of his or any actor’s career.

Terrence Stephen “Steve” McQueen (March 24, 1930 – November 7, 1980) was an American movie actor whose “anti-hero” persona, which he developed at the height of the Vietnam counterculture, made him one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s and 1970s. McQueen received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles.’ His other popular films include The Magnificent Seven, The Blob, The Great Escape’, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway and Papillon. In 1974, his fee for the Towering inferno made him the highest-paid movie star in the world Although McQueen was combative with directors and producers, his popularity put him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.

McQueen was married three times and had two children. On November 2, 1956, he married actress Neile Adams, by whom he had a daughter, Terry Leslie (June 5, 1959 – March 19, 1998), and a son, Chad (born December 28, 1960). McQueen and Adams divorced in 1972. McQueen then married his “The Getaway” co-star Ali MacGraw on August 31, 1973, but this marriage too ended in divorce in 1978. MacGraw suffered a miscarriage during their marriage. On January 16, 1980, less than a year before his death, McQueen married model Barbara Minty. In between these major relationships lay a labyrinthine maze of dalliances and one night stands with women that went to the core of his emotional problem; his wayward mother and a father he never knew. After he had married Neile, he became obsessed with tracking down his father as a means of dealing with his childhood emotional rejection. Indicative of his personality, he lacked sufficient tenacity and patience to see the task through, giving up too easily and slumping into a slough of despond only to reactivate the quest with the same previous forceful intensity when a fresh lead was provided.

Despite his natural interest in women, he didn’t care that much for them. His distrust of the fairer sex made it hard for him to open up. In the words of Hilly Elkins, his first wife’s manager, “Women were broads and they were notches on the belt.” Like anything else, he had to prove his masculinity and the fact that whatever he wanted he could get”. His first wife knew all about his wandering ways throughout their courtship, seemingly avoided asking questions and he in return, volunteered nothing. Throughout the early years of the marriage she let him roam the hills of Hollywood which suggests that she had reached a pivotal point in life where familiarity, financial standing, lifestyle, reflected glory, emotional feelings and child rearing commitments would allow her to succumb to a state of reflective acquiescence. She kept his name after her remarriage being known henceforth as Neile McQueen Toffel. One can safely presume that such a move was not undertaken to emotionally pacify her children but rather to retain a tenuous hold on the reflected celebrity status she had enjoyed for more than a decade. What her second husband thought of it all we shall never know. In any event many older women seem fixated on re-introducing their maiden name when they remarry for the second or third time. What is that all about? Re-engaging with one’s past? Retaining one’s independence? A reluctance to subsume one’s identity any further in yet another man’s name? A warning shot across the bows of conventional marriage etiquette? I’d have an opinion for any woman wishing to do that after I’d proposed and been accepted, but the worldwide web is not a suitable forum to print such language. Emotionally to me it’s synonymous with “an arrangement;” after all why introduce the maiden name again after it’s been laid to rest throughout earlier connubials? Perhaps none of this was important to Mr Toffel but it would have been VERY important to me and enough to put the ceremony on hold. As it was, the couple had just celebrated their twenty fifth wedding anniversary when he died suddenly of a massive heart attack. It was a tragedy for Neile as she and her husband had been raising her grand-daughter following the death of Steve’s one and only daughter Terry in 1998 at the age of 38. Apparently both parents had carried the genetic disorder hemocchrtosis without being affected. The “apple of McQueen’s eye” was not so fortunate. For any parent who outlives their child one can only extend the deepest of sympathy.

It would appear therefore that whatever contentment the first Mrs McQueen professed to have found in her second marriage the old rankles of her first union cut deeply and her ‘warts and all’ autobiography in 1986 drove a wedge between herself and her son Chad. In more recent years she has modified her recollections. One suspects that this change of stance is more about protecting her son’s feeling rather than any personalised revisionism on her part.

What is one to truly make of all this? – emotional ructions within families cut deeply and public personalities are not afforded the opportunity to discreetly handle their private affairs. For many, the lure of a pay cheque seems deserving in return for such intrusive media scrutiny. If Neil McQueen-Toffel donated her income from “Steve McQueen My Husband, My Friend” after publication to a worthy cause then there is little more to be said on the matter. If it was a form of mental exfoliation and self renewal and a desire to put matters straight then we must respect her needs, however much financial inducements influenced her thinking. Equally, she was probably too scared to publish anything whilst McQueen was still alive. On the other hand let me momentarily park my cynicism and perhaps completely exonerate the lady financially if her motive for writing the book was influenced by maternal instinct. She may well have known of her daughter’s illness and wished to make future financial provision for medical bills. Unfortunately, upon further research this theory doesn’t hold water. Terry gave birth in 1988, two years after the book’s publication. Their daughter was presumably unwell during pregnancy and displaying symptoms of hemocchrtosis which would have been diagnosed at the time. Steve and Neile were both carriers of this genetic disorder which attacks the liver, heart, pancreas and lungs although they were probably unaware of it when they had their family years earlier. So I am therefore forced to conclude that the motives behind the book’s publication were solely personal ones. The well publicised tome included detailed accounts of his womanizing, drug taking and wife battering and understandably her children were upset by it as indeed were many of his friends. However we must reflect here on my opening comments in the “About me” section of my website. McQueen’s friends recall a motorbike racing competitor and a pool player who enjoyed a card game. Many of the couple’s friends have testified to his drug taking and womanising as an unknown facet to his personality. Since they never witnessed it we can safely conclude that McQueen, like all of us, modified his worst traits in certain company.

So how excessive was his womanising? Admittedly the most seemingly content of relationships can be napalm bombed by life but according to his close friend Bud Ekins “The world was just a giant sexual supermarket. He constantly had women chasing after him and he couldn’t say no. When he saw something he wanted – a woman, a motorcycle, a car – he’d go for it. Everything he did was extreme. He liked an extreme amount of sex, an extreme amount of marijuana and an extreme amount of cocaine”. Perhaps this hedonistic lifestyle was fuelled by a foreboding about the future when he would reveal to his wife that “I’m gonna die young, so I gotta take a big piece out of life.” All very interesting yet when McQueen was diagnosed with lung cancer he attributed his ailment to massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a troop ship during his time in the Marines and not to his excessive tobacco and recreational drug use. We can all be one dimensional in rationalising life’s unfolding events but the reality is invariably somewhat different.

Neile McQueen Toffel has been interviewed on several occasions about the trauma of McQueen hitting forty and his self exhortation; “Look baby I wanna fly”. The first Mrs McQueen found herself sobbing uncontrollably as if this “penchant for life” actually represented a change in the lifestyle her husband had been ardently pursuing for more than ten years. Of course, tacit compliance is one thing but by this admission, McQueen was now rubbing her face in it. God only knows what his reprehensible behaviour was doing to this poor woman. When Neille finally took a lover in revenge for Steve’s habitual philandering, it was foolhardy, morally wrong and destined to provoke an unforeseen response. In her case, the usual indifference from most wayward partners contrasted with McQueen’s incandescent rage and the pressing of a gun to her temple in bed. Who had engendered such a disparaging view of women in this man? Stars are subjected to almost daily temptation but to succumb to it so regularly suggests a deeper seated neurosis. In McQueen’s case we must look at the most important woman in his or anyone else’s formative years, namely his mother.

McQueen’s mother Jullian, was a vivacious headstrong 1920’s flapper who dreamed constantly of escaping her mid west origins and her mother’s disciplinarian ways for the bright lights of Indianapolis. Within three years, she had married, given birth to Steve, been deserted by her husband and returned to her parents with her tail between her legs. The template for her life life was now established; in later years McQueen was unsure precisely how many times his mother had actually been married. When her emotional life appeared more settled she would reclaim her son from her parents but then return him to them each time “love” let her down. Steve was raised as a devout catholic and retained considerable respect for his grandparents and in particular his great uncle who put him to work on his farm. Not for once in his life would Steve recall that Claude Thomson was “ a very good man. Very strong. Very fair. I learned a lot from him”. Claude grew to love Steve like a son but never intervened when Steve’s mother would periodically re-appear in the boy’s life. Fatherless, motherless, semi deaf in one ear, dyslexic and uprooted from Claude’s farm, the one stable home he had known, in favour of his mother’s latest domestic “scene”, the young Steve McQueen eventually fell in with street gangs to avoid confrontations with yet one more violent “step father.” All roads eventually led to his internship with The California Junior Boys Republic at Chino where its honour-based program that stressed hard work, getting along in society and trying to give boys who were down on their luck a sense of self worth, would make an indelible impression upon the fifteen year old. In his later life McQueen had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans and several other products. It was later discovered that he was requesting these items in order to donate to his old reformatory school for displaced youth, where he had spent time during his teen years. McQueen made occasional visits to the school to spend time with the students, often to play pool and to speak with them about his experiences.

McQueen would essentially remain introverted and withdrawn all his life with a style of minimalist acting that mirrored his personality. To his eternal credit he was a loving and attentive father to his two children and both a regular visitor and financial contributor to the California Junior Boys Republic. Where parents have faced adversity throughout their formative years there is invariably a self belief that repeating this experience with their own children will be somehow life affirming and character building. For many years I have referred to this philosophy as “Eton buggery syndrome” as it greatly reflects the British psyche. Being separated from parents and sodomised by the head prefect on Thursday evenings is now recalled as part of life’s rich pageantry with no lasting effects and the the next generation are duly bundled off to boarding school to face similar horrors. McQueen clearly did not want any repetition of his formative years for his children and he is to be commended for it. Emotional starvation has implications that reverberate for years. McQueen would never forgive his mother for the pain she brought to him. “I was looking for a little love, and there wasn’t much around. I guess I was difficult. I ran around with a bad crowd and I hated school – the regimentation and everything”.

On November 7, 1980, McQueen died at the age of 50 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, following an operation to remove or reduce several metastatic tumours in his neck and abdomen. He had recently returned to acting in a pair of “back to back” movies, “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter” after a lengthy sabbatical from acting. The actor had developed a persistent cough in 1978 giving up smoking and undergoing antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath became more pronounced in December 1979, after filming on “The Hunter” was wrapped. A biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure for which there is no known cure. By February 1980, there was evidence of widespread metastasis. His search for alternative and radical cancer treatments is well documented in several books about the star.

Like many people he had his demons; that so many women would have been interested in him says much about the female psyche. When writing these commentaries, I often have reason to recall the most profound statement my late father ever made. Turning to me periodically, I would hear him say “The world is full of men and women AND men will be men (pausing only momentarily to lower his voice by a semi-tone), AND women will be women!”

Recommended listening

Bullitt (Original motion picture soundtrack – Lalo Shiffrin) 1968

One of my all time favourite film composers is the Buenos Aires born Lalo Shifrin. He is still working to this day if a little unsteady on his feet but that counts for nothing when he sits down at the piano. Concert attendees can still marvel at a man with the dexterity of a musician half his age.

This is the 2000 release of the exciting Schifrin soundtrack to the classic Steve McQueen film. Unfortunately the original soundtrack to the film (the actual music used in the movie) was sadly never released. The LP version that appeared back in the late 60’s was itself comprised of re-recorded versions and these versions were slightly more jazzy in order to appeal to a wider audience.

This CD contains re-recorded versions of the arrangements from the original Bullitt soundtrack LP which were recorded in 2000 by the WDR Big Band and conducted by Lalo Schifrin. It also contains re-recorded ‘movie versions’ of some of the tracks too. There’s also a few previously unreleased cues; “Just Coffee”, “Architect’s Building” and a new arrangement of the main theme for jazz guitar. A superb set of musical cues.

01. Main Title (03:05) (Movie Version)
02. Shifting Gears (03:12)
03. Ice Pick Mike (03:58) (Movie Version)
04. Cantata For Combo (02:51)
05. Room 26 (02:28) (Movie Version)
06. On The Way To San Mateo (02:36)
07. Just Coffee (03:03)
08. Main Title (02:13) (Record Version)
09. The Aftermath Of Love (03:01)
10. Ice Pick Mike (03:07) (Record Version)
11. Hotel Daniels (03:32)
12. Guitar Solo (01:34)
13. The First Snow Fall (03:41)
14. Room 26 (03:39) (Record Version)
15. The Architect’s Building (01:47)
16. Song For Cathy (04:29)
17. Music To Interrogate By (02:51)
18. End Credits (03:51)

I’ve had the guitar solo on Bullitt nailed down for years but I’ve resisted recording an extended version in my studio because recreating the horn section will set me back weeks, and pills to avoid sleep are still not legitimately available over the counter!

The memorable car chase in BULLITT is musically set-up but the chase itself is unscored. The superb cue “Shifting Gears” lays the groundwork brilliantly for the chase to begin, and the piece ends with stuntman Bill Hickman, as the driver of the other vehicle, clicking his seat belt into place.

Give the top twenty a rest and check out the man at

I first became aware of Schifrin when I heard the hard stereo panned recording of his theme for the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke featuring two separate gut stringed classical guitar solos. For a piano player he displayed his innate musical taste in rescoring the theme for guitar. The instruments invoke a lament for the injustice of Luke’s incarceration; an imprisonment that ultimately brings him into bitter conflict with authority and costs him his life.

Recommended viewing

The Great Escape (1963)

Bud Ekins made the motorcycle jump, but it was McQueen who made the leap from television celebrity to worlwide movie stardom. Displaying sufficient humility he would always acknowledge his friend’s contribution to the most enduring sequence in the film, yet director John Sturges remained equally effusive about Steve’s contribution._ “The Germans had a lot of guts but they weren’t real stuntmen. Curiously enough, if you’re a real motorcyclist, you’re not necessarily a good stuntman because a stuntman knows how to fall off a bike, whereas a real professional bike rider’s whole purpose is to try and stay on the bike. We were lucky to have Steve with us; with exceptional cutting he could have played the entire German motorcycle corps.”_

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Based on a novel by Richard Jessup, with a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern and boasting a rousing title song from Ray Charles The Cincinnati Kid details the story of Eric Stoner’s (McQueen) pursuit to play high stakes poker with Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), aka “The Man.” Like Minnesota Fats in Robert Rossen’s excellent film, The Hustler, Lancey is the best, the top dog who the hotshot Kid wants to dethrone. The Kid wants Shooter to arrange a game between him and The Man.

There are distractions most notably Melba (Ann Margret), the young wife of Shooter (Karl Malden), a friend of the Kid’s and another big time poker player. Melba is bored with life and ready to catch the next “big wave.” She’ll be the downfall of many a man and The Kid duly succumbs thus rupturing his non-committal relationship with Christian (Tuesday weld) who loves him for who he is and not what he might become. It gets worse for The Kid when the showdown arrives with Lancey and the US theatrical version offers little suggestion that he will return to Christian to discover what is really important in life.

McQueen applies the tried and trusted “less is more” approach and displays an acute sense of physicality to varying camera angles – the reaction shot to Lancey’s one in a million winning hand being a case in point. It was the first time he showed he could carry a film alone and “The Cincinnati Kid” was the first in a string of five worldwide smashes.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

As if to underline the credentials of McQueen’s finest acting performance, there is now a website dedicated to this motion picture. It is quite simply a superb repository of miscellanea, and I must doff my hat to Crispen Garcia who put it all together.\

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

McQueen at his laconic and sartorial best.

The Thomas Crown Affair was one of the most stylish movies of the 1960s — stylish for the icy cool of Steve McQueen as the millionaire who robs banks for kicks; for the similarly frosty cool of Faye Dunaway as the investigator who plays an erotic game of cat-and-mouse with him and for the costumes of Theadora Van Runkle, who helped make Dunaway a fashion trendsetter in “Bonnie and Clyde” and did the same for her here with no fewer than 29 haute-couture outfits.\

There was a period in my life when women’s fashions had my head spinning in high streets and the above web link is a joyful reminder of those halcyon days. They’re long gone now.

Bullitt (1968)

The King of Cool struts his stuff in San Francisco ably assisted by a sterling cast including old friend Robert Vaughn as the oily politician Walter Chalmers. Bullitt is living in the sewer but he’s not about to be compromised by political manoeuvring or his girlfriend’s emotional concerns.

McQueen, an accomplished driver, drove in the close-up scenes but stunt regulars Bud Ekins and Loren James were on hand to film the groundbreaking eleven minute car chase.

I was fortunate enough to see the movie on the big screen, and my interest in films was piqued at an early age by my father who would want to know why I had enjoyed the film. Discussion throughout the drive home would involve an analysis of key scenes and why certain intercuts added pace to the storyline. In those days there was time for reflection. In the modern world I absolutely deplore the way forthcoming television programmes are promoted during film breaks. This ploy by programmers might be construed as cynical advertising, but it also reflects their tacit acknowledgment of a viewing public with the attention span of a gnat.

The Getaway (1972)

Some memorable sequences and the protagonists’ loyalty to one another lift this thriller out of the traditional crooked milieu. The harrowing garbage truck and conman scenes are deftly handled and Sam Peckinpah maintains sufficient pace throughout. It’s not McQueen’s greatest work by any means but it restored his box office clout after the debacle of Le Mans.

In the story his wife has slept with a seedy politician to get her husband sprung from jail, but I still remain uncomfortable with the retribution scene on the highway. It’s just so easy to physically slap a woman around that I often wonder how many men would do it if they thought they were going to be hit back even harder.

Papillon (1973)

Partly filmed on location in Jamaica, the shoot was affected by a production crew high on ganji but nevertheless it is deservedly regarded as McQueen’s last great role. He plays Henri Charriere, known as Papillon (French for butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest. He’s a petty thief who is given life imprisonment for murder and sent to Devil’s Island, located more than 20 miles offshore in the French Guyana, from where there is no escape.

Ably suppressing his natural aversion to ‘method acting’ he interacts well with Dustin Hoffman, a notable exponent of this approach, to graphically portray the effects on his character of seclusion and spiritual degradation at the hands of the French Penal system. McQueen reportedly did his own stunt work and the film garnered many plaudits but not awards; only the music score by Jerry Goldsmith was recognized by a nomination at Oscar time.

Recommended reading

Steve McQueen – Portrait of a rebel (Marshall Terrill) Revised Edition 2005

A new and revised 2005 edition of the 1993 best seller, complete with a new introduction by the author and a revised and updated final chapter, which features further information on McQueen’s battle with cancer and also on the experiences of his family since the books original publication.

He undoubtedly had a social conscience, and anonymously donated large sums of money to various orphanages throughout his life. It is not in doubt that as with any multi-dimensional person, he could be the best of friends to certain individuals who remember him with fondness and love. However, as I’ve stated before, it is an individual’s relationships with members of the opposite sex that affords us the most perceptive of insights into the true person.

On page 409 the author refers to the November 1984 auction of many many of Steve’s personal possessions including the world’s largest motorcycle collection (around 210). The 2 day auction brought in more than $2m for the actor’s children. Indicative of the rationale behind the over inflated prices being paid was a comment from one of the attendees who reportedly said “He was a hell of a guy and he led the life we all wanted to lead”. Really? He was deprived of love as a child, seemingly incapable of forming a long lasting relationship with a woman, suspicious of everyone’s motives and determined to live life on the edge at whatever cost to his personal health. McQueen missed his grandchildren and he never sought professional help for his emotional problems. He was “his own man” and he was gone by 50. There’s a message in there somewhere.

An interview with the author can be located at:


Steve McQueen Film Poster Site

Some impressive McQueen memorabilia including a superb portfolio of original movie posters and lobby cards.

The english film critic Mark Kermode made an interesting observation recently on box office receipts as a barometer of cinematic quality. Castigating the fourth entry in the Pirates franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean: On stranger tides,” he argued that if patrons were asked to honestly evaluate their viewing experience by paying their admission fee upon exiting the theatre, movies such as this would actually post receipts of less than a third of their actual takings. Kermode cuts to the artistic chase and upsets people on occasions which is precisely why I rate him highly. We can all get carried away with major company advertising campaigns. If only he’d been around to ward me off “Le Mans”!!!

McQueen and his second wife Ali MacGraw met up with Paul and Linda McCartney during the filming of “Papillon”. The McCartneys were working nearby to the location shoot, on their “Band on the Run” album. If only the actor had discussed the production errors on his racing epic with the ex-Beatle, we might have been spared “Give My Regards To Broad Street” eleven years later. Both films lack any kind of cohesive script, but at least the latter has some cracking musical sequences one can edit together.

Ultimately, you had to be a motor racing buff to endure McQueen’s opus which unfortunately I did in 1971. It was the most painful experience I have ever had in a movie theatre. The actor was following in the footsteps of his arch rival Paul Newman who had already made “Winning” a year earlier, and the 1966 release “Grand Prix”, starring James Garner, two movies that boasted sufficient love interest to keep the casual viewer engrossed. There is no dialogue between the stars for the first quarter of the film, and my father could be overheard muttering “we could have stayed at home and watched all this on “Grandstand”. I revisited the film for this commentary from the perspective of forty years on, and it’s still torture; one for camshaft enthusiasts only. On set, McQueens’s ego ballooned and there was a directorial change as John Sturges left the project citing artistic differences, (he wanted to ramp up the human interest whilst McQueen was overtly focused on a pseudo documentary style movie) and the end result is mind-numbingly repetitive. This website link provides the fullest possible background to the movie shoot; it’s certainly more interesting than the finished product.

As an amusing footnote, one actress spared the tortuous experience of contributing to this wafer thin storyline, also witrnessed at first hand, McQueen’s “numbers game” with women.

The alluring image of a young and sultry Alexandra Bastedo seems indelibly etched on the hearts and minds of countless men of a certain age, including mine. More than forty years after the ITC series “The Champions” aired on British television, and before her untimely death in 2014, she was running an animal sanctuary in West Sussex yet still able to recall the attention from famous men her appearance in the series brought her.

“Though I was 21, I’d led a sheltered life and was still quite naive,” she says. “A Native American wrote to me saying he’d leave me his tepee in his will and a sailor asked if I would post a pair of my high-heeled shoes. But while I publicly laughed it off, I found it distinctly unnerving.”

It had its plus sides, of course. Shell made her its poster girl, pasting her image on roadside hoardings across Europe and she was hotly pursued by many of Hollywood’s leading men, including Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen. But she was distinctly unimpressed by McQueen, despite his looks and international stardom.

“We met when I auditioned for a part in the motor racing film ‘Le Mans’, and afterwards he insisted on escorting me back to the lift. I know people defend him because he had a sad background, but he came out with terrible lines like: ‘Babe, you should be with a winner’ and ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’ We did have one date, and later he invited me to Paris, but by then I was seeing someone else.”

Steve McQueen Online

A suggestion that, under certain conditions, she could handle his infidelities but not the domestic violence. A 2006 interview with the first Mrs McQueen at the time of the 20th anniversary re-issue of her book.