Classic Hollywood: Steve McQueen
On the 30th anniversary of his death, the uber-cool actor is being honored by the Jules Verne Festival. Activities include an award and a screening of 'Bullitt.'
Steve McQueen stars in "Bullitt." (Warner Bros.)
Three decades after his death, McQueen still embodies qualities — effortless cool, dangerous masculinity, edgy charisma — that are coveted by men, embraced by women.
With his close-cropped sandy blond hair and piercing blue eyes, the rebellious, brooding actor seems as relevant today as he was decades ago when he starred in such films as "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape," "The Sand Pebbles," "Bullitt" and "The Thomas Crown Affair." He was a uniquely American movie star, tough and self-reliant, a man given to action, not words.
McQueen was only 50 when he died of a heart attack after undergoing controversial experimental treatments for lung cancer in Mexico on Nov. 7, 1980. On Thursday, the Jules Verne Festival is paying tribute to him at the Cinerama Dome. The late actor's son, Chad, will accept the Jules Verne Légendaire Award from the festival's founders, Jean-Christophe Jeauffre and Frédéric Dieudonné. Other celebrities scheduled to attend include "Bullitt" co-stars Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Vaughn, composer Lalo Schifrin, Chad McQueen's actor son Steven R. McQueen and two of McQueen's ex-wives, Ali MacGraw and Neile Adams McQueen.
The event will feature a screening of 1968's "Bullitt," in which Steve McQueen memorably played San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt, who drove a Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback around the city's hilly streets — "Bullitt's" chase sequence is one of the most influential in film history. (In honor of his dad, Chad McQueen led a parade of high-performance vehicles down Hollywood Boulevard on Sunday, stopping at his father's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After the cruise, Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge dedicated Steve McQueen Square at Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.)
"'Bullitt,' in a way, is the most anti-establishment film that he did," says film historian- documentary filmmaker Nick Redman. "Police were kind of uncool in the 1960s. A lot of people told him, 'You don't want to play a cop. That's square.' But he made the police cool."
Bisset had done only a few movies when she was cast as McQueen's girlfriend in the Peter Yates-directed film. "He was very easygoing when I first met him," she says of McQueen. "But during the film, he was actually terribly hyper. It was his first production for his company, and he wasn't that easy to have a conversation with."
She recalls that he would arrive and depart from the set on his ever-present motorcycle. "He would take off and be gone like this alley cat, whisking up in an alley. He looked amazing on his bike. He would sort of lean forward, and he was almost one with the bike."
There was an authenticity to McQueen; he had had a rough youth that included time at the California Junior Boys Republic, a reform school in Chino, a stint in the Marines and various odd jobs until he finally found his calling in the 1950s. Early acting work includedlive TV and the series " Wanted: Dead or Alive." He scored his first big film hit in the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven."
"Even though he was young, he had this quality about him of having experienced life," says USC film professor Rick Jewell. "This guy had really been around, done it all and seen it all."
"By the time he stumbled into acting, he brought with him a lot of anger and problems," says Redman. "That goes to creating a very memorable persona. McQueen was chiseled by his experiences and his experiences were bad. He got into a lot of fights. He was a product of his upbringing."
Chad McQueen describes his father as a "complicated soul. But I guess that comes from him not having a dad. I got the good end of the stick on that deal. He was great."
McQueen took his son and his late daughter, Terry, with him on all of his sets. As Chad McQueen got older, he witnessed his father clashing with his directors.
"He had a such a deep well of emotion to draw from," says McQueen. "The one thing I can say is that when he found the direction, the way he wanted to go with a character, nobody could tell him different. He would literally fight for it."