“Two american kids growin up in the heartland…”
Jack & Diane
Steve McQueen has been dead for thirty years now, but they still call him the king of cool. Last night I watched The Sand Pebbles which was McQueen’s only Oscar-nominated role.
After the film I did some checking to see where the king of cool came from and guess what I found out? He was born seventy years ago this month in Beech Grove, Indiana. The interesting thing about that is he was born just a year earlier, and about an hour and a half drive from another cool guy, James Dean who was born in Marion, Indiana.
That’s a lot of cool for one part of the country–especially at the same time. (Can’t believe John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana hasn’t written a song about that.)
McQueen’s family life wasn’t so cool as his father abandoned his family, leaving him with an alcoholic mother. As a youngster he went to live with family in another Midwest town, this time outside of Kansas City on a farm in Slater, Missouri. Later in life he would settle in Santa Paula, California and say that it reminded him of his hometown of Slater. As a teenager he was back with his mother and now living in Los Angeles but he got into various trouble and ended up living in what is now known as the Boy’s Republic, a home for at risk boys in Chino Hills, California.
He left the Boy’s Republic when he was 16 and ended up wandering the country working at various odd jobs until he joined the Marines when he was 17. He was honorably discharged a couple year later and used his G.I. Bill to study acting. After a decade of smaller roles he became a star in The Great Escape (1963), followed by Bullitt, The Cincinnati Kid and The Sand Pebbles. In 1974 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. But it’s almost a cliché to say that didn’t mean he was happy. Cool but not content.
He went through a couple divorces and tangled with more than one director. His co-stars have said he was personable and charismatic, but also an unpredicable, angry troubled man, who was distrustful of people and insecure due to his upbringing. Perhaps that’s where his cool came from. A sort of carefree aloofness. But there is no doubt that part of his cool factor was not only that he was a good-looking movie star, but that he raced cars and motorcycles and flew planes. That’s the image that even today sells watches, cars and khaki pants and pours money into his estate.
McQueen was a contradiction in many ways; for a while he worked out for two-hours a day, but he also smoked, drank heavily and used drugs. He was worth millions but sometimes slept in an airport hanger. He didn’t trust people and was said to be a loner who played by his own rules (much like his character Jake in The Sand Pebbles), but at the end of his life he put his trust in God. Struggling with an aggressive cancer has a way of putting into perspective fame, money and even being cool. McQueen died of cardiac arrest after a radical surgery in Mexico to remove a large tumor.
McQueen did have some advice for screenwriters saying they ruined too much with dialogue. He believed that actors could often convey more with just a look. Keep that in mind when you watch the next McQueen movie— and when you write. And if you ever question his coolness, remember that Steve McQueen is the one who encouraged Chuck Norris to study acting. That’s right, no Steve McQueen, no legend of Chuck Norris.(Found on the Internet: Chuck Norris has never won an Academy Award for acting… because he’s not acting.)
The one McQueen film I’d love to see is the one that some could say was a result of “sudden serious actor syndrome” where the cool action movie star took on the lead in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. That’s always been one of my favorite plays and it would be interesting to see how he did playing the role of a doctor who knew what was wrong with the town, though the townspeople didn’t care to listen.
“I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It give you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which I think is lacking in our society.”