Steve McQueen: Looking Back At The ‘King of Cool’ On His 84th Birthday

Steve McQueen, the Indiana-born son of a teenage prostitute, became America’s blue-eyed “King of Cool” in the 1960s and early ’70s. His effortlessly macho mannerisms and laconic style have been emulated by Hollywood’s male actors ever since. McQueen, a former Marine who was only 50 years old when he died in 1980, would have turned 84 on March 24.

But the consummately cool Steve McQueen, whose confident defiance of authority made him an ideal icon for rebellious young moviegoers in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, also had a dark side — a reality behind his on-screen persona that in many ways, wasn’t cool at all.

Still, Steve McQueen will always be recalled for the tough, unflappable outsiders he portrayed in films such as Bullitt, Papillon, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Sand Pebbles, the latter earning him his only Oscar nomination, in 1966.

Here are a few facts you should know about the King of Cool, Steve McQueen.

He Never Met His Father, A Circus Stuntman

Though as befitted his man-of-few-words image, Steve McQueen rarely discussed his rough upbringing, it had to be extremely traumatic for the young future superstar. The circumstances of his upbringing shaped his guarded personality. His father, a circus performer, abandoned his mother — a teenage prostitute — before Steve was born. Unable to take care of him, his mother sent him to live with relatives. When she took him back in, he was just nine years old and was beaten by his new stepfather until he ran away and lived on the streets of Los Angeles, eventually serving 18 months in a youth incarceration facility, then going to work in a brothel after his release.

Steve McQueen Was The Highest-Paid Star Of His Era

By the time of his death, Steve McQueen had an estimated net worth of $30 million — $85 million in today’s inflation-adjusted cash. But he acted in an era when top stars, while well paid, did not receive the astronomical salaries they receive today. But today’s ultra-wealthy stars, in large part, have Steve McQueen to thank. Cast in the 1974 disaster epic The Towering Inferno, McQueen set a precedent by demanding — and receiving — a then-unheard of fee of $12 million. That would be $67 million in 2014 cash. He earned it. The film went on to gross over $116 million, or more than $500 million in today’s money. Steve McQueen got top billing on The Towering Inferno, which also starred Paul Newman. But in Steve McQueen’s first film role, he was paid $19 per day for a small part in Somebody Up There Likes Me — which also starred Paul Newman.

Steve McQueen, King of Cool

Riding A Motorcycle, McQueen Was On The Cover Of Sports Illustrated

Steve McQueen loved motorcycles and cars, and he raced both professionally. Shirtless on the back of a dirt bike suspended in mid-air, McQueen graced the cover of the August 23, 1971 issue of Sports Illustrated. He broke his left foot in a motocross race in 1970, but finished in the top ten anyway. Then with his foot still in a cast he drove a Porsche 908 Spyder in a 12-hour endurance race in Florida and finished second only to racing legend Mario Andretti.

McQueen Kept His Wife Ali McGraw Off The Screen For Six Years

Ali McGraw was one of the most beautiful and successful actresses in Hollywood, coming of the hit Love Story when in 1972 she co-starred with Steve McQueen in the heist thriller The Getaway. The two fell instantly in love, and McGraw risked her career by leaving her husband Robert Evans, then the powerful head of Paramount Pictures, to marry McQueen. But it turned out marriage to McQueen was the worst career move she could have made. His attitude toward women was backward and he refused to let her appear in any films for the five years of their marriage, which perhaps understandably ended in 1978. After The Getaway, Ali McGraw did not appear in another movie until Convoy in 1978, but by then she was 39 and her star had fallen. Her career never recovered.

Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in 1972's The Getaway.
Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in 1972's The Getaway.

The Death And Legacy Of The King Of Cool

Steve McQueen was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1978. Though he was a smoker, he had a form of cancer that was linked to asbestos exposure, which may have happened during his three-year Marine Corps duty. He died of a heart attack following surgery on November 7, 1980.

But the legacy of Steve McQueen remains powerful and though in real life he was a flawed man to say the least, thanks in part to his rough childhood, on the screen he created a standard of coolness that American males still aspire to hit today. His signature quote: “I live for myself and answer to no one.”