“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.” –Steve McQueen
While many films are remembered for the heroic figures they feature, Steve McQueen is often remembered for portraying roles in direct opposition to this image. His anti-hero persona would shine in many of his films as he became the “King of Cool” and one of the highest-paid stars in the world.
Terence Steven McQueen was born on March 23, 1930, at St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove, Indiana. His father, William Terence McQueen, worked as a stunt pilot for a flying circus and left McQueen’s six months after meeting her. McQueen’s mother, Julia Ann Crawford, was unable to care for McQueen on her own. As a result, McQueen was raised by Julia’s parents, Victor and Lillian, in Slater, Missouri. However, the effects of the Great Depression soon began to be felt by McQueen and his grandparents. In response, he and his grandparents all moved in with Lillian’s brother, Claude, to a farm in Slater.
McQueen had positive experiences when growing up on the farm and admired his uncle, who treated him as if he were his own son. Claude gave McQueen a cherished red tricycle, which would later inspire McQueen’s interest in racing. When McQueen turned eight, his mother took him to Indianapolis to live with her and McQueen’s new stepfather.
Unfortunately, life in Indianapolis was far from ideal. McQueen struggled with dyslexia and was partially deaf from an ear infection. To make matters worse, his stepfather beat him. By age nine, McQueen ran away from home, joined a street gang, and committed petty crimes. His mother was unable to control his behavior, so she sent him back to Slater.
McQueen’s mother married once more and this time had McQueen move to Los Angeles with her and McQueen’s new stepfather. History repeated itself and his new stepfather proved to be no better than the previous one. As a result, McQueen was sent back to Slater. Though he returned to Los Angeles once again, he would join yet another street gang. Consequently, McQueen’s new stepfather persuaded Julia to sign a court order against McQueen, forcing him to live at the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California.
Though McQueen was not popular with the boys there, his behavior did begin to change. He started to act with more maturity and became a role model when he was elected to the Boys Council. Though he would leave the Boys Republic at the age of 16, he would return to this organization as a mentor on several occasions throughout his life.
After he left the Boys Republic, he rejoined his mother, who was living in Greenwich Village, New York. There, he met two sailors and began to work on a ship headed to the Dominican Republic. Once they reached their destination, he was then employed in a brothel. Later, he would move to Texas and work a series of odd jobs.
By 1947, McQueen joined the US Marine Corps, where he was a private first class and part of an armored unit. Though initially rebellious, he soon focused upon being an asset to the Marines and saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise. Soon after, he was assigned to the honor guard, which protected President Harry Truman’s yacht. He served until 1950, when he was honorably discharged.
Thanks to the financial assistance he received from the G.I. Bill, McQueen moved to New York to study acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. At the same, he competed in motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway to earn money on the weekends. Invigorated by the competitions, he soon became a regular participant and frequent winner.
Around this time, McQueen married actress Neile Adams, with whom he had two children. His daughter was named Terry Leslie, while his son was named Chad. He and Adams would divorce in 1972.
After working in various stage productions, McQueen headed to California and secured roles in several B-movies. His first film role was in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which was soon followed by his first leading role in The Blob (1958). He also participated in various television shows, including Tales of Wells Fargo, Trackdown, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.
McQueen continued to work in films such as Never So Few (1959) with Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lawford; The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn; and The Great Escape (1963) with James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, and David McCallum. McQueen followed these films with roles in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Nevada Smith (1966). He would earn his sole Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an engine-room sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). He would follow this nomination with what is arguably one of his most iconic roles in Bullitt (1968).
Films like The Great Escape and Bullitt allowed McQueen to exercise his passion for motorcycles and race cars. Whenever he had the chance to ride a motorcycle or drive a car in his films, he would perform several of his own stunts. Although there were limits to his stunt work due to insurance reasons, his passion for contributing to any dramatic racing shots is clear. Furthermore, when working on The Great Escape, McQueen and Garner became close friends because of their shared interest in racing.
After Bullitt, McQueen experimented with a new image and carried out the role of a wealthy executive in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). He would later appear in a period film called The Reivers (1969), followed by Le Mans (1971). When working on the film The Getaway (1972), McQueen met Ali MacGraw, who would become his next wife. At this point, he was the world’s highest-paid actor. Though McQueen and MacGraw would divorce in 1978, many of their friends would claim that she was the love of his life.
After The Towering Inferno (1974), McQueen become more removed from the public in order to focus upon a racing career as well as his wishes to travel in his motor home and on his vintage mototrcycles. He returned to acting in An Enemy of the People (1978), and closed his acting career with Tom Horn (1980) and The Hunter (1980). McQueen died of cardiac arrest on November 7, 1980, at the age of 50.
Today, there are few tributes to McQueen throughout the Unites States.
St. Francis Beech Grove Hospital, McQueen’s place of birth, was closed in 2012 and razed in 2016.
However, the Beech Grove Branch of the Indianapolis Library possesses a Steve McQueen Birthplace Collection, which is on display. The library is located at 1102 Main St. in Beech Grove, Indiana.
According to the 1931 Indianapolis City Directory, McQueen lived at 1311 N. Drexel Ave. in Indianapolis, Indiana, roughly six miles away from Beech Grove. The home is privately owned today.
The Boys Republic continues to function as a private, all-boys school for adolescents in Chino Hills, California. McQueen collaborated with the Boys Republic throughout his life, often stipulating a need for bulk supplies of razors and jeans in his contracts so that he could donate them to the school. Today, McQueen’s generosity is honored by having the Steve McQueen Recreation Center named after him. According to the Boys Republic’s current Development Director, Jerry Marcotte, “It still exists and is used daily by our students. The recreation center building is one of the oldest on our 200-acre campus. Steve McQueen left the funds for its renovation and upgrading in a bequest.” In addition, the Boys Republic also hosts the Friends of Steve McQueen Car and Motorcycle Show in his honor. The Boys Republic stands at 1907 Boys Republic Dr., Chino Hills, California.
Finally, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where McQueen studied, exists to this day as a full-time professional conservatory for actors. It is located at 340 E. 54th St. in New York, New York.
While not many physical tributes exist to McQueen, his legacy continues to be celebrated through his films and the valued contributions he made to the Boys Republic and its students.