Happy Birthday Steve McQueen!

March 24, 2010

Steve McQueen would have been 80 today. I thought it would be a nice tribute to re-publish a wonderful guest post that Terry from A Shroud of Thoughts wrote for Silents and Talkies last year. So without further ado:

There are those actors who become legends, remembered long after they are gone. Sir Laurence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn both became legends in their own lifetime. But then there are those actors who become something more than legends. Not only are they remembered long after they have died, but they become a part of the very fabric of popular culture. Quite simply, they become icons.

It is these actors who are not simply remembered after they die, but who become symbols of how the average man or woman would like to be or what they want out of life. When people think of acting icons, they might think of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. They might also think of Steve McQueen.

Terrence Steven McQueen was one of the first generation of actors who began in television. He would appear in episodes of some of the anthology series of the Fifties, among them Goodyear Television Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Studio One, and Alfred Hitchock Presents. In fact, the episode of Studio One in which Mr. McQueen appeared would be somewhat historic. It was the episode "The Defender" by Reginald Rose, which would inspire the classic TV show of the Sixties, The Defenders.

While Mr. McQueen gave memorable performances in the anthology series in which he appeared, it would be a Western series which would first bring him fame. On March 7, 1958, Steve McQueen guest starred in an episode of the Western Trackdown called "The Bounty Hunter." On the episode he played bounty hunter Josh Randall, As Josh Randall Mr. McQueen made a big impression, so much that the character was spun off into his own show--Wanted Dead or Alive. Not only would Wanted Dead or Alive make Steve McQueen a household name, but it would establish the sort of role for which he would become best known. Josh Randall was a no nonsense, ultra-cool bounty hunter who packed a modified Winchester 1892 Model carbine (which he called "the Mare's Leg"). And while he could be very grim in his pursuit of bad guys, Randall was also very soft hearted, helping prisoners if he believed they were wrongly accused and even giving his earnings to those in need.

Although the role of Josh Randall is not as well remembered as many of Steve McQueen's other roles, it can be argued that it is the role that started him on his path to becoming an icon. There are many who have labelled Josh Randall and the similar roles that would follow (Vin in The Magnificent Seven, Hilts in The Great Escape, Bullitt in the movie of the same name) "anti-heroes." To me this is hardly the case. Josh Randall, Vin, Captain Hilts, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, and most of Mr. McQueen's other roles were, quite simply, heroes. It is true that they were often grim towards their opponents. And it is true that they often had little respect for authority. But these were men who remained true to their own codes of honour. Josh Randall gave money to the poor. Vin, alongside seven other men, decided to defend a poor village against incredible odds. Bullitt defied authority to catch the hitmen who shot his partner. These characters were not anti-heroes, they were heroes.

Of course, it was perhaps not enough that Steve McQueen played heroes. Other actors had done so before him and other would do so since his time. In both the roles he chose and even his private life, Mr. McQueen was a essentially a man of action. He raced both cars and motorcycles. He performed many of his own stunts (although one of the most famous, the motorcycle jump over the fence in The Great Escape, was actually performed by friend and stuntman Bob Ekins). He was even trained in the martial arts by Bruce Lee. Because Mr. McQueen was capable of many of the stunts performed by his characters, he lent a credibility to those characters that few other actors could have. Quite simply, Steve McQueen's characters weren't simply men of honour, they were bigger than life figures who were nearly indestructible.

Steve McQueen played ultra-cool characters with their own codes of honour in some of the biggest action movies of the Sixties and Seventies--The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Nevada Smith, Bullitt, and Papillon. He would then become an hero and a role model for more than one generation of young men. When men between the ages of 60 and 30 discuss actors, it is a certainty that Steve McQueen's name will be brought up.

Like many boys growing up in the late Sixties, I was exposed to Steve McQueen's performances while very young. The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt, and Papillon were among the earliest movies I remember watching. And while the tough, cool, yet good hearted characters Mr. McQueen played struck a chord with me, I had another reason to feel a special closeness to Steve McQueen. While he was born in Indiana, Mr. McQueen spent much of his childhood in Slater, Missouri, a town only about forty minutes from my hometown. Mr. McQueen had very fond memories of Slater and of his Great Uncle Claude who raised him there. If Steve McQueen was capable of playing heroes, I like to think that it was largely because of the small town values that his Great Uncle Claude instilled in him while he was in Slater. Indeed, the best role I think Steve McQueen ever played was that of Tom Horn in the movie of the same name. Here was a man from Missouri playing another man from Missouri, and both of them were bigger than life.

Of course, a young boy did not have to live near Steve McQueen's hometown to look up to him and even identify him. As an icon Mr. McQueen has infiltrated American pop culture to a degree that few other actors have. Numerous songs have been written about him, from the song "Steve McQueen" by Quicksilver Messenger Service to the song "Steve McQueen" by Sheryl Crow (a fellow Missourian) to the song "Steve McQueen" by the Automatic. I doubt even John Wayne has so many songs written about him.

Steve McQueen has also been referenced in many movies, from the comedy The Tao of Steve
(in which the lead character bases an entire philosophy around Steve McQueen) to the comedy Then She Found Me to the drama The Kite Runner. And as anyone who watches the TV show House regularly knows, Dr. Gregory House is such a big fan of Mr. McQueen that he named his pet rat for him.

If Steve McQueen became an icon, if he has been enshrined in the hearts of men and women everywhere as the King of Cool, I believe it is because he played quintessentially American heroes. His characters were tough men who were capable of both taking and dealing out a lot of punishment. At the same time, however, most of his characters lived by their own codes of morality. These were men who would help the poor, defend the helpless, and remain true to their morals even if it meant death. Steve McQueen was truly the King of Cool, but the majority of his characters were never anti-heroes. They were quite simply heroes, and I suspect that was truly his key to success.


Artman2112 said...

very nice write-up. McQueen was my second celluloid hero after Cagney and to this day a viewing of one of his films is always a treat for me on many levels. he had a marvelous physciality to his roles which as the writer pointed out made him believable when his characters went into action. he had a seemingly effortless affinity with mechanical devices, guns, cars, motorcycles, etc which to the young "gearhead" that i was, was a thrill in my early years! but most of all he had a completely natural way of acting, he simply seemd to be these people yet always brought that unmistakable persona to them all.

yeah Steve was awesome. so sad he died so young, but man he left behind one hell of a batch of films!

VKMfanHuey said...

...Great post, KG!

He had quite a list of great movies, and was pretty flawless in every one I have seen - was a definite 'template' for all the 'action' movie dudes that followed him...
I just taped 'The Blob', of all movies, mainly because it is 'kitschy-cool cult classic', but I found out recently this one is where McQueen made his debut... A pretty neat start, even tho it wasn't nearly an indicator of what was in his future...
AND, BTW...I really dig Crow's song "Steve McQueen"!!!
Thanks for all the info, KG!


Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you for reposting this, Kate! It's one of my favourite pieces I've written!

vivienne strauss said...

I'll always like him best in The Thomas Crown Affair, great write up!