Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot is a spare and generalized biography that focuses on the films made by the iconic actor. While the films are examined in some detail, Eliot spends the rest of his time detailing McQueen’s life outside the set.
The actor was a troubled child who was moved around the country and dropped off with various relatives for extensive blocks of time. His father left them when he was still an infant and his mother could not maintain a steady relationship throughout his life. Steve spent a lot of time running with gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and spent stints in the boy’s reformatory in Chino, California and in the United States Marine Corps.
His last trip to New York City, saw him hooking with up an aspiring actress and following her into various acting studios. With his chiseled good looks, he was a natural to follow Marlon Brando and others into the Method school of acting.
From the time he was old enough, he went from one woman to another until he finally met Neile Adams, fell in love, and married her. He went quickly from off-Broadway plays into the live television scene that was hot in New York. When his wife got a job in Los Angeles, they relocated and he translated his career from television to film. Although they had two children, Neile had to put up with his constant infidelity. He also began using drugs, first pot, then coke and finally hallucinogenics. With his monster macho ego, he began spending his earnings on fast cars and motorcycles, even racing with professionals.
After sixteen years of marriage, he forced his wife to admit that she’d had an affair. Even though he had slept with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women, he was enraged and beat her up. He practically isolated his second wife, Ali McGraw, in their home and he hit her once before she filed for divorce. And he was married a third time, very briefly before his death of mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by excessive exposure to asbestos. (He was exposed while in the Marines, where he worked in the engine room, cleaning and repairing asbestos covered pipes and he was also exposed throughout his adult life to asbestos coating inside race cars.)
His filmography includes such classic films as The Blob (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974).
The book moves very quickly, an easy and engaging read. Even though Eliot presents a very unbiased narrative, I have to admit that I went into the book admiring McQueen’s acting and I left it absolutely hating him as a human being. Of course, he lived in a different era, but that is still no excuse for the way he treated other people. He was like a hurt child who never, ever grew up to take responsibility for his actions. And he died with no remorse at all for what he did to his first wife. In spite of the hefty list of good films and good performances he left behind, Steve McQueen was ultimately far less of a man than the “King of Cool” he presented