The ultimate compliment that you can pay a guy is that men want to be him and women want to be with him. Few people embody that more than Steve McQueen. Star of guys’ guy movies like Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Great Escape; accomplished motorcycle and automobile racer; husband (for a time) to the gorgeous Ali McGraw. McQueen did everything necessary to earn his nickname “The King Of Cool.”
McQueen still wears that crown, even though it’s been 35 years since he died of cancer. The lengths that guys will go to channel his spirit was celebrated in the 2000 film The Tao Of Steve. Last summer, one of his Ferraris sold at auction for $10 million. And he remains an icon who is constantly referenced by menswear designers and gearheads alike.
Now McQueen is getting the true superhero treatment, a graphic novel. Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool by Dwight Jon Zimmerman traces McQueen’s life from reform school miscreant to struggling actor to international superstar. We spoke with Zimmerman to discuss what made McQueen tick, his enduring appeal, and which of today’s stars, if any, can inherit his throne.
What attracted you to Steve McQueen’s story?
When I was a kid I remember The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. Those were the two that I most vividly remembered. I was probably one of the few people who saw Le Mans in its original release. I’m a former biker. I owned a Norton 850 Commando and traveled across the country on that in the mid-1970s. So I knew about his racing background and absolutely loved it. The substantial biographies of McQueen fell into one of two categories. The Hollywood writers would talk about his acting career and then summarize his racing career. The gearhead side would focus on his racing career and then summarize his acting. I wanted to get an equal balance, because of his quote, “I don’t know if I’m an actor who is a racer, or a racer who is an actor.“
Why do you think McQueen has endured as an icon for so long?
He combined two things: an animal drive and a vulnerability. This really hit home for me when I saw one of his first TV appearances. Even at that stage of his career, the emotions that he was able to pull out of himself and convey, I could see why directors would really want to use him in a production.
He seems to be the quintessential American male.
I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the many parts of his personality. He treated women very poorly. How his first wife put up with that for so many years is beyond me. That said, on a personal level, he was incredibly generous. He helped so many people who were down and out. After that reform school that he attended, he would write demands into his contracts for these odd items like sporting equipment, clothing, and insist that they had to be provided by the studio. They’d say, “What’s this for?” and he wouldn’t tell them, but then they’d go to the reform school. In his last movie, which was shot in Chicago, he noticed one of the kids who was an extra and asked what she was doing because she was school age. She said I’m here because I need the money and my mother’s dying in the hospital. He wound up basically adopting the girl and raising her as one of his own.
What were you most surprised to learn during your research?
His charitable work because no one really found out about it until after his death. Beyond that, seeing how much he really loved motorcycling. That was not so much a surprise, but it was fun to see the extent of it. He raced with broken ankle, a broken leg. He didn’t let anything stop him.
Why do you think he was so attracted to cars and motorcycles?
That started when he was a little kid. He raced tricycles. He would compete with his peers for gumdrops. So I guess it was in his blood. One of the first vehicles that he bought was a Harley. He loved getting out there, competing, racing. When he was attending acting school [in New York City] there was a racetrack not too far from here in Long Island City, a flat track, and he would race his Harley to earn spending money.
Was he aware of his cool factor while he was alive?
Yes. He was very conscious of his image. The iconic motorcycle jump scene in The Great Escape, that was him. It didn’t exist in real life, but from the get-go, he was like I want to have a motorcycle scene. He pushed and pushed. Finally the director relented, and, of course, it’s the most famous scene in the movie.
Is there anyone these days that you feel is on McQueen’s level and can be a lasting icon?
The closest have been Bradd Pitt and Matt Damon, but they project a more cerebral presence. Sean Penn had the animal presence, but he never went to the next level. I’ve seen a number of actors who have pieces, but I’ve not seen anyone with the whole package the way that McQueen had. During his lifetime, he and Paul Newman were contemporaries and their careers were often compared. They were rivals, and Newman raced as well. Because it’s dangerous, that element of racing gave Steve McQueen an extra edge that I haven’t seen in today’s leading actors.
How did the rivalry between McQueen and Newman manifest itself?
They knew each other obviously. They respected each other. I think the only movie in which they were together was Towering Inferno. There was an uneasy relationship because both were extremely competitive. The closest thing to compare it to would’ve been Larry Bird-Magic Johnson. They were aware of what was going on, Newman with McQueen, McQueen with Newman. Through the research I found the depth of that rivalry, especially when you’re looking at Towering Inferno and the scenes that they’re in together. McQueen made sure that he had the last line in the movie.
What is your favorite McQueen movie?
I’m a World War II buff so I have to say The Great Escape. A close second would be The Magnificent Seven. Childhood memories being what they are, those things just stick with you. There’s another western that he did, Tom Horn, one of his last. It was a quiet western, and I really liked it. It showed his depth as a character actor. It died in the box office because it was out of step with the time, but rewatching that I really came to appreciate the incredible versatility that he had.