Throughout history there have been exceptional men who’ve inspired us by the way they lead their lives and accomplish success. This is VK Nagrani’s Badass Guys Series.
Few actors were as popular or embodied the pursuit of action and adventure like Steve McQueen. The King of Cool made many films in his career, some incredible (Papillon, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Cincinnati Kid, Bullitt, Magnificent Seven, The Sand Pebbles) others leaving much to be desired (Defender, Soldier in the Rain, Dixie Dynamite, The Light at the Edge of the World) but the one thing that remained constant was his rebelliousness and originality in his work and life.
Let’s take a look at why VK Nagrani thinks Steve McQueen is badass.
1. His Childhood was Anything But Stable
Born to a stunt pilot father in a flying circus, and an alcoholic, occasional-prostitute mother— McQueen’s upbringing was anything but stable. To top it off, he was dyslexic and after a lingering ear infection, became partially deaf. McQueen’s earliest years were spent on a farm with his Uncle Claude and his grandparents before his mother took him back at the age of eight. By age nine, McQueen left home to live on the streets after several beatings by the hands of his stepfather. Unsurprisingly, McQueen became a hoodlum on the streets before his mother sent him back to Uncle Claude’s farm.
McQueen eventually returned to his mother at her request, but the same old story unfolded: a new stepfather and McQueen began a toxic, physical relationship forcing McQueen to leave home again, eventually ending up at good ole Uncle Claude’s. Then McQueen left Claude’s unannounced and joined the circus. Then he landed back with his mother and stepfather, resuming crime life. After a run-in with police and McQueen’s stepfather throwing him down a flight of stairs as punishment, McQueen was sent to California Junior Boys Republic after his stepfather persuaded his mother to sign a court order claiming the young McQueen to be “incorrigible.”
2. He Had Countless Lives, Struck it Big, and Then Remembered Where He Came From
Through all his success and fame, McQueen never forgot where he came from. McQueen left the Boys Republic at age 16, but not without ascending to the Boys Council, a leadership organization that set the rules and regulations governing the school. It was upon returning to live with his mother where he met two sailors and volunteered to serve on a ship headed to the Dominican Republic. The typical McQueen would abandon his assignment and become a towel boy in a brothel, according to Marc Eliot’s Steve McQueen: A Biography. But McQueen wasn’t done there. He worked as an oil rigger, lumberjack, petty criminal and a trinket salesman in the carnival as well. But McQueen didn’t forget about the Boys Republic, coming back throughout his life to hangout with the boys and speak about his experiences.
3. He Served, Rebelliously, And Then Served Well
McQueen joined the United States Marine Corps in 1947 in a move to put his troubled, reckless life behind him. His career in the Marine Corps was a bit tumultuous like his life to-date at that point. He was actually promoted to private first class, but then was demoted seven times to private, unable to shake the rebellious nature he had so often gravitated to. He even spent 41 days in the brig after taking an unauthorized leave to stay with a girlfriend and resisting arrest when the shore patrol found him. It was through the brig where he turned it all around, focusing his energy on self-improvement and the discipline serving in the Marine Corps takes. He saved five of his fellow marines after an Arctic exercise went awry, and was honorably discharged in 1950, even enjoying a stint as an honor guard on President Harry Truman’s yacht.
4. He Became the World’s Highest Paid Actor and Then Did Something Else
McQueen was notoriously difficult to work with. He was often combative with directors, fought with other costars (Paul Newman) on billing and the amount of lines he had in the script (The Towering Inferno) – yet, he still rose to the top of the earning charts. After 1974’s The Towering Inferno, McQueen wouldn’t act in another film for four years, despite him earning five million per picture with another 15 percent of the gross sales. He instead traveled the country in a motor home and raced his vintage motorcycles. He would come back with 1978’s An Enemy of the People, but would only make two more films before his death at the age of 50.
5. He Lived By the Edge of His Pants
He didn’t garner the nickname “The King of Cool” for nothing. He propelled the anti-hero image with his work in Wanted: Dead or Alive and never strayed from it. McQueen raced motorcycles (was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame), loved race cars, flew planes and did many of his own stunts. Perhaps you’ll recall the car chase scene in Bullitt or the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape? In fact, McQueen owned a large number of sports cars, classic motorcycles and planes—most notably a 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 biplane, flown in the US Mail Service by WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
McQueen was also a stern student of the martial art Tang Soo Do, of which he studied under the tutelage of ninth-degree black belt Pat E. Johnson. Heck, The Rolling Stones even wrote a song about him, the ultra-dirty “Star Star,” part of the band’s 1973 album Goats Head Soup. The guy may as well not have even worn pants (he probably didn’t most of the time).
6. He Became a Born-Again Christian Shortly Before His Death
McQueen was raised as a Catholic, but due to his upbringing, it’s no surprise it didn’t stick. But even for the most reckless and wild of us, we eventually grow old, feel less invincible and begin to turn inward to ourselves. According to his third wife Barbara’s book, Steve McQueen: The Last Mile, McQueen became a Born-Again Evangelical Christian through the influence of his flying instructor Sammy Mason. McQueen attended church service regularly until his death and his ashes were spread across the Pacific Ocean.
Keep checking the VK Nagrani blog for more editions of our Badass Guys Series.