STEVE McQUEEN: RE-EVALUATING A REBEL
Jeremy Roberts’ interview with biographer Marshall Terrill
Steve McQueen has been a household name since he first appeared on tv screens in 1958 as the star of the western series Wanted: Dead Or Alive. Iconic film roles soon followed, including The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), & Papillon (1973).
As a result, McQueen quickly became one of the top box office stars of the 1960s & 1970s, yet he never received enough recognition from his peers: other than an Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles in 1967 & a Golden Globe nomination for 1973's intense Papillon, these were the industry's only concessions.
The actor unfortunately succumbed to mesothelioma, a form of cancer stemming from exposure to asbestos, in November 1980 at the early age of 50. During the past 30 years, his legend has continued to accelerate, and McQueen is rightly seen as the epitome of cool. So, why is this? Well, in real life Steve McQueen was a rebel, a man who lived life on the edge on his terms, a motorcycle & car racer, an aviation aficionado, an antique collector, a guy who disdained Hollywood parties, a loving father, pretty much a small-town kid at heart who donated his time and resources to underprivileged kids. However, most fans only knew McQueen as the actor. When he appeared on the screen, movie-goers believed McQueen was that particular role, whether a seasoned cowboy in 1980's Tom Horn or a cocky, arrogant pilot in 1962's The War Lover. Therein lies the key to a successful film career that transcends generations.
Perhaps the ultimate McQueen expert and fan is his biographer, Marshall Terrill. The writer wrote his first book in 1993, the successful Steve McQueen: Portrait Of An American Rebel. Since then, the influential book has undergone several reprintings as well as a revised edition.
Terrill is no stranger to biographies, having written 14 so far on wide-ranging subjects including Elvis Presley, basketball great Pete Maravich, and boxing champion Ken Norton. Terrill recently collaborated with the late actor's widow, Barbara McQueen, for the 2006 massive coffee-table book entitled Steve McQueen: The Last Mile, profiling the final three years of the actor's life.
This year fans can purchase two new McQueen projects. First, the 384-page, coffee-table Steve McQueen: A Tribute To The King Of Cool came out in March, but only in a special limited edition that is signed (by Terrill & Barbara McQueen), numbered, & includes a cd of a 1978 McQueen college lecture.
This special limited edition is available now at publisher Dalton Watson's website. A hardback, traditional version will hit Amazon.com & bookstores across America later this year. It is a passage book featuring anecdotes from McQueen's friends and peers.
Later this year, a 600-page mammoth bio entitled Steve McQueen: The Life & Legacy of a Hollywood Icon, will be available at all bookstores in October via Triumph Books.
Terrill recently took time to grant an extended interview, focusing on his fascination with the legend that is Steve McQueen.
Why is Steve McQueen still a major pop culture force?
Besides the fact that his look and his talent are timeless, the reason why any artist lives on after they die is because of their cult of personality. When someone sees McQueen’s work, they become fascinated with the man and want to know more about him. When they learn about his life, his painful childhood, his inner struggle to reach the top, his approach to acting and how he put his heart and soul into every project, he becomes much more than just a movie star. His life takes on much more meaning – his movies, the motorcycles, the racing, the aviation, the women, his insecurities, and his hell-bent-for-leather take on life. He was an American original and marched to the beat of his own drummer. How many people can we say that about today? The era of the 1960s and 1970s minted some of the greatest artists of the millennium, and McQueen is definitely in this group.
For the non McQueen fan, what film(s) would you direct them to see?
The Magnificent Seven; The Great Escape; Love with the Proper Stranger; The Cincinnati Kid; The Sand Pebbles; The Thomas Crown Affair; Bullitt; The Reivers; Junior Bonner; The Getaway; Papillon & Tom Horn. This roster of films gives a good sampling of McQueen’s range as an actor & demonstrates why he was so popular with audiences.
What is the most difficult part about undergoing a McQueen project?
The editor of Steve McQueen: The Life & Legend of a Hollywood Icon said he wanted a 300-page book – I turned in a manuscript double that length – and thankfully, he didn’t cut a thing. McQueen’s story is epic and to give an abbreviated version of his life would be to cheat readers. That’s something I can proudly say I’ve never been accused of.
Let’s go back to 1993: Steve McQueen: Portrait Of An American Rebel was your first book. What was that experience like?
It was a wonderfully new & exciting process. Today I have written approximately 15 books, &Portrait was my first. It was a grand adventure as I embarked on a new chapter in my life, & going to Hollywood to meet all my favorite actors & people associated with McQueen’s movies was thrilling beyond belief. At that time, McQueen’s legend was just starting to surface and everyone was willing to talk to me. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Has Portrait been your most successful book?
“Portrait” is by far the most successful book I’ve written, although I’ve subsequently written two other best-selling books. It was reviewed worldwide, has gone through five printings and was revised in 2005. I’m hoping that Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon will be even more successful because it is a much better book than Portrait.
Portrait of an American Rebel was your first bestseller, but what were some of the others?
I co-wrote a biography called Maravich with Wayne Federman on the life of basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich. It was released in 2006. That book took seven years to write; two years were strictly devoted to transcribing 300 interviews.
I also did a book with Elvis Presley’s friend & bodyguard, Sonny West, called Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business. It took me four years to write, and it was released in 2007. At that time, I was also working on Steve McQueen: The Last Mile with Barbara McQueen, so I was holding down a full-time job and working on three different book projects at the same time.
What do you think of “Portrait” today?
It’s my first “baby” and I’ll always be proud of the book, but it lacked in certain areas. For example, it’s skimpy on the details regarding his birth in Beech Grove, Indiana; his upbringing in Slater; his 14-month stint at the Boys Republic; his three years in the Marines and his early acting career in New York City. That is mainly due to the fact that not much was known at the time of McQueen’s background, so we were left with whatever McQueen cared to offer up. Since then, open records laws have enabled me access to find more information about McQueen’s early life, and the new bio is so much more detailed regarding these years. It’s also more analytical and has a more mature perspective about his life. In the years after Portrait, I became a reporter and applied a lot of my skills and logic to the McQueen story. I know Portrait set the bar but Hollywood Icon surpasses my previous effort. I can say that with confidence because I really busted my ass.
Were there some folks you wanted to interview but for one reason or another were unavailable?
The two people I really wanted to interview for both books, and are still alive, are attorney Kenneth Ziffren and business manager Bill Maher. They not only turned me down but never replied. These are two guys who worked diligently behind the scenes and are the brains behind McQueen’s power and fortune. They not only protected him legally, but established incentives in his movie contracts that no one else had at the time. I learned in this new offering that McQueen made far more money than the public suspected, especially on The Getaway, Papillon, The Towering Inferno, & The Hunter.
Ziffren and Maher were also the two men who drew up McQueen’s Last Will & Testament, which shows you how much he respected them. McQueen said at the end of his life, “Hire people smart enough to do the work but let you take the credit.” Well, that’s exactly what these two men did, which is why they lasted for so long.
Who were you especially excited to meet?
James Coburn, who was one of my favorite movie stars, and he was just as cool as you might have suspected, and a very nice man. But the one who I have the most affection for is Lord Richard Attenborough. At the time of Portrait I was a recent college graduate who had never had any contact with Hollywood. We met in Washington D.C. where he was being feted at a film perspective. After our interview, he invited me to the event and introduced me to the audience by name. Now, he didn’t have to do that, but that thoughtful gesture will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will forever sing his praises.
Can you recall the first movie where you saw McQueen & became hooked?
At that time, Bullitt played continuously on Channel 20 in Washington D.C., where I spent a good portion of my youth. But The Getaway was the first motion picture I saw of McQueen’s. I’m a military brat and so when we moved, and my parents were out looking for a home, they’d drop us kids off at the movies and we’d spend the entire day there.
I must have seen Papillon as a kid at least 10 times. When The Towering Inferno debuted in December 1974, a buddy and me went to a midnight showing the day it came out. But here’s the funny part - the 9 p.m. show was sold out, and it was apparent the midnight showing was also going to be a sell-out.
I told my friend there was no way I was going to miss this movie, and so I simply walked up to the front of the line and cut in front of some lady! She must have sensed my determination and didn’t say a word. But boy did she stare daggers at my back the whole three hours I waited for the next showing…that kind of tells you how much I loved McQueen.
Pick & please discuss some of your favorite McQueen roles.
Papillon & The Getaway are my two favorite McQueen movies. For Papillon, it shows McQueen’s depth as an actor. He should have won the Academy Award for his performance. And for some reason, The Getaway, because I’ve always felt that it captures McQueen’s true intensity and personality. In his performances he was always a bit restrained, but in The Getaway, he lets loose, and you get a sense of who McQueen was in his private life.
On the other hand, was there a McQueen film that you don't care for?
Well, there was the whole slew of B-movies in the fifties – The Blob, Never Love a Stranger, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery. but that’s simply because he had not defined who he was as an actor. In Never So Few, you catch the first real glimpse of the McQueen persona, which he had defined and perfected in the next decade.
When he became popular, Soldier In the Rain, Baby, The Rain Must Fall, & Nevada Smith were my least favorites. And because I’m not a racing fan, I find Le Mans boring and unwatchable. But Le Mans is a testament to McQueen’s star power at the time – how many other major movie stars can get away with carrying an entire picture with a dozen lines of dialogue? I promise you that would never happen in today’s industry.
Is there a McQueen film that you have re-examined & perhaps changed your mind about his performance?
Yes, and it happened most recently. A buddy of mine burned a copy of The Honeymoon Machine for me, and I watched it on a plane on my personal DVD player. I was astonished to discover that McQueen was actually quite funny in the film. I had only really given him credit for being funny in The Reivers, but he’s excellent in The Honeymoon Machine.
Of all the movies Steve passed on doing, which one(s) do you wish he should have picked?
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid as well as Apocalypse Now. He would have brought great intensity to Butch Cassidy & Apocalypse Now would have stretched him as an actor.
Why did McQueen take such a long sabbatical from films after 1974's The Towering Inferno? Did he think this was a mistake upon reflection?
In the new book I discuss this in great detail. I think it was several things – he was burned out from the film industry, he had surpassed his rival Paul Newman, and he finally had the money to take a long break. Also, once you reach the pinnacle of your career, like he did with The Towering Inferno, how do you even attempt to come back because you know the next thing you do will not measure up? Those were, I believe, all the things going through McQueen’s head at the time.
With that said, I don’t think McQueen ever regretted this decision because it’s what his body and head required (in fact, Steve became a devoted & committed Christian in 1979). When your instincts tell you to take a break, you should listen. The break realistically was only for two years, not five. I’m sure no one counted on An Enemy of the People getting shelved, which added to the length of time the public hadn’t seen him.
Let's talk about An Enemy Of The People in more detail. This film certainly had a convoluted production schedule.
An Enemy of the People was a 33-day shoot, which commenced September 28, 1976. After a long and arduous testing period, the movie saw a limited release in about a dozen cities in March 1978. Warner Brothers didn’t know how to market the film because it was McQueen in an Ibsen play.
He chose to go totally against type and rather than try and misrepresent the film, the studio canned it. My personal belief is that he chose the project to sabotage his First Artists (McQueen's production company; Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, & Sidney Poitier were also partners) deal, but then he fell in love with the picture after its release. McQueen found himself in a real Catch-22. The movie finally came out on DVD in 2009 via Warner Brothers’ website, so if you’re a fan and are curious, you should check it out to see what all the fuss was about.
Off-screen, what was McQueen like as a person?
Let me be clear, I never met Steve McQueen when he was alive, so I can only give you my opinion based on the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with friends, family, business associates and those who have had encounters with McQueen, which is really the basis of Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool.
McQueen is perhaps the most multi-faceted and complex person I’ve ever researched. He was the epitome of yin and yang – sweet and scary; caring and selfish; cocky and insecure; funny and humorless; generous and thrifty. He was every emotion you could think of, which makes him absolutely fascinating to a biographer.
30 years after McQueen's death [November 7th, 1980], if he were still alive today, what would you see him doing?
I see him as a semi-retired actor, living the good life on a ranch somewhere. McQueen always lived his life out of the spotlight, and I think he would have come out of retirement for a good role (and a hefty paycheck). Look at all of the same people of his era – Newman, Eastwood, Beatty, Redford – they all continued to work, albeit sporadically, and were able to find vehicles to support their ages. McQueen would have easily slid into a leading role or extended cameo. Eastwood is the exception in this group. He doesn't seem to ever want to stop working, and God bless him. He's amazing.
Did McQueen know how many people enjoyed him & his work?
I believe he did, but his vision of his popularity was skewed. He rated his success in terms of box-office receipts. Plus, he lived most of his adult life in Southern California where everyone “loved him.” I think fame scared him to a certain degree, which is why he didn’t hide but mostly ducked the whole Hollywood experience. I think he retained his edge by remaining the Hollywood outsider, which is why he chose to live privately. He said more than once, “To have your obscurity and keep your identity is the ultimate.” For this I completely respect him because it shows he wanted a balance in his life. Living in Hollywood can make any celebrity unbalanced, and McQueen gets major kudos for being his own man.
If you had met McQueen, what would you have said to him?
This is a very interesting question because McQueen didn’t talk much about the art of filmmaking or his movie roles; instead, he preferred talking about his motorcycles and machinery. I know nothing about engines or machinery & have no interest in them whatsoever as long as it gets me from point A to point B. I remember producer David Wolper telling me that he sat in between McQueen and actor Lee Marvin at a benefit dinner, and it was like listening to a pair of mechanics talk shop. He said it was the most boring night of his life! (His passage is in Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool).
I thought that was a fascinating insight into McQueen. So to answer your question, I’m not sure what we could have talked about. I’m of the belief that a biographer probably shouldn’t meet his subject. I’d much rather rely on family, friends, and associates to paint his/her portrait. A biographer should be the proverbial fly on the wall and listen, observe, research, and take in all the information before sitting down to write, and make sure to give the full picture of the person.
What do you enjoy doing when not writing a biography or newspaper article?
Lately, I’ve been into mountain biking. Arizona has some of the most gorgeous terrain in the country, and I try to ride at least an hour a day after work. It’s very peaceful and relaxing, and I usually ride off the beaten path with my iPod blaring. I listen to my favorite tunes while I look at mountains, cactus, parks, lakes and critters of the desert.
My wife and I watch a lot of movies & current tv series such as Entourage, Weeds, True Blood, Mad Men, & Breaking Bad. We're huge fans of reality tv including The Real Housewives of New York City, Celebrity Rehab, Sober House, The Hills, and Seinfeld reruns. I also read a lot of books – biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, history, always non-fiction.
One last question: What other projects are you thinking about, or is McQueen still taking up all your time?
After I finished Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, which is more than 600 pages, I’m thinking of retiring altogether or taking a very long break. Writing is very stressful because of the amount of concentration and because you’re dealing with facts.
In the beginning it was fun and a new adventure. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more of a perfectionist, and I place very high standards on my work, and that can be very emotionally and physically draining. You might think the more you do something the easier it gets, but it doesn’t. It gets harder because there’s more expectation of me, and I also expect more of myself. I’ve heard more than one author say what I’m telling you now, and I don’t feel this is an isolated case. So for now, I want to sit back and enjoy my life as opposed to being chained to a computer for 8 to 10 hours a day, which is what I did for this last McQueen book. For the first time in 20 years, I’m not going to actively pursue a book project, and I’m absolutely at peace with the idea.
For even more McQueen magic, visit www.examiner.com/steve-mcqueen-in-national/jeremy-roberts Jeremy Roberts describes himself as: “a freelance writer who loves reading biographies, watching classic movies, going to concerts, listening to music. Investigating pop culture, including anything from the '30s to the present, is a lifelong passion of mine. Everyone has a story to tell, and if I've been a good listener and asked questions, then I've done my job.”