How a military brat got hooked on the razor sharp mystique of quintessential Hollywood outsider Steve McQueen
“I don’t believe in that phony hero stuff.” Steve McQueen’s rebel attitude probably ruffled quite a few feathers among the pretentious powers-that-be in Hollywood, but fans duly rewarded the number one box office phenomenon’s straightforward creed by regularly flocking to such classic, adrenaline-soaked movies as The Great Escape, The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon.
Marshall Terrill, the reigning King of Cool’s biographer, concurs. “McQueen was heroic but at the same time he came across a real human being — as if you somehow knew him personally.” In a definitely mammoth interview unleashed below, Terrill demonstrates a genuine knack for encapsulating why moviegoers still connect with an actor who starred in only 26 films before his premature death from mesothelioma complications in 1980.
McQueen’s longevity and mystique have been nothing short of amazing during the dawn of the new millennium. In Forbes Magazine’s latest poll, he landed at an impressive No. 9 on the 15 Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. No doubt McQueen would find the recognition highly gratifying, as his competitive streak to become the best at his craft, whether in acting or racing, never abated.
A hard-hitting journalist with over 25 years spent researching McQueen and the author of five books exploring his favorite subject, Terrill immediately received worldwide acclaim for his first biography, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, published when the author was just 29 years old in 1993. An instant bestseller, the biography has experienced several reprintings.
Seventeen years later, after considerable experience as a beat newspaper reporter and a dozen or so biographies to his credit, Terrill felt the urge to revisit his debut “baby” after gaining access to additional McQueen insiders and heretofore unavailable research.
The well-received 600-plus page Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, optioned for an upcoming feature film, unearths long-forgotten friends in the late actor’s boyhood home of Slater, Missouri, his previously unknown half-sister — Teri McQueen — and his private nurse’s day-by-day diary kept during the star’s valiant cancer battle.
Terrill respects and admires his subject, yet he doesn’t sugarcoat McQueen’s notoriously temperamental ego, womanizing, partying, illicit drug taking, and sometimes downright cold business decisions, presenting them in an even-handed light.
In his breezy conversation Terrill leaves no stone unturned, pretty much covering every facet of McQueen’s fascinating existence — smoking pot with the ultra-laconic James Coburn, why the former Boys Republic delinquent abhorred interviews and tended to play manipulative mind games with the press, noteworthy encounters with fellow luminaries like John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Paul Newman, opting for risky alternative cancer therapy in remote Mexico — and pondering what he might have said to McQueen if the two had intersected.
Unsurprisingly, the diligent journalist remains a busy guy. Besides further tomes like Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror and Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, Terrill also executive produced the Christian-themed Steve McQueen: American Icon, a 90-minute feature documentary.
The Marshall Terrill / Steve McQueen Interview
Can you recall the first McQueen movie that hooked you?
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 in hell I as 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.
It’s hard to explain why McQueen was so likeable to me at such an early age. He was heroic but at the same time he came across a real human being…as if you somehow knew him personally. His acting is so layered and honest. He was able to communicate and appeal to a lot of different people. It’s really head-spinning when you start to examine his acting and appeal. I can’t think of anyone today who has the same appeal, which is why McQueen is so missed.
Off-screen, what was Steve like as a person?
Let me be clear, I never met 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.
Was Steve’s relationship with his mother perpetually rocky?
Sadly, it appears that way. Any way you look at it, Jullian was not very maternal and judging strictly on her actions, she was very young when she had Steve, and there’s no question that often times he felt emotionally abandoned.
Over the years, he grew resentful, even though he loved his mother. Her excessive drinking also caused him turmoil, and I don’t think he ever fully trusted her or reconciled his feelings for her when she died.
I think he was ready to forgive her when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, but by then it was too late — she died. Think about this: both of his parents were dead by the time Steve turned 35. That’s emotionally devastating.
Based upon your interviews, how did folks remember Jullian?
I’ve heard mixed reviews. I remember Gene Lesser, Steve’s roommate in Greenwich Village, said she was a beautiful woman who commanded attention and was extremely sexy and charismatic.
Others felt she was spoiled and only thought about herself. I felt bad for Julian, because you have to remember, it was a man’s world back in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Women had limited options when it came to employment, so she became heavily reliant upon men to help her get by.
She obviously had a problem picking good men with the exception of Victor Lukens, who was perhaps the love of her life. From what I heard through Victor’s widow, his relationship with Jullian was tempestuous, and he got tired of her drinking. Jullian had mellowed quite as she grew older, but Steve kept her at arm’s length because of all of the hurt he endured as a kid, teen, and young adult.
She owned an antique business in San Francisco the last few years of her life. Maybe that’s where McQueen’s love of old things came into play when he decorated his home and hangar in Santa Paula.
Steve’s father was William Terrence McQueen. He abandoned Steve and his mother at an early age, and Steve only found him several months after his death in 1959. So, how did you locate him over 50 years later?
Let me say first and foremost, that was the most exciting part of this book — tracking down William McQueen. It always bugged me that no one knew anything about William, and it was almost as if he were a ghost.
When I did the first book back in 1993, I didn’t have a clue as to how to find him, and public information back then was not only a minefield but wasn’t as open as it is today. After my tenure as a journalist, I finally had the skills but didn’t know where to start.
So I looked at one of the ancestry websites to see if there was anything on McQueen’s family tree that might help me out. From what I understand, the Mormon Church updates the site on a constant basis, and when I looked up McQueen, it had his father’s birth date and the date of his death.
It was the first time I had ever seen any information on William McQueen other than his name. From this information, I was able to get his death certificate. From his death certificate, I was able to determine what his occupation was — Merchant Marine, not a barnstorming pilot — his last known address — Long Beach, California — the cause of death — cirrhosis of the liver — and his social security number.
The social security number allowed me access to his military file, which contained his photos, his various tours of duty, and where he traveled in the years after he left Jullian and Steve. And then it made sense how William was able to stay under the radar and evade Steve all those years — he was constantly out to sea.
One of the most important discoveries in your research concerned the revelation that Teri McQueen was Steve’s half-sister.
Teri’s name was in William’s military file, listed as a dependent. When I saw that, I went, “Holy s**t…Steve has a half-sister!” I figured based on the available information Teri had to be about 70 years old, and there was a good chance she was still alive. I checked through various databases, and narrowed down the search.
But I couldn’t locate a good phone number for Teri, so I had to hire a private investigator to visit Teri’s daughter and pass along the message that I knew who she was and that I’d like to talk to her. Her daughter passed along the message to Teri, who in turn called me.
I started off the conversation with, “I don’t think you’re going to believe me, but my research shows you are Steve McQueen’s half-sister.” She said, “Yes, I’ve known this information my whole life.” I was stunned and asked, “Why have you kept this a secret for 70 years?” She said, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”
She provided to me her birth certificate, photos of William, correspondence from William to her mother Alma Doris Moody, and stories about William that correlated with the information I had already compiled.
She also told me a story about leaving a note for Steve on the set of Bullitt in San Francisco in 1968, where she lived at the time. She said she left it with someone to pass along to Steve, and that Steve never attempted to get in touch with her.
So while he knew of her existence, he made a conscious decision not to reach out. It also must be pointed out that I went looking for Teri; she didn’t come looking for me.
Actually, she is now relieved that she no longer has to hide who she is — she took her husband’s last name for almost her adult life — and I think the fact it has gone public has been therapeutic for her. By the way, she is a very lovely, nice lady possessing a wonderful and engaging personality.
How did you convince Teri to make her first public appearance?
Teri lives in the Midwest. We met in Slater, Missouri, in April 2010 for Steve McQueen Days. She wanted to reconnect with Steve in a spiritual and emotional way, as well as her father, whom she never knew. No one in Slater knew she was there, and Teri was able to attend anonymously. She made herself known to the world the following year.
What was Slater like in the 1930s?
It was a thriving little city known as a “rough railroad town” throughout the state. It had a Main Street with about fifty merchants, a pool hall, a movie theater and about four pharmacies. Of course, when the Great Depression hit, the town was thrown into great financial despair.
At first, Steve lived in a 10x20 railroad ‘cook shack’ with his grandparents, Lillian and Victor Crawford. It had no running water, electricity, or toilet facilities.
Steve later moved in with his great uncle, Claude Thomson.
Claude was a prosperous hog farmer and owned about 320 acres of land. Steve, like all other kids at that time, worked the farm and learned his values and principles from Uncle Claude, who was Steve’s first father figure.
Because Steve’s early life was so hectic, there was no real stability. Both of his parents were alcoholics, he was passed around to relatives, and Uncle Claude was the first one to give him a stable home life.
Steve remembered, “He was a very good man. Very strong. Very fair. I learned a lot from him.” One of the principles he learned from Claude was a strong work ethic. “When I’d get lazy and duck my chores, Claude would warm my backside with a hickory switch. I learned a simple fact: you work for what you get,” said Steve.
What was the most important lesson Steve took away from his Slater experience?
A strong work ethic and a sense of fairness. McQueen once said, “I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It gives you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which is lacking in our society.”
How much has Slater evolved?
It’s changed a lot, but the people have not. They’re the best, and they’re like family to me. If you follow America’s economic journey, the places that were prosperous in the 19th and early 20th Centuries were agricultural and textile communities.
Slater fell into the former as the area’s fertile soil made it some of the finest farmland in the country. When the Chicago and Alton Railroad pulled out of Slater sometime in the 1940s, the town was greatly affected, and it has had to change and transition with the times.
Many of the buildings on Main Street from when the time Steve was there are still standing, so it’s easy to envision what life was like then.
Claude Thomson’s home is also still there, and I make it a point to visit the owner every time I come to Slater. His name is Harold Eddy, and he grew up on the farm next to Steve.
About a week before the festival I call him and say, “Mr. Eddy, I’m coming to town, and I’d like to see the house.” He and his wife are so gracious that they never say no, but I never come empty handed, either. I always have a signed book for them.
During Steve’s lifetime, did the city recognize him in any manner?
Steve told a reporter in the late 1950s, “I hated farm life and didn’t get along with small-town people. I guess they were just as glad to see me go as I was to get out of there.”
Those words stuck with the town for many decades, and they have the attitude of, “Well, if you don’t like me, then screw you. I don’t like you either.” In 1978 the town celebrated its centennial and extended an olive branch to McQueen, who never bothered to reply.
But in the last year of his life, he was feeling sentimental, and his wife Barbara told me he wanted to take a road trip to Slater. Soon thereafter, he wasn’t feeling well — he had been diagnosed with cancer — and canceled the trip.
In March 2007, it all changed. Me, Barbara, Pat Johnson and Loren Janes reached out to Slater Main Street News editor Jean Black, who helped organize the first annual Steve McQueen Days Festival.
She said no one from Slater thought we were going to attend, and when it was confirmed we were coming, 2,000 people showed up. It was amazing.
Someone in the audience asked Barbara if it was true that Steve hated Slater, and she said, “Steve never hated anything. The only thing he ever hated was when he ran out of beer.” The crowd ate up her down-home humor, especially when a farmer asked Barbara if it was coincidental that he married all brunettes.
Barbara answered, “Sure, Steve married all brunettes; but don’t forget, there were a lot of blondes in between.” The place went nuts, and everybody fell to the floor with laughter. Right then and there is when everything changed. They all fell in love with Barbara in that very instant, and in turn, fell in love with Steve. I credit Barbara McQueen for turning those ill feelings around.
Today Slater has named a highway after Steve as well as erected a billboard at the city limits that reads, “Childhood home of Steve McQueen.” That’s quite a turn around.
How do you rate Steve’s successful three-year Western series, Wanted: Dead or Alive?
It was a good show for its time. It’s funny looking back because all of the initial reviews commented on its violent content, and McQueen was always forced to defend the show.
What was most important about Wanted: Dead or Alive was that it was a valuable learning experience for McQueen to hone his craft; how to specifically act for the camera. By the time he was finished the series, he transitioned smoothly into feature films and created a very strong film persona.
Do you think Steve might have returned to television?
No, I don’t think so. Remember how much McQueen wanted to get out of Wanted: Dead or Alive? He always thought of himself as a movie star, and television served a means to an end. Television for him was a grind — twelve-to-fifteen-hour days, and sometimes they shot an entire episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive in a day.
When he made the transition to film, he’d make one movie a year for three months at a time and had the rest of the year off. I think he had enough of television after three years of WDOA.
Did Steve eventually become proud of his role as Josh on the show?
I believe he did. He stated in many interviews “Ol’ Josh” gave him his break in show business. Let’s just say he didn’t bite the hand that fed him and always gave proper credit to the series for giving him his start.
For newcomers to Steve’s illustrious body of work, 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 and Tom Horn. This roster of films gives a good sampling of McQueen’s range as an actor and demonstrates why he was so popular with audiences.
Pick some of your favorite McQueen roles.
Papillon and The Getaway are my two favorite McQueen movies. Papillon 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, is there a McQueen film that you don’t care for?
Well, there was the whole slew of B-movies in the late ‘50s — 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, and Nevada Smith were my least favorites. And because I’m not a racing fan, I find Le Mans boring and unwatchable. However, that didn’t stop me from writing about it in Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror with Don Nunley. The behind the scenes drama that went on behind Le Mans is much more interesting than the movie itself.
Ultimately, 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.
Let’s tell a good story about The Blob, still a perennial cult classic.
Where do I begin? So many interesting stories about The Blob in this new book, but the funniest story was told by co-star Aneta Corsaut. She said everyone connected to The Blob was religious because the production company made Christian films, and The Blob was their first foray into the mainstream.
She said Steve drove everyone on the set crazy and the filmmakers would go into daily prayer meetings — they would pray to everything, including the makeup brushes. Corsaut said they would always finish by saying, “And God save us from Steve McQueen!”
On a more serious note, the executive producer on that movie said that he constantly preached the gospel to McQueen and even gave him a Bible and dog-eared the page for John 3:16.
When he told me that, I got goose bumps, because as you know, McQueen was clutching the Bible when he died in Mexico, and the page was opened to John 3:16. His gravitation to Christianity was a slow 20-year evolution, but I believe it started on The Blob.
Did The Blob score at the box office?
It was Paramount Picture’s No. 1 grossing movie of 1958 and was a bona-fide smash. It grossed $6 million dollars at the time, which if you adjust for inflation is like $51 million today. But what hasn’t been counted over the years is the fact that it was a drive-in classic and stuck around on that circuit for 20 years. I can’t even imagine what it really grossed when that is taken into account. The old movie executives really knew how to hide money back then.
Like the Hula-Hoop, coonskin caps, and TV dinners, The Blob crossed over into the realm of 1950s pop culture. That was in large part due to the kitschy title song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David under the phantom group the Blobs. The song, which ultimately sold three million copies, was a glorified radio jingle for the movie.
The Blob also provided grist for comedians and television personalities who found the movie’s title too hard to resist as a punch line. Steve Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope mentioned The Blob every time they needed a sure-fire laugh from audiences. Today it is just one tier below The Rocky Horror Film in terms of camp classics.
Did Steve come to grips with his role in the cult classic as he got older?
I’m not so sure he did. Howie Fishlove, who worked with Steve on The Blob, was also an extra on The Hunter, which was McQueen’s last movie. He reintroduced himself to Steve on The Hunter after 20 years, and Howie said Steve remembered him.
Not long into their conversation, Howie mentioned that he had a blooper reel of the movie and offered to get Steve a copy. McQueen told him, “Burn it!” Fishlove said McQueen was dead serious.
Is there a McQueen film that you have re-examined and 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.
Why did Steve tend to get into trouble on movie sets?
In the case of The Great Escape, McQueen was frustrated that his role wasn’t clearly defined, and rightly so. I imagine that played a part in his behavior on the set. Combine that with the fact he was off the picture for six weeks with nothing to do, he created his own chaos to pass the time. He was not a guy who sat around waiting for something to happen.
While shooting Le Mans, there was also frustration but for different reasons. He had the pressure of the entire movie being on his back, and the studio was threatening to take control. The movie took a big toll on McQueen and it played a major part in the demise of his relationship with his agent Stan Kamen, Solar Productions, his movie company and his marriage to first wife Neile.
So absolutely, McQueen displayed lots of reckless behavior, both in Hollywood and overseas. The thing to keep in mind is that it was a different time. Journalists turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of stars — and American presidents — because they had to keep their sources.
Today it’s completely flip-flopped. The press looks for stars to mess up because they’ll get a great scoop and know it will play big. Ten years ago you’d never see an affair as front page news. Today it’s routine. There just weren’t as many paparazzi back in McQueen’s day and the era of instant information has changed everything.
Was there ever a film where Steve didn’t argue with his director?
Yes, there were quite a few directors he got along with. He worked well with John Sturges in Never So Few and The Magnificent Seven, but then they feuded on The Great Escape and their friendship sadly ended on Le Mans.
He got along with Don Siegel in Hell is For Heroes; Robert Mulligan on Love with the Proper Stranger and Baby the Rain Must Fall; Henry Hathaway on Nevada Smith; Robert Wise on The Sand Pebbles; Peter Yates on Bullitt; Sam Peckinpah on Junior Bonner; Franklin Schaffner on Papillon; Irwin Allen and John Guillermin on The Towering Inferno and Buzz Kulick on The Hunter.
He also got along with Norman Jewison on The Cincinnati Kid but was a pain in the ass on The Thomas Crown Affair three years later. But that’s because McQueen was insecure about himself in the role, not because of Jewison.
The reason why he was difficult on film set was because many times, he functioned best when there was chaos. In many instances, if was no chaos then he had to create it. Psychologist Peter Witt, who wrote the foreword to Legend and analyzed McQueen’s behavior throughout the book, said that because his early life was so chaotic, he was at his functional peak when stirring the pot.
Who do you think Steve enjoyed working with the most?
There’s no doubt he enjoyed working with his friend Don Gordon, who co-starred with McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive, Bullitt, Papillon and The Towering Inferno. McQueen also enjoyed working with Ben Johnson, Eli Wallach and specifically requested to work with LeVar Burton on The Hunter.
But the actors who got the best out of Steve were the ones he perceived as threats: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and Yul Brynner. He was particularly motivated in The Magnificent Seven, Papillon and The Towering Inferno.
Regarding Steve’s co-stars, who coaxed the best performance out of him?
I’d have to say off the top of my head Dustin Hoffman for Papillon; Faye Dunaway for The Thomas Crown Affair; Edward G. Robinson for The Cincinnati Kid and Robert Preston for Junior Bonner.
McQueen did his best work when he knew he was going up against someone formidable. And he was especially amped when acting opposite Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno.
How would you categorize McQueen and Newman’s relationship in real life?
Psychologist Peter O. Whitmer believes that Steve had what he called a “weird professional sibling rivalry” with Newman. Whitmer thinks it stemmed from the fact that Steve never had a brother with whom to go through this rite of adolescent passage, and that Newman fit the bill.
I believe they liked each other as people, but Steve was jealous that Newman got to the top much quicker than he did. This rivalry manifested itself again on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Steve refused to do the movie based on the grounds that he would not get top billing.
It finally came to a close when McQueen finally got top billing and the more dominating part in The Towering Inferno. Let me point out it wasn’t a one-way street — according to a few new accounts, Newman also made sure to guard his territory.
Inferno screenwriter Stirling Silliphant told a very funny story about how the two stars went back and forth with him regarding their lines, and sneaking behind each other’s backs but never directly confronting the other.
In retrospect, did Newman speak about McQueen on-the-record?
That’s a very interesting question because I’ve never come across an article or interview where Newman commented on the record about McQueen either during his lifetime or after his death. I find this very telling given that Newman lived almost 30 years after McQueen passed away.
There is a book out by Newman’s lifelong friend, A.E. Hotchner, called Paul and Me. Hotchner writes about visiting Newman on the set of The Towering Inferno. He said that Newman was very unhappy with himself and McQueen, going so far as to call him “chicken s — t” for counting up the lines in the screenplay and demanding parity. This proves what I’ve always felt about superstars — there’s no room at the top for anyone else.
Perhaps a question out of left field — was Steve friendly with John Wayne?
McQueen greatly respected the Duke and held him up as the gold standard for movie stars. I remember hearing a story most recently from Barbara McQueen. She was looking over pictures in Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool and spotted the two pictures of McQueen and Wayne.
She chuckled and then told me this great story. She said the two legends were at an awards ceremony in the 1960s and were either presenters or co-presenters. They were hanging out backstage, waiting to go on, when Wayne didn’t feel like going to the restroom or there wasn’t enough time to find a restroom, and so Wayne took a leak against a wall or curtain.
She said that Steve started laughing and joined in, also relieving himself. Barbara said Steve remembered the encounter with a huge smile. After we both finished laughing, I said, “Oh, why did you have to tell me that story after the book was published?”
What connection did Elvis Presley have with the King of Cool?
I did a book with late Memphis Mafia member Sonny West called Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business . He told me a story of how the two met one day on the way to the studio in the mid-’60s. Elvis waRs in a limousine when McQueen pulled up on a motorcycle. They were pleasant to each other but the exchange was brief.
The two legends really collided when they were competing for the affections of actress Barbara Leigh, who I also wrote a book with, entitled The King, McQueen and the Love Machine, in 2002. She was Steve’s co-star in his 1972 rodeo western, Junior Bonner.
Before she met Steve, Barbara was dating Elvis and Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio executive Jim Aubrey in August 1970. She then got the role of “Charmagne”, and she and Steve started seeing each other on the set of Junior Bonner, and even after the movie was completed.
Barbara, Steve, and Elvis had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the people they were dating. I have a sneaking suspicion Steve knew she was still seeing Elvis and that Elvis knew she was seeing Steve.
So when Elvis would call, he’d ask, “How’s that motorcycle hick”? And Steve would ask, “Was that the guitar hick?” It wasn’t often that McQueen or Elvis had to compete for a woman, but Barbara Leigh, who was a stunner, was quite worth the chase. She’s a very sweet lady and still as sexy as ever.
When you got down to it, Barbara was really in love with James Aubrey. She knew Elvis would never give up other women and realized she and Steve weren’t a great match. I don’t know of Elvis and Steve meeting again after their relationships with Barbara ended.
Did Steve regret turning down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for The Reivers?
I have never heard any stories saying McQueen regretted turning down Butch Cassidy. In his mind, if he didn’t get top billing, then there was nothing else to discuss.
Personally, I would have loved to have seen him in this role…it was so perfect for McQueen. He would have brought great intensity to the part, and I believe he was short-sighted about the star billing. He would have also been excellent in Apocalypse Now, The Bodyguard, The Driver, and A Bridge Too Far. Apocalypse Now would have stretched him as an actor.
The film I regret seeing him turn down the most was director William Friedkin’s The Sorcerer. That’s a very good film with Roy Scheider in the lead role, but McQueen would have given it another dimension and made it a classic.
Friedkin [The French Connection, The Exorcist] would have pushed McQueen to greatness on that film. It’s a shame that he didn’t make that movie, because right around the time he did An Enemy of the People in 1977, he could have used a box-office hit.
Of the numerous scripts that McQueen turned down that were relegated to the proverbial dustbin, is there one that deserves to be revisited in modern times?
Robert Downey, Jr. has been working since 2011 to get Yucatan off the ground. I think it’s great because this was the one film McQueen wanted to do most but got shelved because of the collapse of Solar Productions after Le Mans in 1971. I’m not so sure it will get made. It’s easily a $150 to $200 million film. If it’s not a superhero flick, it’s hard to find financing.
Was Papillon Steve’s greatest acting role?
Yes, it’s my personal opinion that Papillon was his greatest role because his performance captures the essence of needing to be free despite the costs. His character experiences many torments and hardships to achieve his goal.
The maturity that McQueen brings to this piece of work is impressive as he shows great valor but is also unafraid to be shown at his worst, especially in the scenes where he has been in solitary confinement and in an appalling state.
McQueen had the skill and security in himself to play a character that by the end was ravaged of his good looks. He was now confident enough as an actor to stand aside from his image and let his acting do the talking.
In terms of preparation, he knew he was up against Dustin Hoffman, who was part of this new crop of young actors taking the acting world by storm. You can tell by McQueen’s performance that he was inspired.
It’ll be interesting to see what the remake will look like, which stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. By the way, I think Papillon makes this the seventh remake of a McQueen TV or film project [the others include Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Blob, The Great Escape, The Getaway, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Magnificent Seven].
How did Steve’s three marriages impact his life and career?
Neile McQueen represented Steve’s struggle to get to the top and his halcyon years as a movie star. She was ambitious and highly talented, breaking into the world of entertainment just as Steve wanted to do.
Ali MacGraw seemed to fill the gap in his life during the transition from established star to the start of middle age; she was America’s sweetheart and the ideal other half of Hollywood’s power couple. Her presence defined the final stretch of McQueen’s domination of the film industry, the reconciliation of his alpha-male status with middle age, and his withdrawal from public life while they spent five reclusive years in Malibu.
Finally, Barbara Minty represented a sense of peace and contentment. During this period, McQueen settled comfortably into middle age and was intent on finding peace — and himself — on his own terms.
What is the story behind Steve tending bar at a funky Agoura Hills restaurant?
The establishment was called The Old Place, and it catered to an eclectic mix of bikers, actors, beach bums, cowboys, and local characters who made the establishment their own.
He first started going there in late 1972, but he might have moonlighted there after The Towering Inferno, circa ’74, ’75, and ’76. Flo Esposito, who was a bartender at The Old Place, told me Steve had the kindest heart of any man she had ever met.
McQueen often worked behind the bar, pouring beer and wine and serving patrons. Esposito, who spent many evenings with McQueen, said it was therapeutic for him, because he didn’t have the pressure of the media spotlight on him.
I thought it was interesting from a psychological point of view. He was the world’s highest paid movie star, but tending bar made him happy and relieved the pressure he was feeling.
Another odd but true tale…Steve donned a hard hat and tool belt and snuck around as a telephone repairman.
That was a story told to me by McQueen’s former New York City roommate, Gene Lesser. He said after The Towering Inferno, McQueen was burned out and was tired of being recognized by the public.
He said McQueen used to come by his office, albeit dressed up in a hard hat and tool belt, and lie on his couch and talk for hours about the old days and what he was currently up to.
That, combined with his long hair and beard, provided a cover for McQueen so he could move about freely. Escapism was a major theme in McQueen’s life and his movies.
Why did Steve take such a long sabbatical from films after 1974’s The Towering Inferno? Did he think this was a mistake upon reflection?
In Life and Legend 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. 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.
An Enemy of the People certainly had a convoluted production schedule.
The film was a 33-day shoot, which commenced on 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 deal [McQueen’s production company; Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and Sidney Poitier were also partners], 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 and is available for sale, so if you’re a fan and are curious, you should check it out to see what all the fuss was about.
With Tom Horn and The Hunter both appearing in 1980, do you think Steve would have continued making movies at a regular rate as opposed to his creative dry spell in the late ‘70s?
I believe McQueen would have made movies sporadically in more cameo/character driven roles as he grew older. McQueen was at a place in his life where he no longer had to prove himself and wasn’t as driven as he was in his 20s and 30s.
It was apparent to me he wanted to enjoy his life, his planes, his cars, motorcycles, and antiques. He would have been in a position like Marlon Brando where he was always going to be in demand, and would have been paid well to come out of retirement.
Was there a film Steve really wanted to make after The Hunter until cancer eroded those plans?
He was prepping The Last Ride, a story about former bikers who are now middle-aged and take “one last ride” before they enter maturity. Columbia Studios was going to make the movie with Chuck Bail, Steve’s friend, as director, and Steve had already committed to the project.
Everything was a go until March 1980, when the news broke that McQueen had cancer. This story is covered in Legend and is heartbreaking to read, because he would have been so good in the role.
The premise of Wild Hogs , starring John Travolta, is similar to The Last Ride, but took a more comedic approach. I think The Last Ride would have been more somber and melodramatic. I still think it’s a great idea for a movie, and I hope one day a studio will revive the idea.
When did Steve have to give up flying during his bout with cancer?
My research shows he had his last flight around late May/early June 1980. Remember, he checked into the Plaza Santa Maria in Mexico on July 31, and everything ceased after that. I remember Mike Dewey, who was a pilot, told me the sad story that once McQueen’s belly became bloated, he was ashamed of his appearance and started cutting himself off from the public.
He had also set an appointment to meet with his instructor, Sammy Mason, to go flying around this time. Sammy said he never showed and assumed it was because Steve wasn’t feeling well. He checked into the Plaza Santa Maria a few weeks later.
What is your view on Steve’s decision to go to Mexico for alternative cancer treatment?
It’s a tough call because it was a dire situation. It’s not a black and white issue. McQueen was definitely told by doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital that he had three months to live and to get his affairs in order. Being a fighter his whole life, he didn’t take the news well and decided to go to Mexico.
You also have to remember the era — it was a time where alternative cancer therapies started getting a lot publicity, and the public felt as if the government were hiding things about cures to cancer. McQueen was naturally suspicious, so this fed into his paranoia.
Barbara said to me it was a very confusing time, and what Dr. Kelley said made sense at a time when nothing else did. And I must take some blame here as well — in 1993 when I did Portrait, I spoke to several of the Kelly people and intimated that his work had some validity.
Now that I’m older — and because I re-read and examined Teena Valentino’s diary for Legend — I no longer feel that way. There were things going on at the Plaza Santa Maria that I feel were not cool.
Mainly, Steve was pressured by Dr. Kelley and the Plaza administrators to issue a press release touting the program and that he was being healed. You don’t put that kind of pressure or guilt on a cancer patient. They knew that a thumbs up from Steve McQueen would have driven a lot of business their way, and applied pressure on him to go public with his treatment by touting Kelley’s program, going so far as to write a press release for him.
Now, here is where it gets murky: I’ve met several members of the staff there, and they’re all good people who had their heart in the right place. Many of them had family members at the clinic who had cancer, and they saw Dr. Kelley as a righteous man who tried to help when no one else would.
My personal belief is that Dr. Kelly absolutely believed 100 percent what he was doing was right and medically sound. Personally, I don’t think Dr. Kelley’s methods worked, and that you cannot cure cancer through diet.
So with that said, if Dr. Kelley felt so strongly about developing a cure for cancer, why not go back to medical school and become an oncologist? And then if you still don’t believe in those traditional methods, then develop alternative ones as a medical doctor. That’s what I’d ask him if he were alive today.
There’s no harm in thinking outside the box, but you also have to play by the rules. He was a dentist, not an oncologist. It’s like somebody practicing law but not actually having a law degree. He should have, at the very least, graduated from medical school before treating cancer patients.
I don’t believe Dr. Kelley originally had bad intentions; remember, McQueen sought him out. Kelley didn’t go to McQueen. However, I believe over time Kelley mentally unraveled due to tremendous stress, the fact that he was never taken seriously by the medical community, and was under constant government supervision.
I think he was banned by 17 different medical organizations at the time. I remember reviewing an old article from 1980, and the reporter made a point of showing readers that Dr. Kelley wanted to see his press credentials, because he wanted to ensure he wasn’t a government agent.
Dr. Kelly began writing racist literature, and in his 1999 updated version of One Answer to Cancer, he claimed a government agent came into McQueen’s room in Mexico and injected a blood clotting medication in his IV.
Kelly didn’t say that in 1980; he said McQueen died of an embolism. It’s very clear his paranoia worsened over time, and it’s all a direct link to his medical treatment of McQueen.
Now that I’m in my fifties and older than McQueen was when he died, what would I do in his shoes? You’d better believe that I would never go to Mexico for cancer treatment. I would get treatment here in the States or in Germany.
I know plenty of people who have been treated for advanced cancer in the States and have survived. The other option, which is what actor Michael Landon did, was to accept the diagnosis, go home, and be comfortable. Surround yourself with family and friends, and die in peace.
The things McQueen endured in Mexico, and the indignity he suffered immediately after his death were humiliating. It was no fun to write about it, but in doing so, my hope is to dissuade people from going to Mexico for cancer treatment.
You mean to tell me some little clinic in a dirty, dusty back road in Mexico is going to hold the cure for cancer and be able to keep it from the world? It’s just not logical, and for McQueen to go there was a mistake. But that’s my opinion.
But it was his decision and no one else’s. He did what he felt was best for him, and who am I to say he made the wrong choice? All I can say is that it’s not the choice I would make for myself today.
Where were you when Steve passed away?
I was 16 years old at the time of McQueen’s death. I remember first learning of his cancer when Parade magazine ran a picture of he and Barbara McQueen at the Tom Horn premiere in Oxnard, California. I remember it was in the Q&A section as soon as you open the magazine, and I think this was after the news broke that he admitted he had cancer but was not dead. I was crestfallen.
I had seen both Tom Horn and The Hunter at the movies that year, and McQueen was very much on my radar because had reemerged in the public spotlight. He died November 7, 1980, and John Lennon died a month later on December 8. It was not a good year.
When I reflect back on that time it’s something I try and block out. I was living in Washington D.C. and it was the cold of winter when they were taken from us. Looking back I associate cold and dark winters with their two deaths. It took a long time for me to get over their deaths.
Decades later, it’s tough for me to see film footage of that era. And if it’s hard for me, can you begin to imagine what it must be like for their family and loved ones? These two men were robbed of the opportunity to live a full life, and the world was robbed of two great talents. The world misses them, which is why they live on.
Did Steve realize how much his fans loved him?
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.”
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 Steve was among the living, what would you envision 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.
What is the most difficult part about undergoing a McQueen project?
For me personally it’s when to stop. Because I find McQueen so fascinating, I must know everything about him. No stone goes unturned. I originally envisioned my 2010 coffee table book, Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool, as maybe 100 passages…it’s about 215 passages, and I could have kept going.
The editor of Steve McQueen: The Life and 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.
Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel was your first book in 1993. What was that experience like?
It was a wonderfully new and exciting process. Today I have written approximately 15 books, and Portrait was my first. It was a grand adventure as I embarked on a new chapter in my life, and going to Hollywood to meet all my favorite actors and 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 it been your most successful book?
Portrait is by far the most successful book I’ve written. It was reviewed worldwide, has gone through five printings, and was revised in 2005. Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon is a much better book than Portrait because I was a more seasoned writer and had access to more information and people because of the Internet. Portrait was written before the Internet when you really had to go hunting for information.
But the new book I co-authored with Greg Laurie, Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, will end up selling more than Portrait because Greg has a huge platform and the documentary, Steve McQueen: American Icon, will push it through the roof.
Two other books of mine remain perennial sellers. I co-wrote a biography called Maravich with Wayne Federman on the life of basketball legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich . 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 and bodyguard Sonny West called Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business . It took me four years to write. 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.
How does Portrait hold up 25 years later?
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, and The Hunter.
Ziffren and Maher were also the two men who drew up McQueen’s Last Will and 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.
Have you been able to interview Neile Adams or Ali MacGraw, or do their autobiographies contain the final word on their late husband?
I’ve never spoken to or corresponded with Neile, but I have traded a few emails with Ali over the years. I just love how she’s rebounded and what she has done with her life. She’s truly an inspiring lady and is living proof that people can rebound, move forward, and in her case, thrive.
As for their books, I thought they both did a great job. Neile has received a lot of criticism for her warts-and-all approach with My Husband, My Friend . Neile was his wife for 15 years, and she’s entitled to tell it the way she saw it. I rather liked it.
I feel Ali is a very talented writer, and Moving Pictures  is a great read. I wish, as a lot of people do, that she would have written more about Steve. Without reading between the lines, I think it’s evident that’s all she wanted to say about Steve at the time.
During the interview process, 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. A very nice man. He called Steve “McQueen-o” and was very amused by his antics.
Coburn said he and Steve smoked a lot of pot together and, if I can add, had a very hands-off approach when it came to McQueen. He knew Steve was wound tight and Coburn was very much the opposite of Steve. He knew he didn’t pose a threat to McQueen and yet was very much his own man.
Coburn knew Steve’s psyche inside and out and always made sure to not tread on what Steve perceived to be “his territory.” He sort of looked at McQueen from afar with this whimsical bemusement, but he also knew McQueen was damaged inside. Out of all of Steve’s co-stars, Coburn had him nailed.
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.
How many of Steve’s good friends, including those you have interviewed, are still living?
Karate expert Pat Johnson is still alive but stuntman Loren Janes recently passed. We were regularly in touch, and I still stay in touch with his daughter. I saw and spoke to Bud Ekins a few times before his death, but we were never close. I did strike up a nice friendship with his brother, Dave, who is a gentleman.
Barbara Leigh is a good friend and a true sweetheart. She agreed to be interviewed again for the new book and documentary and we’ll be friends for life. You have to remember that Steve would be in his eighties, and many of his contemporaries are gone.
Did Steve sit down and write letters or do any type of writing?
He wrote many letters to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and I think three of those appear in the new book. He was very clear and concise and often witty in his letters. For a guy with a ninth grade education, it sure didn’t show in his letters.
I believe he was a highly intelligent man, which was overshadowed by his physical activities and wild and reckless behavior. You don’t get to the top of any industry unless you have some intelligence.
Plus, fame offers a worldly education that money can’t buy and McQueen was a great student of life and the Hollywood game. He often outsmarted studio moguls, producers, agents and co-stars. His instincts were razor sharp and it wasn’t often when he was bested.
How honest was Steve in interviews?
He was the typical movie star in those situations; he let you see what he wanted you to see. He had a tendency to embellish, especially when it came to his background and his daredevil feats. Interviewers — and the public — accepted his word, so you really have to sift through his interviews to decipher what’s fact and what’s fiction.
The style of journalism was different back then for movie stars. It’s not like today, where it’s part of the mainstream media. Today’s journalism is so celebrity-oriented that the lines of real headline news are getting blurred, and it’s a trend I don’t like. When Justin Bieber facing the possibility of jail time or Lindsay Lohan going into rehab leads the top news stories for the day, something is definitely wrong.
About how many interviews did Steve do over the years?
Back then, McQueen’s interviews were mostly relegated to movie magazines and the occasional newspaper piece. During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, he did lots of interviews, but not a real in-depth interview like a Playboy Q&A.
Some of the larger pieces done on McQueen were Life magazine in 1963, The Saturday Evening Post in 1967, Look in 1970, Playboy in 1971, and Cosmopolitan in 1972. He was also the subject of a few articles in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.
After 1972, he stopped giving interviews, with the exception of The Fireman’s Grapevine — a Los Angeles fire fighter’s newsletter — in 1974, which talked about firefighting and how he approached The Towering Inferno; and the 1979 interview with Hamilton High School student Rick Penn-Kraus for his school paper, The Federalist.
In both instances, he gave the interviews based on “vibes.” McQueen had Time, Life, and Newsweek all knocking on his door, but he was very picky about whom he chose to talk to in the last decade of his life. McQueen was from the Mad Men era, where men weren’t very introspective or self-examining, at least to reporters, so they weren’t going to get much.
The Brugh Joy interview he did on his death bed in 1980 was perhaps his most revealing interview, because he was forced to talk about issues concerning life and death.
How would you describe Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon to readers?
I would describe it as a straight-forward, chronological/psychological profile of Steve McQueen.
How did you choose the cover of Life and Legend?
Actually, I did not pick the photo, but I sure didn’t protest it, either. It is from The Great Escape, and it’s iconic. That image is known to millions around the world.
Some criticism has been leveled at you for involving psychologist Peter O. Whitmer in the book’s narrative.
I feel justified in having enlisted Peter in order to better understand McQueen’s often erratic behavior. In my 1993 bio and in other biographies, you have McQueen behaving badly, often at times like a madman, but with no explanation or context to his actions. Most people when they read about McQueen might say, “What an egotist,” or “Man, he was a royal jerk!,” or “He sure was a womanizer.”
But if you give some context as to why he behaved the way he did, then it becomes a much clearer picture of Steve’s personality. Peter’s comments, I don’t believe, are critical of the man, but get to the heart of who Steve was and how his background laid the foundation for the rest of his life.
Let’s face it — some of McQueen’s behavior demands explanation. Why did a man who had it all on the surface spend his entire life looking in the rear view mirror? What was it like to be the child of two adult alcoholics, and how did that affect him as a child and adult?
Why did McQueen feel the need to destroy his first marriage to a lady who was 110 percent devoted to him and his career, and bore his two children? Why did he constantly test his co-stars and personal friends? Why did he walk away from the movie industry after he spent two decades chasing the brass ring?
Why did he do An Enemy of the People, knowing it might do damage to his career? Why did he choose an alternative cancer clinic in Mexico instead of the United States? These were all burning questions in my mind, and readers deserved a possible explanation.
Besides, Peter put in a lot of work. Not only did he read Portrait, he read Neile, Ali and Barbara’s books, Steve’s military file, his FBI file, and Teena Valentino’s 800-page diary. He followed that up with a ton of questions for me, so that he could get a better psychological hold on Steve. I thought all of his answers and explanations were brilliant observations and right on the money.
McQueen could be perplexing at times, and Peter broke it all down nicely in very easy to understand terms. If people are willing to go to therapists or counselors to learn more about themselves, why wouldn’t they listen to what a top psychologist would have to say about one of the most insecure and contradictory hero’s in cinema? I think Peter is a great addition to the book, and I stand by my decision to include him in this work.
Was everything included in the book to your satisfaction? Also, was there any aspect of Steve’s life that was eliminated due to length?
Absolutely, everything was included to my satisfaction and then some. I was surrounded by a great team — editor Andrew Antoniades, chief researcher Veronica Valdez, Peter O. Whitmer, and the people at Triumph Books, who allowed me great leeway.
No, nothing was cut other than if Andrew said, “Too much information, mate. You don’t need it.” And I listened to Andrew. The funny thing is, the publisher initially asked for a 300-page book. I turned in a 624-page book, more than double what they asked for — and they didn’t cut a page!
I just felt that to deliver a 300-page book on McQueen’s life would not do the man justice. He lived an epic life, and he deserves the proper space and treatment I felt he warranted. I don’t care if people have shorter attention spans today, I couldn’t deliver a Reader’s Digest version of his life. Even though the book is 624 pages, it reads fast.
Have you found any new information on Steve since the publication of Life and Legend?
Yes, I’m always collecting and finding new information on Steve. I would have liked to have interviewed film producer Robert Evans. Like millions of others, I wanted to ask him what was in the dossier he had on McQueen, when he got Steve to back off on the idea of adopting Joshua Evans. I think that’s a secret Evans will take to his grave.
Joshua came to live with Ali and Steve after her divorce to Evans. Steve had developed a very strong bond with Joshua and wanted to marry Ali and adopt Joshua. Joshua did live with Steve and Ali for a few years at their Malibu home, and continues to have a deep affection for Steve.
You visited England and Japan with Barbara Minty McQueen as part of your promotional activities for Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon. What was the experience like, and did you learn something new about your subject?
They were both extraordinary trips, especially Japan. When we were in England, we did a four city tour that included London, Liverpool, Bradford, and Brighton.
We did our usual sight-seeing but spent a very special night with friends at McQueen, a new restaurant/nightclub in London’s East End, dedicated to the style of Steve McQueen. The owner, Dezzi McCausland, treated us like royalty, and it was a great evening.
Liverpool was a nice homecoming of sorts because I had the opportunity to visit my favorite Beatle sites and spend time with good friends. Brighton was also a pleasant surprise because it’s filled with boutique shops, theater and nightclub venues, and five-star restaurants.
Japan was mind-blowing. We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. We saw ancient shrines and temples, had a meditation session with a Zen Master, enjoyed dinner with two Geishas, took rickshaw rides around the city, slept at a traditional Japanese hotel, took a public bath, wore ceremonial robes, rode on the bullet train at 160 miles per hour, saw the world’s largest Buddha, and sang karaoke in a five-story building dedicated solely to karaoke.
Japan is as close to a Utopian society that you’ll ever find: there’s no homeless, no trash on the streets, people are healthy, the elderly are respected, and everyone is incredibly kind and polite.
We did a book signing where about 200 people showed, and they showered us with gifts. Some even broke down crying because they were so overcome with emotion. The following day the Moment String Quartet performed a special concert for Barbara and me featuring the songs of Steve McQueen’s films.
We were told they rehearsed an entire year for the concert, which is humbling. Barbara and I made sure to shake every hand, take every photo, answer every question and signed anything that was put in front of us. We truly wanted to connect with people and show them our appreciation.
What I learned on those trips is that McQueen is truly loved on a global level, perhaps even more so in England and Japan than in the United States.
In England, he’s a symbol of rebellion. In Japan, he’s a symbol of prosperity and is liked because he was a man of action, not words. In both countries, he’s a fashion icon.
In 2012 you decided to revisit your collaboration with Barbara, The Last Mile. Was there anything in the original edition that you weren’t satisfied with?
No, not really. Barbi’s goal was to write a book that was kind, sweet and positive and contributed to Steve’s legacy, and to that end we succeeded. People just love that book.
The only reason we did a revision was because the book was about to go out of print. We had to decide to either let it run its course or do something different. We enjoy doing signings and traveling to different cities to promote the book and didn’t want that to end. It was really Barbi’s idea to revise it, add passages and include new photos.
How is The Last Mile…Revisited different than the original?
The dust jacket is the same save for the title and the color. The original color scheme was sand. The new one is a light blue. We wanted to make the revised version distinct and stand out on its own. I must say the new color scheme looks good.
It contains several new passages, more unseen photographs and the information is updated. The book was originally published in late 2006 and some new adventures have taken place that Barbi wanted to document.
For example, we took a trip to Patagonia in January 2012 to visit Joe Brown. It was the first time in 32 years they had seen each other. We also visited the very spot where she and Steve parked their motor home and spent many nights out underneath the stars. I took some great photos of that visit, and those pictures will appear in the book.
The new passages came about as a result of talking to Barbi over the years. She’d remember something, and I’d laugh and say, “D — n, don’t tell me this…I could have used that for the book!” Certain things will trigger her memory and then she’ll tell me something she’s never told me before. In a way, it’s a good thing she didn’t tell me those stories the first go round because there’d be no reason to do a revision.
Is Barbara contemplating a second book?
Fortunately the answer is yes. For a long time she told me that The Last Mile was going to be her one and only book on Steve. She has such a vast photo archive that I kept telling her it would be a shame to let those unseen photos stay in the vault.
I did interview Barbara and collect stories for a second book focusing on the making of Tom Horn and The Hunter. I have yet to pull the trigger. I’m just waiting for her to tell me when the timing is right for her.
What other projects are on your table?
I just finished executive producing Steve McQueen: An American Icon, which is a 90-minute feature documentary film focusing on the last year of his life, how he became a born-again Christian, and how he finally found inner peace after decades of inner turmoil. That was flat out a blast and I’d like to do more in the movie sector.
I also have plenty of book ideas come to me and I nurture some of my own projects as well. The problem with me is time. I feel I have less and less of it, but when there’s a deadline put in front of me, I always seem to make it.
What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
I’m 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 and current TV series, and spend time with our Boston terrier, the greatest breed of dog there is. I also read a lot of books — biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, history, always non-fiction.
Besides Steve, who are some actors you particularly admire? Michael Caine, guys I’ll always pay to see. He’s truly an actor, like McQueen, that is just so likeable and believable that he’s going to be good in anything he does. And he’s gotten better as he gets older, which makes me think that McQueen would have been as well.
I like actors who are consistently good but not necessarily flashy: Kevin Costner, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and Clint Eastwood. Out of the new pack I like Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington and Daniel Craig. But some people might say they’re old. To me, they’re the new pack.
I see McQueen in a lot of these guys or some of the roles they’ve played — Costner in The Bodyguard and Revenge, Crowe in LA Confidential, Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior, Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan, Matt Damon in The Bourne Trilogy, and Jeremy Renner in Wind River. McQueen is the most emulated actor in Hollywood, and that’s a fact.
Why is Steve more popular overseas that stateside?
I would have to say McQueen is the most popular in England, Japan, Germany, and France, and then maybe the States. In fact, in Legend I write an entire chapter on Britain’s fascination with McQueen. As a nation, the British are polite and often far from outspoken.
They see the opposite in McQueen and cannot help but find it compelling. If he wanted something, he didn’t ask — he simply took. If someone got in his way, he didn’t say sorry — he said, “Screw you.”
He was someone who would speak out in situations where polite people never would. He would break the rules, while Brits would proudly adhere to them. They had to admire someone as free, liberated, and self-confident as McQueen.
There is an image that perfectly sums up both the respect and the affection given to McQueen. The British poster for The Great Escape proves the affinity they felt and continue to have for McQueen.
On the artwork for this poster, McQueen is shown sporting the RAF bomber jacket complete with insignia. In the film he is, of course, an American pilot, but the British redefined him as theirs. The nation adopted him as their son.
In 2012 Barbi and I visited Hamburg, Germany, and more than 400 people showed up for the premiere of her art exhibit. It was an amazing cross section of young and old, men and women, car people, movie people, aviation people, fashion people — all knew a little something about McQueen’s history.
They were pretty much united in the film they admired most: Le Mans. Auto racing is much more appreciated in Europe or should I say, is more of a mainstream sport than it is in the States. They get that McQueen truly loved racing and wasn’t a poser. There is also an inherit understanding that McQueen did the film his way and that he got on film the heart of racing and it wasn’t a piece of Hollywood fluff.
So they would see his movies, become intrigued with the mystery of the man, then start reading about him and become fascinated with the man. It’s the foreigner syndrome. McQueen is mythical and iconic to the Europeans because he is uniquely American and was an original.
Why are we still talking about Steve nearly 40 years after his untimely death?
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.
If you had met Steve, 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 and 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 [McQueen’s half-sister gives her exclusive take here]. 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.
Going back to your question — McQueen was an extremely guarded person, and I don’t do well around guarded or paranoid people. I like to think I’m very open and honest and people can ask me anything. Yet, when you’re around a guarded person like McQueen, if you ask anything, it makes you feel as if you’re prying or being nosy.
So I have to come to the conclusion that we wouldn’t have had much to talk about because my nature is to ask questions; my nature is to be open; my nature is to trust — completely opposite of what I believed McQueen to be.
This isn’t a knock against McQueen. When you endured what he did as a child and as a star, he’s going to be wearing emotional armor that would be tough for anyone to penetrate. When I deal with those sorts of people in everyday life, my tendency is to avoid them. I’m going to give and reciprocate to a certain point but if I don’t feel anything back on the other end, then it’s time to cut bait.
With that said, I think it’s pretty clear I like and respect Steve McQueen very much as a person and actor. But with me being a writer/reporter, odds are that he would have viewed me with suspicion from the start…but I don’t take that personal.
Is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t covered?
I think we’ve covered a lot of ground, but maybe I should emphasize that even though I’m a biographer, and I believe an objective one, I loved Steve McQueen. He was a big part of my life and still remains so. My motivations are pure: to ensure this man will always be given his due as a great actor and film star. His life has meaning to so many, and that includes yours truly [Author’s Note: In “The Relentless Dilemma of the Fake Steve McQueens,” Terrill discredits five imposters who have deceived folks into believing they are related to the King of Cool].
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Exclusive Interview: In “Steve McQueen Took a Major Part of His Life — In Step with Passionate Wordsmith Andrew Antoniades,” the first-time British author, guilty as charged for the mammoth coffee table book entitled Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films, doesn’t hold back, weaving fascinating anecdotes of growing up with his father and being blown away by viewing Papillon, whether McQueen only made movies for the money — think The Towering Inferno — why he gave the stodgy Le Mans a second chance, the reason McQueen temporarily quit making movies at the height of his fame in 1967, and whether McQueen was wrong to turn down the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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