Ink-slinging Steve McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill dishes on Elvis, Paul Newman, and the Duke
Guilty as charged for penning seven authoritative tomes about Steve McQueen going back to 1993’s Portrait of an American Rebel, Marshall Terrill is a reporter in the truest sense of the word. Although a dyed in the wool King of Cool aficionado, Terrill doesn’t sugarcoat any details about the actor’s ceaselessly fascinating, complex life as evidenced by a “Biographer of the Year” accolade bestowed by The Arizona Republic and a day gig promoting Arizona State University.
The executive producer of the theatrically-distributed documentary Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon is corralled below in an exclusive interview probing McQueen’s lifelong rivalry with Paul Newman, the Boys Republic alum’s competitive romantic streak with Elvis Presley over stunning fashion model-actress Barbara Leigh, an evening when the King of Cool stumbled upon a bladder-busting John Wayne backstage at an awards ceremony, and a gritty late ’70s action flick that McQueen mistakenly turned down during his Hollywood sabbatical.
The Marshall Terrill Interview
How was Steve McQueen intertwined with Elvis Presley?
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 was 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 — The King, McQueen and the Love Machine . 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 McQueen regret turning down Paul Newman’s 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, 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.
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.
Which of McQueen’s co-stars “coerced” 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 Newman and McQueen’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 shit 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. Look at Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson — who were their best friends? The answer is nobody.
Was McQueen 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 Minty 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?”
[Author’s Note: Terrill’s entire 15,000-word conversation, entitled “How a Military Brat Got Hooked on the Razor Sharp Mystique of Quintessential Hollywood Outsider Steve McQueen,” finds the dogged researcher dissecting how Bullitt shattered his expectations as an 11-year-old kid, the star’s tragic relationship with his mother and orneriness reputation on movie sets, gives props to early career stepping stones including Wanted: Dead or Alive and the so bad it’s good The Blob, why McQueen chose to receive controversial alternative cancer treatment in Mexico, and what he might have said if he had crossed paths with the legend. Or, if you’d rather see Terrill roundly debunk five individuals who claim they’re McQueen relatives, check out “The Relentless Dilemma of the Fake Steve McQueens”].
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2010, 2017. All rights reserved. The Marshall Terrill interview was edited and sequenced for clarity. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.