The complex, contradictory Steve McQueen was one of cinema’s greatest icons
“I’ve always been a perfectionist and that’s a pain in the ass.” Steve McQueen: In His Own Words is a five-pound coffee table tome encompassing 450 vintage quotes and 547 black and white and color photographs. Compiled by Portrait of an American Rebel biographer Marshall Terrill, In His Own Words was disseminated on the 40th anniversary of the King of Cool’s mesothelioma-triggered death. Sip some hot chocolate as Terrill handily assembles the nuts and bolts of McQueen’s surly moods, romantic rendezvous, politics, death bed confessions, and encounters with paparazzi, Ronald Reagan, Natalie Wood, Ali MacGraw, and fantastical cast-iron coffins.
The Marshall Terrill Interview
I was blindsided to discover that the typically suspicious, reticent Steve McQueen tasked business manager Bill Maher with reaching out to Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin about collaborating on an autobiography.
That was in Neile Adams’s book [My Husband, My Friend, 1986]. But it was almost a throwaway line. I revisited that notion in the introduction of In His Own Words because it underscores the fact that McQueen was never able to tell his story. Then Barbara Minty told me about their proposed tome, tentatively titled The Long Haul, which finally became Steve McQueen: The Last Mile some 25 years later [McQueen’s third wife was by his side from 1977 until his death three years later at age 50]. So McQueen had considered two possible book projects at the end of his life, but was never able to complete them because of his cancer.
How did the notion of compiling McQueen as narrator of his life manifest itself?
What happened was that I kept noting new McQueen books being published year after year. I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if McQueen could tell his own story?’ His life has been chronicled mostly by third person parties, including myself. It would be nice if he could somehow tell his story in his own way.
I had so much research I’d collected over the years and always felt it was a shame I couldn’t use all of Steve McQueen’s quotes. And then it hit me — just use McQueen’s quotes and photos to tell his story and arrange them in chronological order.
When did you experience this eureka moment?
Sometime in 2014 when I started the book. But I didn’t know how it would take shape, how it might flow, or what it would look like. That’s why it took six years to finish. I thought, ‘How hard can it be to match photos with quotes?’ Turned out it was much harder than I anticipated. I had 500 quotes and thousands of photos at my disposal. It was tricky but when it worked, it worked beautifully.
Did you uncover any McQueen interviews that you had no idea existed?
No, I found them all. The problem was that I didn’t use them all. When writing a biography [e.g. Portrait of an American Rebel, The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon], you only choose the best quotes, so many fell to the wayside. With In His Own Words, nothing got left on the cutting room floor so to speak.
How did you pitch your book idea to the publisher, and did they have any suggestions regarding content and layout?
The pitch was simple, and Dalton Watson Fine Books got the concept right away. They said yes immediately. The layout was really the brainchild of graphic designer Jodi Ellis, who is the person that is responsible for the look of the book. She did a great job because we went through a few incarnations before we got it right.
Did any books inspire the format of In His Own Words?
No. I didn’t want to follow anyone’s idea, which is why it took so long for the format to come to me. The look and format look simple, but it took a concerted effort to look that way. Jodi really rolled up her sleeves and came up with the look of this book.
What were the primary sources used to compile McQueen’s recollections?
They come from published interviews and articles, personal letters and audiotapes, quotes from original press releases, raw Q & As, and anecdotal quotes passed along to me by McQueen associates, all creating the most intimate picture available of McQueen as an actor, filmmaker, racer, pilot, husband, and family man from his unique perspective.
The portrait that emerges is not that of a saint, nor a sinner or martyr, but rather of a complex, contradictory man who was one of the greatest icons of cinema.
Accompanying those quotes are hundreds of photographs, illustrations, personal documents, and memorabilia — many seen for the first time. In tandem, they spotlight McQueen’s painful early life, his short stay at the Boys Republic, his three-year stint in the Marines, his wild and carefree years in 1950s New York, his home life, movie career, as well as his passion for automobiles, motorcycles, and antique planes.
What did McQueen retain during his six years studying acting, doing plays, and the occasional TV guest appearance in New York City?
Sometimes knowing what doesn’t work is just as valuable as knowing what does work, and I think that’s the biggest thing McQueen learned in NYC. He knew New York wasn’t working for him, and so he headed to Los Angeles, which is really where he found himself and his career started.
Could McQueen have had a profitable career in NYC if he had not jumped ship for L.A. in 1956?
I don’t think so. He washed out in his sole Broadway performance with A Hatful of Rain that summer [McQueen replaced Ben Gazzara as Korean War vet turned morphine junkie Johnny Pope] and later discovered his milieu was film. Film picked up on McQueen’s subtleties whereas acting for the stage is much different. Let’s be thankful McQueen stuck to movies because he was such a brilliant film actor.
What is the earliest McQueen interview that you included?
The parts where he’s reflecting on his early life are from various interviews when he was older. I pieced them all together so that it flowed nicely and in chronological order. The earliest interviews he gave were in 1958 when Wanted: Dead Or Alive made its debut and McQueen became a household name [a 30 minute, black and white western on CBS from 1958–1961].
Did you detect a common thread in McQueen’s earliest interviews from 1958?
He didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. Yet when he landed Wanted: Dead or Alive, he was working 14-hour days, six days a week. McQueen found irony in that scenario. To his credit, he used that time on the TV show to learn his craft, which set him up for the rest of his life. When he became famous, the theme switched to him finding happiness and contentment and trying to find a way to stay hungry while he was on top.
How revealing was McQueen as an up and coming actor with limited media exposure? Or was he guarded from the start?
With McQueen it was both. He was always guarded but you’d get little glimpses of the truth in rare moments or when he felt like revealing something to the reader. It was never a full-out Playboy-style confessional. However, when he was being interviewed by Hedda Hopper for her syndicated column, he was himself. But their conversations were polite and stuck to light-hearted subjects.
In the process of compiling McQueen’s trajectory through his quotations, was there a moment where you went, “Doggone, I wish he was still alive so I could clear up this question that’s been driving me up the wall.”
No. I knew exactly what McQueen meant with every quote. He might come off as contradictory, but everybody can be contradictory at times.
Have you believed an anecdote that McQueen told a journalist, but later evidence refuted his assertion?
The one that immediately comes to me is an as-told-to story McQueen gave to writer Jack Lewis for a story called “Cast-Iron Coffin.” McQueen told Lewis that he rescued a crew of tankers during an exercise in the Labrador Sea near Newfoundland. The account appeared in the November 1961 issue of Battle Station and was later reprinted by Leatherneck in June 2009. The story went beyond fabrication — it was pure fantasy. Either McQueen had an overactive imagination or Lewis’s prose went into overdrive, giving the story a soldier of fortune slant.
McQueen’s service record shows the exercise, dubbed Operation Normax, embarked at Little Creek, Virginia, in late 1949 and disembarked at Onlsow Beach, North Carolina. The landing ship tank was nowhere near Newfoundland, and McQueen’s heroic actions would have surely garnered a commendation or medal for bravery. None exist in his service record; neither is this incident ever mentioned. However, the exercise was not without adventure. McQueen’s service file indicates that he was hospitalized when his amphibious tank caught fire. Though not burned, McQueen ingested a large amount of smoke, which resulted in gagging and violent coughing. Fifteen hours after the mishap, McQueen complained of a burning sensation in his chest and lungs. Perhaps this was the real reason why he embellished the story to Lewis — it was certainly nowhere near as exciting as the one that ended up in print.
Is there an interview where McQueen was in a surly mood?
When a reporter discovered that he and Natalie Wood were seeing each other in the early 1970s, he called McQueen at home to verify the story. He told the reporter, “It’s none of your damned business.” McQueen certainly was within his right to say that. Once McQueen committed to do an interview, he did it. He scrutinized whoever was going to conduct the conversation, and I’m sure there were ground rules. Journalist Betty Rollin of LOOK magazine did an interview with McQueen to promote The Reivers [“Steve McQueen — Mr. Mansmanship” was published on January 27, 1970]. In her piece, which was quite insightful and has stood the test of time, Rollin said he was nervous and went out of his way to “yes ma’am, no ma’am” her. McQueen was very careful about the interviews he granted. He was, however, surly to the paparazzi because he did not like them invading his privacy.
How serious was McQueen’s relationship with former Love and the Proper Stranger  costar Natalie Wood?
She was very Hollywood and he wasn’t, and it wasn’t very serious. They were both separated from their respective spouses [McQueen from first wife Neile Adams and Wood from second husband, British talent agent Richard Gregson] and heading for divorce at the time they started seeing each other. It might have been a couple of dates at most. It was a blip on both of their radars, and they moved onto someone else [Wood remarried Robert Wagner in July 1972].
Was there talk of McQueen and Wood reuniting on the silver screen?
Not that I’m aware of.
Just how combative was McQueen’s relationship with the paparazzi?
McQueen was in France with soon-to-be second wife Ali MacGraw to promote The Getaway in early 1973. He was at a Paris hotel and almost ran over a photographer. Later that April, he was in Jamaica filming Papillon and had a run-in with famed paparazzo/photographer Ron Gallela. Gallela actually tracked McQueen down in Jamaica, who threatened him with physical harm. But then they came to an agreement — McQueen allowed him to take a few shots so Gallela could go back to America and cash in. Galella told me this story in 2009. Gallela made national headlines when he took photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing topless.
There was a reason why McQueen moved to Malibu with Ali and grew a beard and mustache — to stay incognito and away from the prying eyes of the press. He was successful for the most part because the paparazzi back then is not what it is now. Today, there’s no way he could have escaped it.
When did Ali MacGraw see McQueen for the last time?
According to Ali’s 1991 autobiography Moving Pictures, the final occasion she saw Steve was sometime in 1979. They had divorced the year before, and Steve had just moved to Santa Paula with Barbara Minty. She must have been away on a modeling assignment because Steve called Ali and asked her to take a drive from Malibu to Santa Paula to see his new home and airplane hangar. When they saw each other again she recalled, “the electricity was instant.” She said he suggested they pull off to the side of the highway to make love in an orange grove, but there was no way she could handle going from being the woman in his life to being an occasional sexy interlude.
When Steve got ill, she wrote him a very long letter, telling him how she felt about him and if there was anything she could do for him or his family. She was staying at a hotel, put it down the chute, but the next morning went downstairs to retrieve it. It never got mailed, and she never saw him again. In His Own Words includes the quote, “Ali’s a very heavy lady.” It’s interesting because McQueen truly respected her intellect.
Which McQueen conversation blew your mind?
The 1980 death bed interview, which I used extensively in In His Own Words to detail his last days. That was given to me by Pat Johnson, McQueen’s martial arts instructor and close friend [Johnson was a five-year captain of Chuck Norris’ undefeated black belt competition team]. He entrusted me with it when I was doing research for my first book, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel . Pat wanted me to have it because he wanted me to know that no matter how cancer-riddled Steve’s body was, he never gave up hope. And it’s true. On the tape he talks about his future plans, packing up all of his belongings and building a ranch in Ketchum, Idaho, and starting over there. The tape is also reflective and perhaps is the most candid and truthful he ever was.
Did Pat Johnson ever accompany McQueen on an interview with the press?
No, because by the time Pat met Steve in 1972, he had essentially stopped giving interviews. Pat may have been with Steve when he gave that last November 1979 interview on the set of The Hunter to Rick Penn-Kraus, a senior at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, but I’m not positive. My best guess is that he was. Pat did tell me that McQueen thought the press was “full of shit,” which is why he essentially stopped giving interviews in the second half of his career.
Why did McQueen dream of a new direction in Idaho?
That was a running theme in his life — that if he got fed up with all the Hollywood b.s., he would have a place to retreat to and wouldn’t be beholden to any studio. He found that in his last home in Santa Paula, California, about an hour west of Los Angeles. His move to Ketchum would be his exodus from the industry, but I’ve always felt that the money was too good for him to turn down and that he would have continued to appear in films. Back then, not too many people worked outside of L.A. Now it’s done all the time.
What would McQueen have made of our divisive political climate? Did he cast a ballot at any point?
It’s tough to reply given that McQueen died in 1980, and it’s a whole different world. I’d look like an ass attempting to answer. I don’t know if he cast a ballot or not because he never showed his political leanings, which is refreshing given that every Hollywood star today wants to tell us who to vote for and how we should live our lives.
McQueen did place his full public support behind environmentalist Marvin Braude in the 1965 Los Angeles City Council race because he opposed a large master plan for the Santa Monica Mountains in July 1964. The controversial plan called for tall structures, high-density subdivisions that would have doubled the area’s population, no park, and a freeway running through the mountain.
Several high-profile residents such as McQueen, James Garner [the King of Cool’s Brentwood neighbor and fellow POW comrade in arms in The Great Escape], Eva Marie Saint, Betsy Drake [McQueen’s conniving leading lady in “The Spurs,” an excellent season one episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive], and Soldier in the Rain producer Martin Jurow were resentful of the encroachments to their wooded dells. They voiced their opposition in a verbal shootout with the council, specifically 11th District Councilman Karl Rundberg, who was openly hostile to the group of thespians [McQueen’s efforts were not in vain as Braude won and accumulated a 32-year term, the third-longest-serving council member in the history of the city].
Ronald Reagan procured his first term as president in a landslide election on November 4, 1980, just three days prior to McQueen’s passing. Did The Cincinnati Kid endorse Reagan? Also, as recounted on page 511 of Life & Legend, Barbara Minty McQueen penned a desperate letter begging the former Republican governor of California to cut through the red tape and allow her husband to receive alternative cancer treatments in Santa Paula versus the Plaza Santa Maria Clinic south of Tijuana, Mexico. What was Reagan’s reply?
I don’t know if McQueen endorsed or voted for Ronald Reagan for president. That would be out of character for McQueen, who went out of his way not to let anyone know his political affiliation. That was an era where it was impolite to tell anyone your political or religious affiliation or how much money you made. However, McQueen’s friendship with Reagan dates back to the late 1950s.
In a magnanimous gesture, Reagan flew Dr. Santos Vargas from Mexico to California so that Steve could ask him to perform his final surgery. That means Reagan did more behind the scenes than we know of. How do I know this? Because Vargas said this in a 2007 interview.
What prompted your decision to feature that contemplative black and white shot of a denim-clad McQueen with his head tilted downwards as the cover? Were there other contenders?
That was actually selected by the book’s graphic artist, Jodi Ellis. I wanted a photo of McQueen from The Great Escape with a cigarette in his mouth, which was originally going to be the cover of Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool . My publisher [the Deerfield, Illinois, company is owned by Glyn and Jean Morris] insists that the public does not want to see some guy smoking on the cover of a book and thinks it sends a bad message. I hate smoking, am actually allergic to it, but my argument was, “That’s what men in that era did, and McQueen was a smoker.” Both times I got shot down. Maybe one day I’ll win!
If you’re curious about that Great Escape cigarette image, it’s on page 155 of In His Own Words. It captures the essence of him in his prime and shows off his ice-blue eyes.
Has McQueen’s widow, who you collaborated with on her 2006 coffee table memoir The Last Mile, sent feedback regarding In His Own Words?
No, Barbi has not read it but she generously provided the photos for the last third of the book, some of them outtakes from The Last Mile. I wanted to send her the PDF of the finished manuscript for her review but she said, “Send me a copy of the book when it’s published.” And I just did.
How do you intend to promote the book in the age of COVID-19?
I’ve hired an excellent L.A.-based publicist in Jeff Abraham, who’s already set up interviews through Zoom, podcasts, phoners, and reviews. Zoom has definitely replaced the in-person experience and can actually reach more people through viral Q&A’s and appearances. In a way it’s great because I don’t have to leave home to promote my book. The station comes to me.
Steve McQueen: In His Own Words by Marshall Terrill
Steve McQueen: In His Own Words by Marshall Terrill Drawn from more than five decades of media coverage, memorabilia…
The Subject Was Steve McQueen: The Marshall Terrill Bibliography
- Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel [Donald I. Fine Books, 1993]
- The King, McQueen and the Love Machine: My Secret Hollywood Life with Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen, and the Smiling Cobra [with Junior Bonner costar Barbara Leigh, Xlibris, 2002]
- Steve McQueen: The Last Mile [a coffee table tome filled with extensive photos and passages with Barbara Minty McQueen, Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2006]
- Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool [a coffee table tome filled with extensive photos and reminiscences from McQueen insiders, costars, and acquaintances, Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2010]
- Steve McQueen: The Life and Legacy of a Hollywood Icon [a significantly reimagined version of Portrait of an American Rebel, Triumph Books, 2010]
- Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror [a coffee table tome containing text plus 422 black and white and color photographs with Le Mans prop master Don Nunley, Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2017]
- Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon [with Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, American Icon Press, 2017]
- Steve McQueen: In His Own Words [a coffee table work featuring 450 quotes and 547 black and white and color photographs, Dalton Watson Fine Books, 2020]
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2020. 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.