Steve McQueen

"Born To Be A Legend"

Written by: Morris Heldt

(c) 1999 Mopam Publications

Today Steve McQueen’s background wouldn’t be that much out of the ordinary; abandoned by his father at a young age, left with relatives by his mother while she pursued some sort of identity in which she could be comfortable. Many actors today have had a similar childhood, and use their angst and uneasiness as motivation for them to perform--using their suppressed emotions. So what made McQueen special? Was he indeed a man before his time?

I suggest that Steve McQueen, in fact, was this country’s glimpse into its own future. Virile, positive, and walked with an attitude, McQueen actually embodied these qualities before our country as a whole adopted them as the "American" way of life. He was a man that was more at ease with things, than people. Not unlike today where we as a society are becoming totally engrossed in Internet surfing, and obtaining social status, and self-worth, by owning bigger houses, fancier cars, and as many adult toys as we can. McQueen was also paranoid about people taking advantage of him, before it became popular to be paranoid. Now it seems to be the consensus of opinion if you are not paranoid about the people around you perhaps you simply are stupid, or totally naive to life’s cruel realities.

Yes, I contend that Steve McQueen was a blueprint for what it takes to be a successful American in today’s society. And, unlike James Dean, another rebel from that same era, McQueen did not plot, plan, manipulate or hedge his bets on climbing his personal ladder to the top. Love Steve McQueen, or hate Steve McQueen, there were things about him that simply could not be denied, even though there are still many in the movie industry that still refuse to accept his greatness as an actor. Yes, I believe, even now, as an actor, he still has not received the complete recognition that I suspect he will one day. Very few ruggedly good-looking, unwavering, leading men could handle the range of roles that McQueen did. He was equally adept with comedy as he was with drama. When the director yelled, "Action," he had an instinct for life that came alive, regardless of the role that he had wrapped himself in. And, with McQueen, let us not forget his magic was his presence within those roles he played. He would cut dialogue from his speeches and evoke the same emotion, or convey the same thought with a look, or a movement. Very few actors can do that.

Geoffrey Lewis, the well-respected character actor, who worked with McQueen in Tom Horn, once told me that McQueen was a natural movie star. Lewis vividly remembers how McQueen would often stand around the set, before a take, looking much like a grip or any other member of the crew. "You wouldn’t give him a second look," Lewis said and continued, "then when the director yelled action--McQueen’s eyes would turn bright blue, his body would somehow grow right in front of you, and then suddenly,

Steve McQueen the movie star had arrived." He went on to tell me that he had never worked with anyone like that before, or since. In a matter of a split-second he would become a star, while playing his role, and totally dominate with his presence.

Had he lived I am confident he would have easily made the transition into character roles, instinctively embracing the older male, tapping a reservoir of talent that hadn’t really been discovered. I feel he probably would have accomplished something that no (number one in the world box office) star has done to date: become even more popular as a character actor than he was as a leading man. I think this might be true because this country, as well as most of the world, has finally caught up to his attitude. His paranoia and questioning of the status quo would be appreciated, instead of scorned and ridiculed by so many as it was. His philosophy of getting paid for what he was worth, and not a cent less, is now standard practice with all movie stars.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying his way was right, or wrong, I’m simply pointing out that I feel he was before his time. And despite being before his time, and against the studio establishment, he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world, if only for a fleeting moment.

I can not help but wonder if Steve McQueen started out today what would become of him. I have to feel he probably would be even a bigger a movie star than he was. Can you imagine a young Steve McQueen, in the prime of his stardom, doing a scene with today’s leading men? Granted, I am prejudice in favor of McQueen, and I’m definitely a fan, but I’m also a realist, and no matter how much you want to disregard his fame as simply a time and a place: Steve McQueen, the "king of cool" the man that walked his own path, unconcerned if it was good for him or not, was also a man that unknowingly possessed a secret about life. I doubt that it ever entered his mind that an entire country could possibly one day adopt his attitude. He probably was just trying to survive, while dealing with his celebrity, money and power, and all the temptations that come along with that . . . just trying to make it from one year to the next, like most of us. However, some of us, like I believe Steve McQueen was, are born to be legends.


This article was written by Morris Heldt

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or republished without author’s written permission.

(c) 1999 Mopam Publishing