Marshall Terrill, the preeminent Steve McQueen biographer and foremost expert on the legendary star, releases his fascinating new book this month. Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon is the definitive biography on McQueen, filled with never-before published stories, first hand accounts and stunning revelations that will surprise even the most ardent Steve McQueen fan.
CL: In my opinion, your new book,
Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon is the
most inclusive, thoroughly researched McQueen biography ever written. There
doesn't seem to be one aspect of his life you haven't covered with great detail.
Your first McQueen bio was, of course, Portrait of an American Rebel,
which came out in 1993. What made you want to write another McQueen biography
and how much time and years of research were involved in producing such a
MT: First and foremost, thank you for the nice compliment. In the new book I list the various reasons why I took on this project: more information about McQueen has come to light; I have a much better perspective about his life now that I’m older and a seasoned journalist, and to be candid, I’m a much better writer at 47 than I was at 24. I felt my last undertaking (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel) could be greatly improved and so I decided since it was the 30th anniversary of his death and because a lot of his contemporaries are getting older, the timing was right to do McQueen's story again. In answer to your second question, how many years were involved in the research of this new book? The answer is 20 years…I never stopped researching McQueen’s life after Portrait. I took a break from writing about him, but every time I learned something new or met a new source, I collected the information and put it away knowing that one day I’d probably put it to use.
CL: Out of the four books you've
written on Steve McQueen (the last three being Portrait, The Last Mile
with Barbara Minty, and Tribute to the King of Cool), which was the most
difficult, to put together and do you have a favorite?
MT: The most difficult by far was A Tribute to the King of Cool because I went into the project thinking that other people were going to write the passage and I’d just edit. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. About 80 percent of the people I asked to write a passage said they’d gladly grant me an interview, but that I’d have to write the passage for them. So that meant in addition to interviewing them, I’d have to transcribe the tape (a painful task) and then write it, send it off to get edited, take a second look at the edit, send it off to the subject for final approval, then find a photo to match the picture. The other problem was that unlike a biography, the Tribute book had 200 voices and to try and capture each voice and the essence of that they wanted to say was touch. In the final stages of editing the book, it took a team of editors to review the PDF on a daily basis at least for the last two to three months. It’s gorgeous and you can’t argue with the results, but it was a very tough book to try and wrestle control of because you have several elements: the text, the photos, the captions, the design, editing, making sure the same information wasn’t repeated, etc. Photo books I’ve found are much more difficult than straight out bios because your dealing with about five working parts at the same time rather than a manuscript and a photo section.
With that said, there was a fair amount of stress in this new book – I suffered a lot of migraine headaches because last year was the wettest year on record in Arizona. I have terrible allergies and anytime there’s a change or switch in the weather, I get this horrible, throbbing pain at the base of my skull. There were also days when I was writing 8 to 10 hours a day, and my wrists were killing me, and then I’d have to do special exercises for them or take a few days off. I was also receiving tons of new information about McQueen’s life at a rapid speed and so as I was writing, I had to incorporate this new material as it came in. Lastly, I’ve only written two books on deadline, and this was one of them. If you’re a writer with a deadline, you know what kind of pressure I’m talking about. I missed my first deadline by a month, then had it extended another month and that creates constant pressure. With that said, this is by far my best book. The reason why is that this is the first time I’ve ever been supported by a real literary team. I got Peter O. Whitmer, a celebrity psychologist, to explain and break down McQueen’s behavior; I got Veronica Valdez, a top-notch researcher and tracker, who was instrumental in helping me find out who William McQueen was and helped me discover that Steve had a half-sister, Teri McQueen; and I had Andrew Antoniades, a top notch developmental editor working on the manuscript while I wrote the text. It was an incredible luxury because on the first book I had just me.
CL: Usually a celebrity is
more interesting before you start reading about their past and finding out what
they’re really like, as opposed to their movie image. Has your
admiration for Steve McQueen grown after discovering what he was like in real
life or has this dulled his image for you?
MT: It’s grown tenfold because in Legend you will discover that Steve was physically abandoned by his father and emotionally abandoned by his mother. With the exception of his Uncle Claude, he practically raised himself and developed his own set of morals and principles. Life is a maze in and of itself but can you imagine trying to find your way through with little help or guidance from anyone? Then to go from a street kid who had nothing to a superstar where everyone tried to get a piece of you…try and make that transition smoothly. This is a continual pattern in Hollywood: take a person from virtual obscurity and turn them into an overnight star; then watch the hubris fly. McQueen, at least, was good to his friends, nice to people on the street and always credited his audience for being smart. I’ve always admired Steve McQueen and I think that shows in my writing.
CL: Did you discover
anything about McQueen that surprised you?
MT: There’s always an element of surprise with McQueen, which is why he is never boring. I think what was most surprising was that there was more heartache to his life than I had originally suspected, and I’m talking both his childhood and after he became famous. His life was tinged with triumph and tragedy. We know about his painful childhood and teen years, but there was continual heartache regarding his relationship with his mother; his divorce to Neile, the Manson murders; the Le Mans debacle; substance abuse; the folding of Solar Productions; the emptiness he felt The Towering Inferno's success; his tempestuous relationship with Ali MacGraw; the failure of An Enemy of the People; his battle with First Artists and Phil Feldman and his cancer diagnosis at the end when he finally achieved some sort of inner peace. The pendulum of Steve McQueen’s life swung between both extremes. What I hope to show in Legend is that there is always a flip side to fame and that there’s no such thing as a charmed life. I know that everyone likes to think that famous people have it made, but in many instances, there are unseen and continual pressures that many people just don’t know about. Can you imagine basing a career on the fact you’re only as good as your last picture? That it could all end in the snap of a finger? That’s bound to produce not only stress but unimaginable fear and I think McQueen showed signs of both despite his public image of being cool.
CL: All famous movie stars
(and/or their publicists), without exception, always make up certain events in
their past in order to create an image for the public. Today's actors
usually invent stories about themselves in order to have a more Steve
McQueen-like image! In your research, were there a lot of events/stories about
Steve McQueen that turned out not to be true?
MT: Yes, a lot of information. As a former journalist and now PR person, I can tell you McQueen was excellent at crafting his image and selling it to the public. He knew what kind of image he wanted to portray and sold it like no other. For example, he fudged a lot of facts regarding his time in the marines. He tried to portray himself as a screw-up who had been busted down to private at least seven times because everyone can relate to the rebel who defies authority. Well, his military record shows he did quite well in the service and wasn’t quite as inept or bumbling as he liked to portray. I also dispel a lot of myths – he didn’t save three people in a tanker and that in fact, he never went to Newfoundland. It was a made up story. Or the fact that he guarded Harry Truman’s yacht. McQueen was quite savvy in his relationships with the media and got very close to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who at the time, had several enormously popular syndicated columns around the country. He would either call her every week or send her photos, letters, postcards with the latest tidbits of his life and career. She’d then post the item in her columns. I know people say McQueen was famously guarded and very little information on his exists, but his name was in circulation almost every week!
CL: You collaborated with
Barbara Minty on her photo book Steve McQueen: The Last Mile and
interviewed her extensively for Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a
Hollywood Icon, in which she reveals details about McQueen's final years
which she has never spoken about before. How did you come to meet and work
with her and was she hesitant to open up about this period in her life?
MT: I met Barbara through Mimi Freedman, who directed the 2005 documentary, The Essence of Cool. Mimi said Barbara was looking for a writer to help her publish a book about her time with Steve. Barbara was the one person who I’ve always wanted to meet because her time with Steve was so private and she remained mum on him for almost a quarter-century. She was not at all what I expected her to be…I thought she’d be quiet, shy, reclusive…in fact, she’s just the opposite. Barbara is very open, honest, humorous and a breath of fresh air. She’s also outrageous and funny, and a true delight to be around. We just hit it off because on the face of it, we’re total opposites, but deep down inside, we’re both a little crazy and we get each other.
Was she hesitant to open up about this period in her life? Before we started The Last Mile, she set the parameters – she would talk about her life with Steve but did not want to discuss his cancer treatment or Dr. William Kelley. She said, “I want this book to only be sweet and kind and nice.” I respected her straightforward approach and I said, “It that's what you want, we can do that.” So that’s how The Last Mile was executed.
When I finished The Last Mile, I had no inkling at the time I’d be writing Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon at the time. In fact, as you know, I went right into Steve McQueen: A Tribute of the King of Cool because I had about 10 guest passages I didn’t use for The Last Mile and I thought it would be nice use them for a photo/tribute book to Steve.
I didn’t start writing Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend until the summer of 2009. I kept saying to myself, “You’d better do it because the 30th anniversary of his death is coming up and you may not get another chance to write his story again.” I told Barbara of my decision and she had no problem with me doing it. At that point, she’d known me for four years and a trust between us had developed. I didn’t barrage her with questions, but I’d ask a question here or there when we talked, or I’d take a note or jot something down when she said something in conversation. I was very gentle. Of course, I sent her the chapters when I finished and she read them. I know they had to be painful for her to read, but she knew this was a biography and I needed her to verify the facts. At least she knows what’s going to be in the book and there will be no surprises or anything that will embarrass her.
CL: Speaking of which,
there were two books released in the past year about Steve by Darwin Porter (The
King of Cool) and Michael Munn (Living on the Edge). Anyone who has
read them knows what they say. What do you think about this kind of trash being
in wide release at major bookstores?
MT: I think the public knows what’s good and what’s not good; what’s the truth and what’s fiction masked as non-fiction. I usually don’t make it a point of commenting on other McQueen authors because it looks like sour grapes on my part or that I’m jealous. In my opinion, there appears to be a large element of fantasy to both books and if you’re writing non-fiction, you’d better back it up with fact, proof, a tape recording of the person you're interviewing or some sort of documentation.
For example, in Legend, I continually refer to an 800-page diary that a nurse kept on Steve McQueen’s stay at the Plaza Santa Maria. It sounds, on the face of it, something that doesn’t actually exist or is too good to be true, but you’d better believe I can produce it. Barbara has also had a copy of the diary and has known of its existence since Teena started writing it. In fact, Barbara had read the diary said everything in there is 100 percent true.
CL: You managed to discover, for the first
time, new information on McQueen's father, William Terrence McQueen, from what
he did after he abandoned Steve and his mother up until where and how he died.
How were you able to do that?
MT: I had the great fortune of having Veronica Valdez, an amazing researcher and family tracker, help me discover who William was and find people who knew him. It's an amazing feat considering he died more than 50 years ago and would be 103 today. The timing was almost serendipitous in that a Web site specializing in genealogy had updated its census material right when I started to write the book. I saw his name, his date of birth and date of death and flipped out. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t so sure William McQueen ever existed because if you recall in the prior McQueen books, there was nothing to prove his existence other than Steve and Jullian's word. Steve only knew snippets about William, and he was only spoon fed information that his mother gave him. I many instances, I don’t believe she always told him the truth. For example, she told him that William was a barnstorming pilot. That always sounded a little “mythical” to me, but that’s all anyone had to go on. Because of the advancements in accessing public information from the time I started research in 1989 to 2009, Veronica and I were able to track William’s movements from the time he left Steve right up to the time his death. That was mainly due to Veronica's amazing ability to access the information.
CT: What was your impression of William
MT: Let me say this at the outset – I wanted to dislike the man for what he did to Steve but as you get older and more information comes to light, you become more compassionate and understanding. You begin to understand, especially as a journalist, that there are two sides to every story and that life isn't always black and white. I see life in shades of grey. Not everything is neat and tidy and wrapped in a bow. William McQueen’s father, Louis, was a prominent Los Angeles businessman who died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage when William turned 13. It must have not only devastated him, but I know it changed his family’s fortune because William’s mother, Caroline Culbertson, was forced to move back to Indianapolis and learned a new trade. Caroline and Louis lived in an affluent area in downtown Los Angeles and I assume their lifestyle got a serious downgrade as a result of Louis’ death. So, you had to feel for William that his father died at such at young age and the emotional devastation it must have caused William and his mother.
When it came time to look for William after he left Jullian and Steve, I had no clue where to start, Veronica guessed so brilliantly, “Where do you go when you leave your wife and kid? You go back home…to Los Angeles.” Sure enough, William was listed in the Los Angeles phone directory and we were able to track him from that point on. By the way, William was a marine reserve, a ship steward on a cruise line and a merchant marine. We couldn't find proof that he was a barn storming pilot.
What was my impression of William? Based on the statements made by the people who knew him or were told about him, he was a lot like Steve: very charismatic, charming, loved the ladies and enjoyed his marijuana and alcohol. His death certificate shows he died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51. His was a sad story because he was indigent at the end of his life, living as a boarder in someone's home, and had no more than $300 to his name according to court documents. He withered away his last days in a county hospital all alone, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Long Beach, California.
CL: Do you believe William did not want to be
found or was it just bad luck Steve McQueen didn't track him down before his
MT: He definitely did not want to be found. There’s a story in the book by a guy named Mike Sedam, whose father was William McQueen’s best friend. He says that Steve actually went looking for his father at age 15 or 16. He said that Steve asked for “Terrence William McQueen”, and because he did not ask for “William Terrence McQueen”, William, I suspect, knew it was Steve and slammed the door in his face. This story was confirmed to me by half-sister Teri McQueen, who said she had heard the same thing. I believe he did not want to be found because William played “the name game” where he change the use of his name every few years (i.e. William, Terrence, Bill, Terry, TMcQ) and was a boarder in people’s homes, never renting anything in his own name. The interesting thing is while William wanted nothing to do with Steve, he very much wanted to be in Teri’s life. She produced to me a telegraph wishing her a happy birthday. She said her mother, Alma Doris Moody, was in love with William but the two could never come to terms with his life out at sea. She didn’t want to be alone all the time, so after she had Teri, he came calling for several years until she got married again. Alma had asked Teri not to have contact with William, which she respected at the time but now regrets. By the way, I went looking for Teri. She didn’t come to me. I found her name in William’s merchant marine file listed as a dependent and she had planned on taking her secret to the grave because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. Well, I had the documentation in my hands when I called, and she confirmed the information. The sad part is that Steve rejected her, too. She passed a long a note to him on the set of Bullitt and he never responded. The cool thing is that Teri is finally going to be known to the world after staying silent for seven decades.
CL: Portrait of an
American Rebel was optioned for a movie by producer Brian Oliver (Auto
Focus, Black Swan) Any news on when the movie goes into production and who
will play the lead? If not, who would you like to see portray McQueen?
MT: Brian Oliver has asked me not to divulge any information regarding the movie because of the competitive nature of the industry. Yes, there are a few people I’d like to see play McQueen but the nature of casting his part is tricky – if you get a big name, then it’s harder for people to see past their screen persona and if you hire a complete unknown, then you have the problem of not being able to “open the picture.” So you have to find an up and comer who is on the verge of stardom who physically looks like Steve. It’s not an easy thing to do. With that said, there may be some big news in store for 2011. Stay tuned.
CL: You write in your book
that the McQueen legend continues to grow stronger every year and his popularity
continues to reach new heights. Why do you think that is?
MT: We now live in a time where celebrity trumps achievement. McQueen was a true original and as time goes by, more and more people recognize this and miss him. Because his look and talent are timeless, he transcends generations. Then when people learn his life story, they are hooked because McQueen was so human, so fractured and so real.
CL: What is your favorite/most disliked McQueen movie and why?
MT: My favorite is Papillon because it is a great story and it displays McQueen’s great talent. Most disliked: I’m going to have to go with Le Mans. I’m not a racing buff, and the movie is not my cup of tea. McQueen was a guy who appealed to the masses and in Le Mans, he broke that tradition because he wanted to impress the racing world with a movie that in his words was “pure.” It appealed greatly to the racing world, but not so the general public. Today it is beloved by millions of race fans, but I still say it’s a boring picture.
CL: Have you acquired any
items once owned by McQueen that you'd care to mention?
MT: I have a few items that Barbara gave me, but possessions don’t mean as much to me as they once did. In my lifetime I have owned several things by many famous people, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but in the end, it all boils down to that person’s life works. In the case of the Beatles, all I really need is the music. With McQueen, all I need are his films. Possessions stay on a shelf, but it's his films that continually move me.
CL: Have you ever tried to
imitate Steve McQueen in some way, like taking up dirt-biking or buying a
MT: No, because to do so would be a huge mistake on my part. Part of the reason why I think I do McQueen justice as a biographer is that I come from a very opposite place: I was raised with very loving parents; I am college educated; I never got into cars or dirt bikes; and the one time I went camping, I brought along a battery operated television set, a pre-cooked steak and Pop Tarts! I believe that gives me a better understanding of McQueen because I view and look at him with compassion and objectivity rather than try and imitate him. Don’t you dislike all the writers who try to act like Hunter S. Thompson or imitate Elvis Presley? You don’t imitate someone who broke the mold, but you try and understand them with objectivity and compassion. I once contemplated buying a Ford Mustang Bullitt car because I think they are cool, but then I thought about all the hell I’d catch for trying to imitate McQueen.
CL: You’ve said
this will be your last book dealing with Steve McQueen. What sort of projects
do you have planned for the future?
MT: None. This may be my last book ever. Writing books are a serious pain, and there’s no other way to put it. The amount of work, research, time on the computer writing, time away from my wife and loved ones compared to the small amount of money you make on a book advance and royalties really comes to pennies on the dollar. I certainly didn’t mind doing it in my twenties and thirties, but now that I’m 47 I no longer want to be handcuffed to the computer. When you write a book, it’s like going to literary boot camp. It’s so intense and there’s only so many “labor of loves” I have left in me. I’m not saying I’ll never write again because that would be foolish, but it’s time for a very long rest.
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Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon