Steve Mcqueen Driving His Car

Vintage Steve McQueen Photos That Prove He’ll Always Be The ‘King Of Cool’

Published April 10, 2020
Updated October 12, 2021

From troubled teen to Hollywood star to high-speed racer, Steve McQueen always lived life in the fast lane.

Steve McQueen led the kind of life that a whole generation observed in awe. He was a man’s man who rapidly became iconic to movie buffs and race car fanatics alike. Men wanted to be him and women couldn’t help but notice him.

But before the glamorous Hollywood parties, celebrity friends, romances, and race car antics, the Indiana-born kid had to overcome some serious hurdles. Mere months after the Great Depression hit, McQueen was born into a family in turmoil. His father left before he was born.

Meanwhile, McQueen’s mother was an alcoholic who left him with her parents. For financial security, the three moved in with McQueen’s uncle Claude, whom he later called “a very good man, very strong, very fair.”

Shirtless Steve Mcqueen Shooting A Gun
Steve Mcqueen And His Dog
Steve Mcqueen And His Wife
James Coburn And James Garner And Steve Mcqueen
Vintage Steve McQueen Photos That Prove He’ll Always Be The ‘King Of Cool’
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Dyslexic and partially deaf, McQueen returned to Indianapolis some years later to live with his mother and her new husband. His stepfather regularly beat him, and before long McQueen resorted to petty crime and joined a street gang. After police caught him stealing hubcaps, his stepfather threw him down the stairs.

It was at the California Junior Boys Republic reformatory school in Chino where McQueen finally found peace in discipline and routine. Had he not gone to reform school, McQueen believed, "I would have ended up in jail or something. I was a wild kid."

In 1947, the 17-year-old McQueen joined the Marines and sailed off to the Dominican Republic, where he quit to work as a towel boy at a brothel. Soon after an honorable discharge in 1950, his life as an actor began.

Steve McQueen: The 'King Of Cool'

While working as a bartender in New York City, McQueen met an actress who got him interested in acting. He nabbed his first stage role in 1952 and he earned $40 a week to say one line — "Nothing will help" — in Yiddish.

It was enough to give him the acting bug. Using G.I. Bill-funded financial aid, McQueen studied at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. With Sanford Meisner's acting techniques firmly under his belt, the young actor nabbed minor roles in several plays before making his Broadway debut in 1955's A Hatful of Rain.

"He always said he wasn't an actor, he was a reactor," said Bullitt costar Peter Yates. "By that he meant that he didn't want to be lumbered with speaking plot. He wasn't sure he could do it."

By the time Sam Peckinpah's crime-thriller classic The Getaway came out in 1972, Steve McQueen was not only America's leading man — but also the highest-paid actor in the world. Ironically, he didn't think he was that good of an actor, which might've influenced his onscreen presence.

For Ali MacGraw, who began a love affair with McQueen while filming The Getaway, McQueen's stoic composure was a welcome change from typically showy Hollywood actors in the industry.

"I think it's safe to say that it would have been impossible not to fall in love with Steve," she later admitted.

Steve Mcqueen In The Thomas Crown Affair

Wikimedia CommonsSteve McQueen, the "king of cool," in the 1968 classic The Thomas Crown Affair.

McQueen's appeal crossed the gender gap into universal gravitas. His daring motorcycle and race car stunts gave men a boost of adrenaline and made them eager to relate to him. Meanwhile, women believed there was deep-seated pain and fragility behind McQueen's facade.

"Steve was the ultimate movie star," explained Robert Vaughn, his costar in The Magnificent Seven. "He had what they refer to as the X-factor. Well, it's sex appeal, that's what it is. He had enormous sex appeal."

McQueen's filmography is one for the ages. From The Blob, to The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid to The Thomas Crown Affair, Le Mans to Papillon, the man immortalized himself onscreen over and over again.

Nonetheless, it was his quiet aura, masculine calm, and daredevil hobbies that elevated him from movie star to legendary icon.

Even contemporary news anchor Brian Williams admitted as much of the man aptly dubbed the "king of cool." Williams said, "Whether men realize it or not, he's the standard everyone's been chasing for 40 years."

Hollywood, Highways, And Hostile Behavior

"He liked camping, he liked rugged things, he liked firing a gun," said LIFE photographer John Dominis of his friend and subject, Steve McQueen.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many superstar actors, McQueen liked booze, drugs, and women who weren't his wife. In 1972, the actor divorced his wife of 16 years, Neile Adams, and embarked on an on-set romance with Ali MacGraw while shooting The Getaway.

This relationship quickly turned into a Hollywood scandal since MacGraw was married to film executive Robert Evans at the time. Nonetheless, she and McQueen married in 1973. They helped fuel each other's drug and alcohol abuse until they divorced five years later.

Bruce Lee testifies to Steve McQueen's toughness as a Jeet Kune Do student of his.

The actor's mystique grew larger when he began training in martial arts with his friend and mentor Bruce Lee. McQueen wanted to know everything Lee could possibly teach him, and didn't stop training until his clothes were completely soaked through.

Of course, McQueen valued the road far more than he did anything related to martial arts. He drove cars and motorcycles in races all over the world — like the Mojave Desert 500 and the 12 Hours of Sebring — and he even filmed his 1971 classic Le Mans on the site of the actual race.

Steve McQueen's Last Act

"Steve liked to [seduce] blondes, but he married brunettes," his ex-wife Neile Adams said at McQueen's funeral in 1980.

That comment certainly got a much-needed laugh on a somber day, but it was true. And McQueen wasn't just a womanizer and philanderer — he was also a wife-beater. In a 1986 memoir, Adams revealed how he beat her bloody after she revealed an affair with an Oscar-winning actor, and he beat her time and time again until she divorced him in 1972.

It was the Sharon Tate murders in 1969 that reminded the man of his mortality long before he'd have to face it. McQueen was about to go to dinner at Tate's Cielo Drive home with his friend Jay Sebring when he "ran into a chickie and decided to go off with her instead," said Adams.

Steve Mcqueen And Carroll Shelby

TwitterSteve McQueen picking up his new Shelby Cobra from the legendary racing driver and designer Carroll Shelby.

"Going off with that girl saved his life," she said. "After that, he became more paranoid and wouldn't let me go anywhere without a gun."

McQueen himself carried one at all times, as well — even to Sebring's funeral. But all the guns in the world wouldn't save him from his fate.

It was a biopsy shortly before Christmas 1979 that revealed McQueen had pleural mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. He was only 50 when he died, leaving behind a complicated legacy of mismanaged masculinity, worldwide adulation, and a rare cinematic footprint.

"Me a legend?" McQueen once asked incredulously. "You wanna know what a real legend is, look at Duke Wayne. Me? I'm just a dirty old man who can't wait to get out of here and go play in the dirt."

After looking at the life and times of Hollywood legend Steve McQueen, take a look at these James Dean photos that capture his wild life and tragic death. Then, check out vintage Hollywood in these mesmerizing images.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Margaritoff, Marco. "Vintage Steve McQueen Photos That Prove He’ll Always Be The ‘King Of Cool’.", April 10, 2020, Accessed June 21, 2024.