Oscar Actors: McQueen, Steve–Background, Career, Awards

Steve McQueen Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Middle; father stunt pilot for flying circus, left McQueen’s mother 6 months after meeting her.


Family: troubled childhood, abusive stepfather


Training: Drifter; then Marines (1947-1950); Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse; HB Studio under Uta Hagen.

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role: Great Escape, 1963; age 33

Oscar Role: Sand Pebbles, 1966, age 36

Other Noms: N0

Other Awards: Golden Globe noms

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: “King of Cool”

Last Film: 1980; age 50

Career Output:

Film Career Span: 1958-1980

Marriage: 3


Death: 1980; age 50 (cancer)

Terrence Stephen McQueen (March 24, 1930–November 7, 1980) nicknamed “King of Cool,” became a super star, defined by antihero persona, at the height of the counterculture of the 1960s, a top box-office draw during the 1960s and 1970s.

McQueen received an Oscar nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles. His other popular films include The Cincinnati Kid, Love With the Proper Stranger, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillon, as well as the all-star ensemble films The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Towering Inferno.

In 1974, he became the world’s highest-paid movie star, although he did not act in films again for four years. McQueen was combative with directors and producers, but his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries.

Terrence Stephen McQueen was born on March 24, 1930 at St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. Of Scottish descent, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His father, William McQueen (1907–1958), a stunt pilot for a barnstorming flying circus, left McQueen’s mother, Julia Ann (née Crawford; 1910–1965), six months after meeting her.  An alcoholic unable to cope with caring for her child, she left him with her parents (Victor and Lillian) in Slater, Missouri, in 1933. As the Great Depression set in, McQueen and his grandparents moved in with Lillian’s brother Claude at his farm in Slater. He enjoyed living on the farm, noting that his great-uncle Claude “was a very good man, very strong, very fair. I learned a lot from him.”

Claude gave McQueen a red tricycle on his fourth birthday, a gift that sparked his early interest in racing. At the age of eight he was taken to Indianapolis by his mother, who lived there with her new husband. McQueen’s departure from his great-uncle’s home was marked by a special memento. “The day I left the farm”, he recalled, “Uncle Claude gave me a personal going-away present—a gold pocket watch, with an inscription inside the case that read “To Steve, who has been a son to me.”

Dyslexic and partially deaf due to childhood ear infection, McQueen did not adjust to his new life. His new stepfather beat him, and age 9 he left home to live on the streets. Soon he was running with a street gang and committing petty crime.  His mother sent him back to Slater. When he was 12, Julia asked for his return to her again in Los Angeles, her second marriage had ended in divorce, and she had married a third time.

He and his new stepfather “locked horns immediately.” McQueen said he was “a prime son of a bitch” who was not averse to using fists on McQueen and his mother. He was sent back to live with Claude for a final time. At age 14, he left Claude’s farm and joined a circus for a short time, then drifted back to his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles—resuming his life as a gang member and petty criminal. McQueen was caught stealing hubcaps by the police and handed over to his stepfather, who beat him severely; a fight threw McQueen down a flight of stairs. Rebellious McQueen reacted: “You lay your stinking hands on me again and I swear, I’ll kill you.”

McQueen’s stepfather persuaded his mother to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible, remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino. He was not popular with the other boys at first: “Say the boys had a chance once a month to load into a bus and go into town to see a movie. And they lost out because one guy in the bungalow didn’t get his work done right. Well, you can pretty well guess they’re gonna have something to say about that. I paid my dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being.” Ultimately McQueen became a role model and was elected to the Boys Council, which set the rules governing the boys’ lives. He eventually left the Boys Republic at age 16. When he later became famous, he regularly returned to talk to the boys, retaining lifelong association.

At age 16, McQueen left Chino Hills and returned to his mother, now living in Greenwich Village. He then met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic.  He abandoned his new post, eventually working in a brothel. McQueen went to Texas and drifted from job to job, as roughneck, a carnival barker, lumberjack.

In 1947, after receiving permission from his mother since he was not yet 18, McQueen enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Parris Island for boot camp. He was promoted to private first class and assigned to an armored unit. He initially reverted to prior rebelliousness and was demoted to private 7 times. He took unauthorized absence by failing to return after weekend pass expired, staying with girlfriend for two weeks until the shore patrol caught him. He resisted arrest and spent 41 days in the brig.

He focused his energies on self-improvement and embraced the Marines’ discipline. He saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was assigned to the honor guard responsible for guarding the presidential yacht of US President Harry Truman. McQueen served until 1950, when he was honorably discharged. He had enjoyed his time in the Marines.

In 1952, with financial assistance from the G.I. Bill, McQueen began studying acting in New York at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse and at HB Studio under Uta Hagen. He delivered his first dialogue on a theatre stage in a 1952 play produced by Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. McQueen’s character spoke one brief line: “Alts iz farloyrn.” (“All is lost.”). During this time, he also studied acting with Stella Adler, where he met Gia Scala.

McQueen began to earn money by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway and purchased the first two of many motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson and a Triumph. He soon became an excellent racer and went home each weekend with about $100 in winnings (equivalent to $1,000 in 2019). He appeared as musical judge in ABC’s Jukebox Jury that aired in the 1953–1954 season.

McQueen had minor roles in Peg o’ My Heart, The Member of the Wedding, and Two Fingers of Pride. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in A Hatful of Rain, starring Ben Gazzara.

In 1955 at the age of 25, McQueen left New York and headed for California, where he moved into a house on Vestal Avenue in the Echo Park area, seeking acting jobs in Hollywood. When McQueen appeared in a two-part Westinghouse Studio One TV presentation, The Defenders, Hollywood manager Hilly Elkins (who managed McQueen’s first wife, Neile) took note of him and decided that B-movies would be a good place for him to make his mark. He landed his first film role in a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me, directed by Robert Wise and starring Paul Newman. McQueen was subsequently hired for the films Never Love a Stranger; The Blob (his first leading role), which depicts a flesh eating amoeba-like space creature; and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

McQueen’s first breakout role came on television, appearing on Dale Robertson’s NBC western series Tales of Wells Fargo as Bill Longley. Elkins, then McQueen’s manager, lobbied Vincent M. Fennelly, producer of the western series “Trackdown” (TV series), to have McQueen read for the part of bounty hunter Josh Randall, first appearing in Season 1 Episode 21 of “Trackdown” in 1958. He appeared as Randall in that episode, cast opposite series lead and old New York motorcycle racing buddy Robert Culp. McQueen appeared again on “Trackdown” in Episode 31 of the first season, but not as “Josh Randall.” In that episode, he played twin brothers, one of whom was an outlaw sought by Culp’s character, “Hoby Gilman.” McQueen then filmed a pilot episode for what became the series “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which aired on CBS in September 1958.

In the DVD release of Wanted, Trackdown star Robert Culp claims credit for bringing McQueen to Hollywood and landing him the part of Randall. He said he taught McQueen the “art of the fast-draw,” adding that, on the second day of filming, McQueen beat him. McQueen became a household name as a result of this series. Randall’s special holster held a sawed-off .44–40 Winchester rifle nicknamed the “Mare’s Leg” instead of the six-gun carried by the typical Western character, although the cartridges in the gunbelt were dummy .45–70, chosen because they “looked tougher,” Coupled with the generally negative image of the bounty hunter, this added to the antihero image infused with mystery and detachment that made this show stand out from the typical TV Western. The 94 episodes from 1958 until early 1961 kept McQueen  employed, and he became a fixture at the renowned Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, where the outdoor action for Wanted: Dead or Alive was shot.

At 29, McQueen got significant break when Frank Sinatra removed Sammy Davis Jr. from the film Never So Few after Davis made some mildly negative remarks about Sinatra in a radio interview, and Davis’s role went to McQueen. Sinatra saw something special in McQueen and ensured that he got plenty of closeups in a role that earned McQueen favorable reviews. McQueen’s character, Bill Ringa, was never more comfortable than when driving a jeep at high speed, or handling a switchblade or a tommy gun.

After Never So Few, the film’s director John Sturges cast McQueen in his movie, promising to “give him the camera.” The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he played Vin Tanner and co-starred with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, became McQueen’s first major hit and led to withdrawal from Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen’s portrayal of the taciturn second lead catapulted his career. His added touches in many of the shots, such as shaking a shotgun round before loading it, repeatedly checking his gun while in the background of a shot, and wiping his hat rim, annoyed costar Brynner, who protested that McQueen was trying to steal scenes. (In his autobiography Eli Wallach reports struggling to conceal his amusement while watching the filming of the funeral-procession scene where Brynner’s and McQueen’s characters first meet: Brynner was furious at McQueen’s shotgun-round-shake, which diverted the viewer’s attention to McQueen.) Brynner refused to draw his gun in the same scene with McQueen, not wanting his character outdrawn.

McQueen played the lead role in Sturges 1963’s The Great Escape, Hollywood’s fictional depiction of the true story of a historic mass escape from a World War II POW camp, Stalag Luft III. Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film’s notable motorcycle leap, which was done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins, who resembled McQueen from a distance. When Johnny Carson later congratulated McQueen for the jump during a broadcast of The Tonight Show, McQueen said, “It wasn’t me. That was Bud Ekins.” This film established McQueen’s box-office clout and secured his status as a superstar.

Also in 1963, McQueen starred in Love with the Proper Stranger with Natalie Wood. He later appeared as the titular Nevada Smith, a character from Harold Robbins’ novel The Carpetbaggers portrayed by Alan Ladd two years earlier in a movie version of that novel. Nevada Smith was an enormously successful Western action adventure film that also featured Karl Malden and Suzanne Pleshette.

McQueen earned his only Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his role as an engine-room sailor in The Sand Pebbles, in which he starred opposite Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough (with whom he had worked in The Great Escape).

He followed his Oscar nomination with 1968’s Bullitt, his best-known films, which co-starred Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn and Don Gordon. It featured an unprecedented car chase through San Francisco. Though McQueen did the driving that appeared in closeup, this was about 10% of what is seen in the film’s car chase. The rest of the driving by McQueen’s character was done by stunt drivers Bud Ekins and Loren Janes. The antagonist’s black Dodge Charger was driven by vet stunt driver Bill Hickman; McQueen, his stunt drivers and Hickman spent days before the scene was shot practicing high-speed, close-quarters driving; Bullitt went so far over budget that Warner cancelled the contract on the rest of his films, seven in all.

When Bullitt became a huge box-office success, Warner tried to woo him back, but he refused, and his next film was made with an independent studio and released by United Artists. McQueen went for a change of image, playing a debonair role as a wealthy executive in The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway in 1968.

The following year, he made the southern period piece The Reivers.

Two Directed by Peckinpah

In 1971, McQueen starred in the poorly received auto-racing drama Le Mans, followed by Junior Bonner in 1972, a story of an aging rodeo rider. He worked for director Sam Peckinpah again with the leading role in The Getaway, where he met future wife Ali MacGraw.

He followed this with a physically demanding role as a Devil’s Island prisoner in 1973’s Papillon, featuring Dustin Hoffman as his tragic sidekick.

In 1973, The Rolling Stones referred to McQueen in the song “Star Star” from the album Goats Head Soup for which an amused McQueen reportedly gave personal permission. The lines were “Star f***er, star f***er, star f***er, star f***er star / Yes you are, yes you are, yes you are / Yeah, Ali MacGraw got mad with you / For givin’ head to Steve McQueen”.

By the time of The Getaway, McQueen was the world’s highest-paid actor.

But after 1974’s The Towering Inferno, co-starring with his professional rival Paul Newman and reuniting him with Dunaway, became a tremendous box-office success, McQueen disappeared from the public eye, to focus on motorcycle racing and traveling around the country in a motor home and on his vintage Indian motorcycles.

He did not return to acting until 1978 with An Enemy of the People, playing against type as a bearded, bespectacled 19th-century doctor in this adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play. The film was never properly released theatrically.

His last two films were loosely based on true stories: Tom Horn, a Western adventure about a former Army scout-turned professional gunman who worked for the big cattle ranchers hunting down rustlers, and later hanged for murder in the shooting death of a sheepherder, and The Hunter, an urban actioner about a modern-day bounty hunter, both released in 1980.

Missed Roles

McQueen was offered the lead male role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but was unable to accept due to his Wanted: Dead or Alive contract (the role went to George Peppard).

He turned down parts in Ocean’s 11, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (his agents could not agree with Paul Newman’s attorneys and agents on top billing), The Driver, Apocalypse Now, California Split, Dirty Harry, A Bridge Too Far, The French Connection (he did not want to do another cop film), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

McQueen was Frankenheimer’s first choice for the lead role of American Formula One race car driver Pete Aron. Frankenheimer was unable to meet with McQueen to offer him the role, so he sent Edward Lewis, his business partner and the producer of Grand Prix. McQueen and Lewis clashed, the meeting was a disaster, and the role went to James Garner.

Spielberg said McQueen was his first choice for the character of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Spielberg met him at a bar, where McQueen drank beer after beer. Before leaving, McQueen told Spielberg that he could not accept the role because he was unable to cry on cue. Spielberg offered to take the crying scene out of the story, but McQueen demurred, saying that it was the best scene in the script. The role eventually went to Richard Dreyfuss.

William Friedkin wanted to cast McQueen as the lead in the action-thriller film Sorcerer (1977), to be shot on location in the Dominican Republic, but McQueen did not want to be separated from Ali MacGraw. McQueen then asked Friedkin to let MacGraw act as producer, so she could be present during principal photography. Friedkin would not agree, and cast Roy Scheider instead of McQueen. Friedkin later remarked that not casting McQueen hurt the film’s box office.

McQueen was considered for the lead role in adaptation of The Diamond Smugglers, written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming; McQueen would play John Blaize, a secret agent gone undercover to infiltrate a diamond-smuggling ring in South Africa. There were complications with the project which was shelved, although a 1964 screenplay does exist.

McQueen and Barbra Streisand were tentatively cast in The Gauntlet, but the two could not get along, and both withdrew. The lead roles were filled by Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke.

McQueen expressed interest in the Rambo character in First Blood when David Morrell’s novel appeared in 1972, but the producers rejected him because of his age. He was offered the title role in The Bodyguard (to star Diana Ross) when it was proposed in 1976, but the film did not reach production until years after McQueen’s death (eventually it starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in 1992).

Quigley Down Under was in development in 1974, with McQueen considered for the lead, but by 1980, McQueen was ill and the project was scrapped until a decade later, when Tom Selleck starred.

McQueen was offered the lead in Raise the Titanic, but felt the script was flat. He was under contract to Irwin Allen after appearing in The Towering Inferno and offered a part in a sequel in 1980, which he turned down. The film was scrapped and Newman was brought in by Allen to make When Time Ran Out, which was a box office bomb. McQueen died shortly after passing on The Towering Inferno 2.

McQueen was an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast.  He performed many of his own stunts, including some of the car chases in Bullitt and the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. Although the jump over the fence in The Great Escape was done by Bud Ekins for insurance purposes, McQueen had considerable screen time riding his 650 cc Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle. It was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen. At one point, using editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike.

Around half of the driving in Bullitt was performed by Loren Janes.

McQueen and John Sturges planned to make Day of the Champion, a movie about Formula One racing, but McQueen was busy with The Sand Pebbles. They had a contract with the German Nürburgring, and after Frankenheimer shot scenes there for Grand Prix, the reels were turned over to Sturges. Frankenheimer was ahead in schedule, and the McQueen-Sturges project was called off.

McQueen considered being a professional race car driver. He had a one-off outing in the British Touring Car Championship in 1961, driving a BMC Mini at Brands Hatch, finishing third. In the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks earlier) won with a Porsche 908/02 in the three-litre class and missed winning overall by 23 seconds to Mario Andretti/Ignazio Giunti/Nino Vaccarella in a five-litre Ferrari 512S. This same Porsche 908 was entered by his production company Solar Productions as a camera car for Le Mans in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans later that year. McQueen wanted to drive a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart in that race, but the film backers threatened to pull their support if he did. Faced with the choice of driving for 24 hours in the race or driving for the entire summer making the film, McQueen opted for the latter.

McQueen competed in off-road motorcycle racing, frequently running a BSA Hornet. He was also set to co-drive in a Triumph 2500 PI for the British Leyland team in the 1970 London-Mexico rally, but had to turn it down due to movie commitments. His first off-road motorcycle was a Triumph 500 cc, purchased from Ekins. McQueen raced in many top off-road races on the West Coast, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400, and the Elsinore Grand Prix.

In 1964 McQueen and Ekins were part of a four-rider (plus one reserve) first-ever official US team-entry into the Silver Vase category of the International Six Days Trial,[53] an Enduro-type off-road motorcycling event held that year in Erfurt, East Germany. The “A” team arrived in England in late August to collect their mix of 649 cc and 490 cc twins from the Triumph factory before modifying them for off-road use.[53] Initially let down with transport arrangements by a long-established English motorcycle dealer, Triumph dealer H&L Motors stepped-in to provide a suitable vehicle.[55] On arrival in Germany, the team, with their English temporary manager, were surprised to find a Vase “B” team, comprising expat Americans living in Europe, had entered themselves privately to ride European-sourced machinery.

He was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, McQueen’s Solar Productions funded the classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, in which McQueen is featured, along with racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith. The same year, he also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike.

McQueen designed a motorsports bucket seat, for which a patent was issued in 1971.

The Ed Sullivan Show: McQueen drove Sullivan around a desert area in a dune buggy at high speed. Afterward, Sullivan said, “That was a ‘helluva’ ride!”

McQueen owned a number of classic motorcycles, as well as several exotics and vintage cars, including: Porsche 917, Porsche 908, and Ferrari 512 race cars from the Le Mans film Porsche 911S (used in the opening sequence of the Le Mans film)

McQueen was never able to purchase the Ford Mustang GT 390 he drove in Bullitt, which featured a modified drivetrain that suited his driving style. One of the two Mustangs in the film was badly damaged, judged beyond repair, and believed to have been scrapped until it surfaced in Mexico in 2017, while the other one, which McQueen attempted to purchase in 1977, is hidden from the public eye. At the 2018 North American International Auto Show the GT 390 was displayed, in its current non-restored condition, with the 2019 Ford Mustang “Bullitt”.

McQueen also flew and owned, among other aircraft, a 1945 Stearman, tail number N3188, (his student number in reform school), a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub, and an award-winning 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 bip, flown in the US Mail Service by famed World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. They were hangared at Santa Paula Airport an hour northwest of Hollywood, where he lived his final days.

While still attending Stella Adler’s school in New York, McQueen dated Gia Scala. On November 2, 1956, he married actress Neile Adams, with whom he had a daughter, Terry Leslie (June 5, 1959–March 19, 1998) and a son, Chad (December 28, 1960). McQueen and Adams divorced in 1972. In her autobiography, My Husband, My Friend, Adams stated she had an abortion in 1971, when their marriage was on the rocks.

On August 31, 1973, McQueen married actress Ali MacGraw, his co-star in The Getaway, but this marriage ended in a divorce in 1978. MacGraw suffered miscarriage during their marriage. Friends would later claim that MacGraw was the one true love of McQueen’s: “He was madly in love with her until the day he died.” On January 16, 1980, less than a year before his death, McQueen married model Barbara Minty. One of McQueen’s four grandchildren is actor Steven R. McQueen (best known for playing Jeremy Gilbert in The Vampire Diaries and Jimmy Borelli in Chicago Fire).

In 1971–1972, while separated from Adams and prior to meeting MacGraw, McQueen had affair with Junior Bonner co-star Barbara Leigh, which included pregnancy and abortion. Actress-model Lauren Hutton had an affair with McQueen in the 1960s. Mamie Van Doren also claimed to have had an affair with McQueen and tried hallucinogens with him.

McQueen was a martial arts student and a friend of fellow actor Bruce Lee. Both were very competitive when it came to success. Lee made no secret that he wanted everything McQueen had and would stop at nothing to get it. Upon Lee’s early demise, McQueen was one of his pallbearers at the funeral on July 25, 1973.

After discovering a mutual interest in racing, McQueen and Great Escape co-star James Garner became good friends and lived near each other. McQueen recalled: I could see that Jim was neat around his place. Flowers trimmed, no papers in the yard… grass always cut. So to piss him off, I’d start lobbing empty beer cans down the hill into his driveway. He’d have his drive all spic ‘n’ span when he left the house, then get home to find all these empty cans. Took him a long time to figure out it was me.

McQueen’s third wife, Barbara Minty McQueen, in her book Steve McQueen: The Last Mile, wrote of McQueen’s becoming an Evangelical Christian toward the end of his life. This was due in part to the influences of his flying instructor, Sammy Mason, Mason’s son Pete, and Barbara herself. McQueen attended his local church, Ventura Missionary Church, and was visited by evangelist Billy Graham before his death.

McQueen followed a daily two-hour exercise regimen, weightlifting and running 5 miles (8 km), seven days a week. McQueen learned the martial art Tang Soo Do from ninth-degree black belt Pat E. Johnson.

Photographer William Claxton said McQueen smoked marijuana almost every day; biographer Marc Eliot stated McQueen used cocaine in the early 1970s. He was also heavy cigarette smoker. McQueen sometimes drank to excess; he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1972.

Two months after Charles Manson incited the murder of five people, including McQueen’s friends Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, police had found a hit list with McQueen’s name on it. According to first wife, McQueen began carrying a handgun at all times in public, including at Sebring’s funeral.

McQueen had reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios, such as electric razors, jeans, and other items.  He donated these things to the Boys Republic reformatory school, where he spent time in his teen years. McQueen made visits to the school to spend time with the students, often to play pool and speak about his experiences.

McQueen developed a persistent cough in 1978. He gave up cigarettes and underwent antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath grew more pronounced, and on December 22, 1979, after filming The Hunter, a biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, cancer associated with asbestos exposure for which there is no cure.

A few months later, McQueen gave a medical interview in which he blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. He believed asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets was involved, but he thought it more likely that his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging (insulation) from pipes aboard a troop ship while he was in the Marines.

By February 1980, widespread metastasis was found. He tried to keep the condition secret, but on March 11, 1980, the National Enquirer disclosed his “terminal cancer”. In July 1980, McQueen traveled to Rosarito Beach, Mexico for unconventional treatment after U.S. doctors told him they could do nothing to prolong his life.

McQueen sought treatment from William Donald Kelley, who was promoting a variation of the Gerson therapy that used coffee enemas, frequent washing with shampoos, daily injections of fluid containing live cells from cattle and sheep, massages, and laetrile, a reputed anti-cancer drug available in Mexico, but long known to be both toxic and ineffective at treating cancer. McQueen paid for Kelley’s treatments by himself in cash payments which were said to have been upwards of $40,000 per month ($124,000 today) during his three-month stay in Mexico. Kelley’s only medical license (until revoked in 1976) had been for orthodontics. Kelley’s methods created a sensation in the traditional and tabloid press when it became known that McQueen was a patient.

McQueen returned to the U.S. in October. Despite metastasis of the cancer, Kelley publicly announced that McQueen would be completely cured and return to normal life. McQueen’s condition worsened and huge tumors developed in his abdomen.

In late October 1980, McQueen flew to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, to have abdominal tumor on his liver (weighing 5 pounds) removed, despite warnings from U.S. doctors that the tumor was inoperable and his heart could not withstand the surgery. Using the name “Samuel Sheppard”, McQueen checked into a small Juárez clinic where the doctors and staff were unaware of his actual identity.

On November 7, 1980, McQueen died of heart failure at 3:45 a.m. at the Juárez clinic, 12 hours after surgery to remove or reduce metastatic tumors in his neck and abdomen. He was 50 years old. McQueen died in his sleep.


McQueen remains a popular star, and his estate limits the licensing of his image to avoid the commercial saturation experienced by other dead celebrities. As of 2007, McQueen’s estate entered the top 10 of highest-earning dead celebrities.

On September 28, 2017, there was a showing in some theaters of his life story and spiritual quest, Steve McQueen – American Icon, with encore presentation on October 10, 2017.

In the 2019 Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, McQueen is portrayed by Damian Lewis.

Oscar Awards
(1967) Nominated – Best Actor in a Leading Role in The Sand Pebbles

Golden Globes Noms
(1964) Nominated – Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama in Love with the Proper Stranger
(1967) Nominated – Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama in The Sand Pebbles
(1970) Nominated – Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in The Reivers
(1974) Nominated – Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama in Papillon

Moscow International Film Festival
(1963) – Won – Best Actor in The Great Escape