Sunday, February 7, 2010


Wincing, Steve McQueen gets his blistered hands treated in Pearblossom, Calif. Steve says of his dangerous sport, "If you can't cut it, you gotta back out."

Rounding a bend in a cross-country motorcycle race, Steve McQueen (right) a long-time racer, keeps up a torrid pace. He was one of 300 entrants. The race took 2 days, went across the Mojave Desert.

The race over, Steve McQueen wearily puts on his jacket after a brief cooling-off. He led the amateur class until his motorcycle broke down three miles from the finish.

Looking like a helmeted James Cagney, Steve McQueen talks with his buddies during a respite. A crack auto racer, he even raced with Stirling Moss-- but he gave up the sport to please his wife.

On a camping trip in the Sierra Madre, Steve McQueen is rudely awakened by his dog Mike, a Malamute. He often takes his whole family along on camping trips, but this time went with old buddies. "This is it, man" says Steve. "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth."

In their Palm Springs bungalow, Steve McQueen and his wife Neile chat affectionately.

"Man, if I hadn't made my own scene," says Steve McQueen, "I could have wound up a hood instead of an actor." He talks the lingo of the rough world that spawned him-- a world of hipsters, race car drivers, beach boys, drifters, and carnival barkers. Steve has been al of these. He has also tended bar, sold encyclopedias, made sandals, and even been a runner in a Port Arthur, TX brothel-- going from one job to the next, trying to run from his dreary, dreadful past.

Steve has been running that way ever since he was a kid. His father began it by running out on the family while Steve was still a baby. Mrs. McQueen farmed Steve out to an Uncle in Missouri. At 12 Steve fled to New York. He later lived with his mother and new stepfather in California, but that was no improvement. He spent so much time on the streets, and so little time in school, that his mother sent him away for rehabilitation. He promptly ran away and wound up in jail. Even in the Marines, Steve McQueen wouldn't stay put-- he spent 41 days in the brig for going AWOL.

At Big Sur, Steve McQueen and Neile take a sulphur bath together, a bottle of wine propped nearby.

He was in New York in 1951, working as a bartender, when a friend took him along with her to an acting school. Willing to try anything, he auditioned there, and to his astonishment was accepted.

"I took up acting," he explains, "because it let e burn off energy. Besides, I wanted to beat the 40-hour-a-week rap. But, Man, I didn't escape. Now I'm working 72 hours a week, so there you go."

While waiting in the kitchen for Neile to serve up a snack, Steve gives her a fond tweak.

Steve McQueen works at acting with the same urgency that he races motorcycles. "I'm the greatest scammer in the business," says Steve. "But acting's a hard scene for me. Every script I get is an enemy I have to conquer."

But he shuns the duties that go with being a movie star. He seldom attends parties or nightclubs, and sulks at movie premieres. "When I get in a room with five strangers, that's my nut," he says, "I feel like I can't breathe, O.K.?"

Steve McQueen cozies up with his wife Neile, who is of English, German, Spanish and Chinese descent. They met when she was on Broadway in Pajama Game. Says he, "My old lady is the heart of my home."

When he is with his wife and children, Steve McQueen quickly gets his breath back. Though married seven years, the McQueens are still as lovey-dovey as newlyweds. "When I come home nights," says Steve, "I dig my old lady, not the maid, serving me dinner."

Others he digs are hard-luck characters who, like him, drew a raw deal, and he tries to help them. "When you take a little out," Steve explains, "you gotta put a little back in." He and Dr. Herman Salk, a Palm Springs veterinarian who is Jonas Salk's brother, raise money to buy vaccines and antibiotics for Navajo Indians. Periodically they drive to the reservation to deliver the drugs. "I really dig those Navajos," says Steve. "They have a saying they live by: A land where there is time enough and room enough. I want that too."

Steve McQueen, who delights in giving his son the love he lacked while growing up, romps with Chad, 2.

Last week Steve McQueen bought a three-acre, quarter-million-dollar mansion overlooking the Pacific. "It's got trees for the kids to swing on," he says, voice all aquiver, "and the biggest, strongest front gate you ever saw. Man, I don't wanna be bugged by anyone, O.K.?"

But once there, Steve is likely to want out. It is too near Hollywood. "You won't find me hanging by my toes in a manhole," he promises. "Man, after I've gotten my sugar out of this business, I'm gonna take off-- and run like a thief."

-Peter Bunzel, photos by John Dominis, 1963.

In a rented tuxedo (he does not own one), Steve McQueen gives a goodnight kiss to Terry, 4, before making one of his rare appearances at at Hollywood opening. "My family is very, very tight." says McQueen. "But the world is full of phonies, so you gotta build a wall to keep them out."