Steve McQueen was the prototypical example of a new sort of movie star which emerged in the 1950s and would come to dominate the screen in the 1960s and '70s -- a cool, remote loner who knew how to use his fists without seeming like a run-of-the-mill tough guy, a thoughtful man in no way an effete intellectual, a rebel who played by his own rules and lived by his own moral code, while often succeeding on his own terms. While McQueen was one of the first notable examples of this new breed of antihero (along with James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman), he was also among the most successful, and was able to succeed as an iconoclast and one of Hollywood's biggest box-office draws at the same time.
Terrence Steven McQueen was born in Indianapolis, IN, on March 24, 1930. In many ways, McQueen's childhood was not a happy one; his father and mother split up before his first birthday, and he was sent to live with his great uncle on a farm in Missouri. After he turned nine, McQueen's mother had married again, and he was sent to California to join her. By his teens, McQueen had developed a rebellious streak, and he began spending time with a group of juvenile delinquents; McQueen's misdeeds led his mother to send him to Boys' Republic, a California reform school. After ninth grade, McQueen left formal education behind, and after a spell wandering the country, he joined the Marine Corps in 1947. McQueen's hitch with the Leathernecks did little to change his anti-authoritarian attitude; he spent 41 days in the brig after going Absent With Out Leave for two weeks.
After leaving the Marines in 1950, McQueen moved to New York City, where he held down a number of short-term jobs while trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. At the suggestion of a friend, McQueen began to look into acting, and developed an enthusiasm for the theater. In 1952, he began studying acting at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse. After making an impression in a number of small off-Broadway productions, McQueen was accepted into Lee Strasberg's prestigious Actor's Studio, where he further honed his skills. In 1956, McQueen made his Broadway debut and won rave reviews when he replaced Ben Gazzara in the lead of the acclaimed drama A Hatful of Rain. The same year, McQueen made his film debut, playing a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me alongside Paul Newman, and he married dancer Neile Adams. In 1958, after two years of stage work and television appearances, McQueen scored his first leading role in a film as Steve, a noble and rather intense teenager in the sci-fi cult item The Blob, while later that same year he scored another lead, in the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive. McQueen's moody performances as bounty hunter Josh Randall elevated him to stardom, and in 1960, he appeared in the big-budget Western The Magnificent Seven (an Americanized remake of The Seven Samurai), confirming that his new stardom shone just as brightly on the big screen. In 1961, McQueen completed his run on Wanted: Dead or Alive and concentrated on film roles, appearing in comedies (The Honeymoon Machine, Love With a Proper Stranger) as well as action roles (Hell Is for Heroes, The War Lover). In 1963, McQueen starred in The Great Escape, an action-packed World War II drama whose blockbuster success confirmed his status as one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men; McQueen also did his own daredevil motorcycle stunts in the film, reflecting his offscreen passion for motorcycle and auto racing. (McQueen would also display his enthusiasm for bikes as narrator of a documentary on dirt-bike racing, On Any Sunday).
Through the end of the 1960s, McQueen starred in a long string of box-office successes, but in the early '70s, he appeared in two unexpected disappointments -- 1971's Le Mans, a racing film that failed to capture the excitement of the famed 24-hour race, and 1972's Junior Bonner, an atypically good-natured Sam Peckinpah movie that earned enthusiastic reviews but failed at the box office. Later that year, McQueen would team up again with Peckinpah for a more typical (and much more successful) action film, The Getaway, which co-starred Ali MacGraw. McQueen had divorced Neile Adams in 1971, and while shooting The Getaway, he and MacGraw (who was then married to producer Robert Evans) became romantically involved. In 1973, after MacGraw divorced Evans, she married McQueen; the marriage would last until 1977.
After two more big-budget blockbusters, Papillon and The Towering Inferno, McQueen disappeared from screens for several years. In 1977, he served as both leading man and executive producer for a screen adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which fared poorly with both critics and audiences when it was finally released a year and a half after it was completed. In 1980, it seemed that McQueen was poised for a comeback when he appeared in two films -- an ambitious Western drama, Tom Horn, which McQueen co-directed without credit, and The Hunter, an action picture in which he played a modern-day bounty hunter -- and he wed for a third time, marrying model Barbara Minty in January of that year. However, McQueen's burst of activity hid the fact that he had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a highly virulent form of lung cancer brought on by exposure to asbestos. After conventional treatment failed to stem the spread of the disease, McQueen traveled to Juarez, Mexico, where he underwent therapy at an experimental cancer clinic. Despite the efforts of McQueen and his doctors, the actor died on November 7, 1980. He left behind two children, Chad McQueen, who went on to his own career as an actor, and daughter Terry McQueen, who died of cancer in 1998.