Hailing from the small town of Beech Grove Indiana, Steve McQueen left a lasting legacy known the world over
Steve McQueen: The Legend
Beech Grove, Indiana (September 2, 2017) - The career of Steve McQueen seems a classic example of the American dream made real, of a small town boy from Beech Grove, Indiana triumphing over adversity-broken home, poor education-to become one of the richest and most sought-after superstars in the world.
He was a man who finally found the love he never knew as a child in the adoration of the millions of adoring fans who flocked to every action-packed screen adventure graced by his rugged, tanned, and quizzical good looks.
McQueen lived every day as if it was his last, and by doing so he lived an extraordinary life, both on screen and off.
Steve McQueen: The Beginning
Steve McQueen never knew his father. He abandoned Steve six months after he was born at St. Francis Hospital on March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. His mother also left him, when he was very young, with his Uncle, who ran a farm in Slater, Missouri. Steve lived there until he was twelve.
"I had to learn to look out for myself when I was a kid," said Steve. "I had no one to talk to. I was all alone. It taught me to be self-reliant."
From Slater, he ended up in Los Angeles with his mother and started hanging out with gangs, since he was unhappy with his home life. Invariably, Steve's activities got him into trouble. His mother sent him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, which is a home for wayward boys.
Birth Certificate of Steve McQueen
At the Boys Republic, he tried to run away but was caught and sent back. Steve later credited the Boys Republic for putting him on the right track, often visiting the school after becoming a movie star. The Steve McQueen Fund, a four year scholarship for the best student, was established there in 1962. In his will, he left $ 200,000 dollars to the Boys Republic and in 1983, a building was dedicated in his honor and named the Steve McQueen Recreation Center. A bronze plaque inside the Center reads:
"Steve McQueen came here as a troubled boy but left here a man. He went on to achieve stardom in motion pictures but returned to this campus often to share of himself and his fortune. His legacy is hope and inspiration to those students here now, and those yet to come."
Ironically, in his hometown of Beech Grove, Indiana there is not one memorial, plaque or any remembrance other than a small section with some trinkets of memorabilia located in the Beech Grove branch of the Indianapolis Library.
Michele Patterson, with the Beech Grove Historical Society,
holds a framed movie poster from the 1971 film "LeMans" @Credit: Frank Espich/Angies List
When he left there in April, 1946 (after 18 months) his mother sent him the money so he could take the bus to New York City, where she was currently living. As Steve put it:
"My mother was going to get married again, so she sent me the bread and I went across country. I got off the bus feeling like Lil' Abner. There I was in my big high shoes, Levi's and Levi's jacket, a California tan and a square-cut haircut. I remember standing on 34th Street, and that was a bad crowd I was seeing."
He made an attempt to get along with his mother, but their reunion was brief. At the age of sixteen, he found himself working on a ship named the SS Alpha. In an early interview, Steve explains how he got the job.
"So I was in New York and it was the summer and I didn't have anything to do, and I met this guy in the Village called Ed Ford, who later jumped off the Staten Island ferry and committed suicide. He was a bosun's mate on a tanker...he and Tinker were both on a ship and I fell in with them. So these guys got me an able-bodied seaman's card and I got on their boat ( the SS Alpha) which was an early tanker; it was in Yonkers and the damn thing caught fire and damn near sank."
But working on a tanker did not appeal to McQueen, so when the Alpha docked in Cuba, Steve jumped ship. He made his way to the Dominican Republic and then back to the United States. He worked various odd jobs as he moved from place to place.
Steve had said, "I was an old man at seventeen."
While in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Steve decided to join the Marines.
"It was all very pleasant just lying in the sun and watching the girls go by, but one day I suddenly felt bored with hanging around and went and joined the Marines."
In April, 1947 he enlisted, just a month after his seventeenth birthday. He was honorably discharged April, 1950.
"When I got out of the Marines," Steve said, "I went to Texas and worked in the oil fields as a 'grunt'-a laborer. I went up to Canada, worked as a lumberjack. I went to New York and found a cold-water flat for nineteen dollars a month and I did things like delivering sets for a television store, working in a sandal shop. When you are poor, you've got to work for the basics. You can't do the things you want to do."
Steve McQueen in 1963 with the family cat, named “Kitty Cat”
An actress Steve was dating suggested he try acting. Sanford Meisner accepted Steve in the Neighborhood Playhouse, a famous New York acting school. He studied there for two years.
"I worked hard. I'm not a goof-off like some guys. I wanted to learn all I could. I had to be good at what I was doing. There was no time for fooling around."
Steve was determined to succeed at being an actor, regardless of how hard he had to push himself.
"The Neighborhood Playhouse was expensive, so I took a job driving a postal truck at night to help pay for school. I would drive all evening until two-thirty a.m., then be in school the next morning. I did that for a year. It almost killed me."
Steve McQueen with his 1st wife Nellie Adams shooting guns in the desert
By the summer, he quit after getting a part in a Jewish repertory stage production on second avenue. He also raced motorcycles, winning a couple of races every weekend, and made cash playing poker. Steve also landed a scholarship to the prestigious Herbert- Bergoff Drama School. And later, he was one of two chosen (out of 2000 applicants) to attend the famous Actors Studio in New York.
Steve McQueen's name was soon on Broadway after replacing Ben Gazzara for the lead role in the play "A Hatful of Rain". During this time, Steve met his first wife, Neile Adams, who was also a very successful Broadway performer. They married in San Clemente, CA in 1956. Their marriage lasted over 15 years.
Steve McQueen: Movie Star
After moving to Los Angeles, Steve McQueen got several parts in some low budget features, the most famous of which has to be The Blob. But it was in television that the McQueen name first became a household word, after he was given the part of Josh Randal in the classic series Wanted: Dead or Alive. This led to larger, more important movie roles.
The Blob-1958 Starring a young Steve McQueen
After such film milestones as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Steve McQueen became the highest paid and most popular movie star of the sixties and seventies. Many of these films are considered classics and are still seen by old and new alike.
Steve McQueen: The Biker
It was inevitable that Steve McQueen and motorcycles would form a lifelong link. His childhood and rough early years—scrabbling for work, living in near poverty—forced the issue on two fronts. One, bikes were cheaper than cars. Two, he was of the ideal temperament for motorcycling in the late 1940s, when the activity was far from genteel.
In between, we had Brando and Elvis and James Dean—misunderstood, troubled, in trouble, and, for that matter, out for trouble. It would be no surprise to find a rudderless youth, enticed by the image, stick to it as a way of submerging his troubles.
Steve McQueen on a Triumph Motorcycle in the desert
Whether you consider his positioning of motorcycles (among other fast vehicles) in his films and public life or stop to ponder the fact that, at one point, he owned more than 100 motorcycles at one time, you can’t read much about McQueen and not realize that he was, deep down and to the core, a pure enthusiast, a man for whom motorcycling was, you might say, second only to breathing.
The endeavor was both an escape from acting plus an opportunity to join a tight fraternity of riders who didn’t care who he was as much as how well he could ride.
Steve McQueen: The Blob
The price of fame is the lack of privacy however. Around 1977 Steve bought himself this 1947 Indian Chief chopper. He added on some additional pieces, the strange chrome exhaust slip-ons, the sleeping bag, the mis-matched hand grips… all to make it look ratty and ridiculous.
Steve McQueen's 1947 Indian Chief called "The Blob" after his 1st leading role
He was aware it was not a top condition bike, but towards the end of his life he grew out his hair, put on weight, grew an unkempt beard and rode for the privacy and solitude he couldn’t find anywhere else.
Original Tank of Steve McQueen's 1947 Indian Chief called "The Blob"
It was noted that the bike leaked oil like mad and had terrible brakes – but that didn’t matter to McQueen, because of the way it looked and ran it was a way to escape.
When the bike was auctioned along with the rest of his collection it pulled a lot more attention than a bike in this condition should because there were whispers that this was Steve McQueen’s personal bike – not a track day bike or a collector piece.
Steve McQueen: The Illness
The development of mesothelioma is dose related to asbestos exposure. Patients report history of moderate asbestos exposure several years to over two decades prior to the development of the disease. Course of the disease is usually rapidly progressive with most patients surviving less than two years post diagnosis.
Excerpt from "McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood":
"Mesothelioma attacks the lining between the lungs and the chest cage. The particular form Steve had, called a high-grade malignancy, is particularly virulent, spreading wildly from the lungs to the other organs. By the time the cancer is detectable, the patient usually has just months to live. "I don't know anyone with the disease who's been cured," said the chief of oncology of a Culver City, California, medical center at the time. Chemotherapy was not ordinarily effective, nor was surgery.
Mesothelioma is most frequently seen in shipyard workers, construction workers, and miners. Cigarette smoking is not associated with the disease; it attacks smokers and non-smokers with equal frequency. mesothelioma is a cancer whose cause has been known since the mid-1960s: asbestos.
Steve had been peculiarly surrounded by asbestos all his life. It was often present in his place of work during his itinerant years when be picked up odd jobs-at construction sites, for example. Asbestos was used in the insulation of every modern ship built before 1976; it is found on sound stages, in the brake linings of race cars, and in the protective helmets and suits worn by race car drivers.
Steve McQueen taking a break at an Idaho ranch during his last days
John Sturges remembers Steve telling him about an incident that occurred while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during his stint in the Marine Corps.
...Steve had been sentenced to six weeks in the brig. He spent the time assigned to a work detail in the hold of a ship, cleaning the engine room. The pipes were covered with asbestos linings, which the men ripped out and replaced. The air was so thick with asbestos particles, Steve told John Sturges, that the men could hardly breathe..."
Steve McQueen: His Death
After being told his condition was inoperable, Steve McQueen
checked in to a controversial Mexican clinic. He underwent a torturous three
month regimen involving animal cell injections, laetrile, and over 100 vitamin
pills a day. But his health only deteriorated.
On November 7, 1980, Steve McQueen died of a heart attack in
Mexico after undergoing an operation to remove a tumor from his abdomen. He was
only 50 years old.
-Invisible Beech Grove: J.D.