From what had he fled?
From what was he running?
What was it that pursued him?
The film titles give us some clues, as does his pace of life, the rapidity of his mood swings, the speed of his reactions—all lived as if in a race, one that, as he grew older, got ever more fast until the inevitable occurred: time ran out.
What the Hollywood star’s biographies sidestep is that ending. In a strange way it makes sense of all the rest. That final ‘performance’ was a role much older than any that he had acted upon the silver screen, and, for once, it really was a matter of life and death. This is an alternate look at the life and death of Terence Steven McQueen.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him
There was the broken home. The violence, the neglect, the desertion, the young McQueen shuffled between his native Indiana, Missouri, and eventually California, passing from one home to another. The child knew mostly misery, but, nevertheless, he had been given something. Somewhere, someone decided that he needed to be baptized a Catholic just as his mother had been before him. In the biographies it is mentioned in passing—understandably, as it appeared to have made little difference to the boy, the adolescent, and, later, the man… but it did matter….
In his case, what passed for childhood soon turned the boy into a troubled youth. With no home, he ended up on the streets before being sent by a court to one that was there to reform boys like him. The Boys Republic was to be the start of the end of childhood; for the young McQueen it was also the beginning of a mistrust of institutions—the image of authority long since fractured for this child from a broken home. It is worth bearing that in mind before jumping to any ready-made conclusions. For better or worse we are shaped by our first environments, by those early years—looking at what the future movie star was dealt in life, perhaps we should be grateful. Looking back now, it appears the only thing McQueen had been given was resentment. The rage that it engendered fueled the race that now began as he fled from personal demons he could barely comprehend, let alone free himself from.
From one institution to another he trailed, before living the life of a drifter and a vagrant. An angry young man can, however, always find a home in any military, and the United States Marine Corps would do for the already world weary seventeen-year-old McQueen. It was 1947, and he would serve three years. Too early for Korea, he saw no combat, yet his time in the Marines was suspected of killing him. More than thirty years later, he was diagnosed with a disease that was believed to have its origin in his role in the routine removal of asbestos during a military chore. The clock had begun ticking, curiously just as his luck was about to change.
From 1952 onwards, thanks to the G.I. Bill, McQueen was to become an actor—if for many years aspiring rather than acting, making his way as best he could. Finally, however, six years later things began to shift. From 1958 to 1968, we have an ascent, at rapid speed too as McQueen ascended from bit-part player to television star, from supporting actor to lead, from movie star to superstar. By the late 1960s, Hollywood knelt before him; he had become one of its new kings. By then, this King of Cool had touched the zeitgeist, or it touched him, and, thereafter, bestowed upon him a glittering kingdom of tinsel. That was only half the story though.
There was another, darker side to this Hollywood luminary—not so surprising given that there was very little light and much darkness at the heart of the world he inhabited. Inevitably that shinning darkness found its way into a man unable to resist its blandishments and allures. The public ascent had been rapid and assured; the private descent was equally as sharp. By the mid 1970s, there was a trail of broken marriages and emotional debris, of Charles Manson-inspired death threats and drug busts, of false starts professionally, and a reputation in Hollywood he didn’t need. All this just as the movie business was moving on, seemingly no longer needing this increasingly temperamental star. By then, he was an actor in his 40s, with looks fading alongside any box office appeal as younger, hungrier actors jostled for his crown. As the lights over Hollywood began to dim, a king was being sent into exile. Still the clock continued to tick, more loudly than ever before, for time was running out on Steve McQueen.
All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.
The titles give us clues, the subject matter equally so. Was there ever a Hollywood star more incarcerated, or one who spent so much screen time running from something? Whether it was his rise to stardom via television’s Wanted: Dead or Alive, or as Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape, or Henri Charrière in Papillon, he was a perpetual prisoner, one forever trying to escape. Even in the seemingly more conventional war movies, The War Lover and Hell is for Heroes, he plays characters running from themselves, or their past, under cover of war. In films such as The Getaway, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, he was simply on the run. When not running, it was all about speed: Bullitt, Le Mans—being pursued and pursing. The final cinematic outings were Tom Horn and The Hunter. The latter was about hunting those on the run from the law; the former was the story of a frontiersman finally cornered, by modernity and the relentless march of time, and facing death by hanging. As it happened, when Tom Horn was being made, having by then physically experienced the first signs of what was coming next, its star was equally ‘cornered.’ Thereafter, McQueen’s life was hanging by an increasingly slender thread, and no matter how hard he tried to run in the opposite direction there was still that something pursuing him.
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat
Unexpectedly, as the end came into sight, McQueen raised his gaze. When, at the height of his former pomp, he was asked what he believed in, he said himself. Now on learning that that same frail self was falling apart there was little room for such belief. It was then another belief stepped in. For many years, he had known a man called Sammy Mason. This man was as different as could be from the movie star and his circle. He was a family man, good at his profession and liked by his fellow workers, and, more important still, a Christian. One day the man who wore the tarnished crown of movie stardom and who had ruled supreme in that fake empire asked his friend what it was that seemed to hold him together…
Now, the race was drawing to a close, but old habits die hard. In those last days, and as the clock began to strike, McQueen raced to Mexico looking for a miracle cure to the cancer that was killing him. He didn’t find one. By then, however, if only tentatively, he had found something else. He asked to see the evangelist Billy Graham. The movie star told the older man that he was now a Christian. He believed no longer in himself but in Another. They prayed together. Touched by the younger man’s obvious sincerity, Graham handed him his Bible.
Four days later, on 7 November 1980, the race was run: Steve McQueen was dead; on his coffin was laid the Bible that had been given to him just days previously. It was open at the following verse: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
‘Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!’
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