From Nov. 2, 2010 – 17 years ago, Marshall Terrill wrote one of the first major biographies of Steve McQueen — “Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel” — but he is back with a new book on the fascinating actor and man.
“Steve McQueen” is a much fatter volume and goes into much more depth than the earlier book.
The writer explains in an author’s note that the book was partially inspired by a quote from John Lennon that had nagged at him for many years. In one of his final interviews, the songwriter and singer told Playboy that he wished he had had the chance to go back and re-record every song in The Beatles catalog.
The author never thought his McQueen book was “perfection” but he assumed there would be no need for him to re-explore the life of an actor who had died a decade before Terrill wrote the biography.
After years of thinking about it, Terrill decided “a great story is worth telling again and again, and what better story to revisit than the life of Steve McQueen?”
The McQueen legend has grown, especially his timeless influence on men’s fashion (I’ve lost track of the number of times GQ has referenced McQueen in text and pictures over the last decade). Because McQueen in his peak years — the mid-to-late ’60s — eschewed costume and coiffure fads, his look in “Bullitt” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” has never really dated. The hairstyles and the clothing still look great.
Terrill admits that he was rather callow when he wrote the first book — a recent college grad of 25 — and that tons of new information about the star became available over the past decade. Although the author is obviously a fan of the performer, he has realized that the McQueen mythology was still in place when he did the first book — “it’s easier to discern fact from fiction today than when McQueen was alive.”
For the new book, Terrill has done a massive amount of additional research, including interviews with McQueen associates who are much more forthcoming now than they were in the immediate aftermath of his death in November, 1980.
McQueen’s rise to stardom is one of the great Hollywood stories, considering his harrowing childhood — including a stint in reform school — and his lack of a conventional education (his formal schooling ended in ninth grade).
What McQueen had going for him was the personal magnetism that eased his way in the New York theater scene of the 1950s — he and Martin Landau were the only two new actors who managed to audition their way into the Actors Studio in 1955 — and earned him the love and loyalty of his first wife Neile Adams (above).
Neile supported McQueen during his rough years — his stage technique was not strong enough to earn him steady employment on Broadway — and then looked the other way through his flagrant adulteries (both before and after he became a star).
The new book shows how McQueen focused on the goal of movie stardom early on and was capable of shameless scene-stealing and manipulation to achieve that goal (he managed to undermine top-billed Yul Brynner on “The Magnificent Seven” and parlay a small role into a star-making part).
Terrill is guilty of some over-the-top fan worship in the biography, but he also includes many tales of McQueen’s appalling treatment of the women in his life and the way he turned on key figures who helped make him a star.
The book gives the fullest account of McQueen’s key relationship with director John Sturges that I’ve read. It was Sturges who allowed McQueen to “take the camera” away from Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven” and then shaped the McQueen performance in “The Great Escape” that made the actor an international star in 1963. A few years later, however, McQueen treated Sturges so abominably on “Le Mans” that the director walked off the picture.
What kept movie people in thrall to McQueen was their awareness of the magical relationship between the star and cameras — with few words and very little visible emotion McQueen became an audience favorite (among both men and women) and his no-frills performances still resonate with moviegoers and the current generation of movie actors.
McQueen didn’t have much apparent “talent” in terms of transforming himself into a wide variety of characters, but when he carefully chose a part, he created iconic screen figures who continue to pulse with life 30 years after his death.
“Steve McQueen” isn’t the sort of brilliantly written Hollywood biography that gives us whole new insights into a beloved star and the movie industry — it’s not in the same league as William Mann’s Hepburn book “Kate,” for instance — but it is packed with new material that McQueen fans will relish.