The Top Seven Awesome Things You Didn't Know About Steve McQueen

April 8, 2009

It takes more than an awesome turtleneck and a clever PR guy to earn the nickname of “The King of Cool.” From teenage reform schools and jail cells to race tracks and international super stardom, Steve McQueen truly earned his bad boy persona, both on the silver screen and on the street.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

7. He Was a Punk

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Reflecting on his career, McQueen once said, "If I hadn't made it as an actor, I might've wound up a hood." And while it's always fun to pretend, Steve's assertion actually holds quite a bit of merit.

Though he eventually became the highest paid actor of his time, McQueen's youth was anything but glamorous. His father William McQueen, a stunt pilot, left him and his mother when Steve was still an infant.

This left Steve to be raised by his mother Julia, who struggled with alcoholism and eventually unloaded Steve with his grandparents. Steve rejoined his mother as a teen, but he didn't take to his new stepfather well, once referring to him as a "prime son of a bitch."

After one particularly bad physical altercation with his stepfather (initiated after Steve was caught by the cops while stealing hubcaps), Steve threatened to kill his stepfather, and was sent to the "California Junior Boys Republic" - essentially, a reform school. Steve's combative nature would follow him into Hollywood, where he gained a reputation among directors and producers for being a real pain in the ass to work with. However, McQueen's popularity forced them to put up with it anyway.

6. He Made a Living Racing Motorcycles in the 50s

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Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1950s, while McQueen was studying acting in New York City, he began racing motorcycles competitively at Long Island City Raceway, regularly making about $100 per weekend in winnings.

When converted to 2009 dollars, that's about 800 bucks a week, just for kicking ass at motorcycle racing. Not too shabby. He also pulled in extra cash fixing motorcycles at a shop in New York, where he once repaired one of James Dean's bikes.

5. He Loved Getting Loaded

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There's no doubt about it: Steve McQueen liked to party. In addition to smoking cigarettes, during his acting heyday he became known for his prolific drug use.

Professional photographer and legendary buzzkiller William Claxton claimed McQueen smoked grass almost every day. Others claim he picked up a cocaine habit in the 1970s (who didn't?).

Despite these vices, McQueen was also known to do a two hour workout regimen daily, which included weight lifting and a five mile run.

4. He Went AWOL in the Marines, Then Later Guarded the President

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At the age of 17, McQueen decided to join the Marines, where he quickly ascended the ranks to become Private First Class of a tank unit. But he was still a punk kid at heart, and was demoted to Private on seven different occasions.

He also went AWOL for a period of time after taking for weekend leave, and splitting town with a chick for two weeks. When he was found by the shore patrol, he resisted returning to base, which landed him in the brig for 41 days.

This time in a dank hellhole must've given him a chance to sort things out, because he went on to become a decorated solider, later saving five Marines in the Arctic just before their tank broke through the ice and sank into the ocean. He went on to be stationed as a guard at then-president Harry Truman's yacht.



3. He Saved Director Peter Yates' Bacon

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Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one point during the filming of the quintessential Steve McQueen flick Bullitt, where McQueen did the vast majority of his own stunts during the iconic Mustang vs. Charger car chase, director Peter Yates decided to join in on the fun. He decided to climb into the back of the Mustang to get some close-ups of Steve while driving by operating a camera mounted externally to the car via remote control.

During the filming of that chase scene, Yates called out to McQueen from the back seat telling him they'd run out of film. McQueen responded back telling Yates that was fine - because they'd also just run out of functioning brakes.

McQueen proceeded to pull out every trick in the stuntman/race driver playbook and eventually got the Mustang to a stop through a series of downshifts and calculated weaving. Too bad Yates ran out of film, 'cuz that would've made a great DVD special feature.

2. He Could Have Been Dirty Harry

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Source: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though McQueen became the highest paid actors in Hollywood for his role in The Towering Inferno, he actually turned down a number of films that might've pushed his stardom to even greater heights.

He was offered Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but ended up turning it down because of a legal pissing match with Paul Newman's lawyers over who would get top billing. It didn't stop there though, as he also turned down Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection (the latter two because he didn't want to do more cop films).

It's weird to imagine that in some alternate dimension, there's a version of Dirty Harry with Steve McQueen asking "do you feel lucky, punk?"

1. He Was a Third Degree Black Belt Who Trained With Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris

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So aside from commanding more money than anyone in Hollywood, having a notable racing career, and being a legendary partier, Steve McQueen could also really kick ass. As in, third degree black belt level of ass kicking.

McQueen was close friends with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and trained with them. Steve studied Tang Soo Do with ninth degree black belt Pat E. Johnson, while his son Chad studied the martial art Jeet Kune Do with Bruce Lee personally.

Chad was also taught Taekwondo by Chuck Norris, and Steve would later convince Norris to take acting lessons. At Bruce Lee's funeral in 1973, Steve was one of the pallbearers.   

So what does all this add up to? The conclusion that Steve McQueen was a genuine bad ass.

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