Two of the most indelible images in all of moviedom are found in “The Great Escape” — Steve McQueen gunning a Triumph TT Special 650 motorcycle over the hillocks of rural Germany, and the actor in a quieter scene, seated on the floor of a POW isolation cell, bouncing a baseball off the opposite wall again and again.
The 1963 war drama marked his 10th big-screen appearance, but McQueen’s portrayal of captured American pilot Capt. Virgil “The Cooler King” Hilts was the performance that made him a major movie star.
The role also earned this real-life rebel the nickname King of Cool.
McQueen would have turned 84 on Wednesday, and numerous biographies have been written about him since his untimely death from cancer in 1980. British writer and journalist Richard Sydenham takes a new approach to the story with “Steve McQueen: The Cooler King” (Big Star Creations, $25).
The book is subtitled “His Life Through His Movie Career.”
“I tried to approach it from a totally fresh angle,” Sydenham said in a phone interview from the United Kingdom this week. “I just thought, if I write a biography, it’s just seen as another biography. That’s why I slanted it more on his movie career.”
Sydenham felt that most McQueen bios have given short shrift to the actor’s lesser-known films, such as “The War Lover” (1962), “Soldier in the Rain” (1963), “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (1965) and “Junior Bonner” (1972).
Beginning in the late 1990s, movie buff Sydenham managed to find and connect with about 100 people who were associated with McQueen in different ways, including friends, co-stars (including leading ladies), producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, writers, makeup artists, hairdressers and costume designers.
The interviewees include directors Robert Mulligan (best known for “To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Robert Wise (“The Sound of Music”), producers Joe Wizan (“Junior Bonner”) and Walter Mirisch (“The Great Escape”), actors Eli Wallach (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”), LeVar Burton (“Star Trek: The New Generation”) and Don Murray (“Bus Stop”), and actresses Jacqueline Bisset (“Bullitt,” “The Deep”), Paula Prentiss (“In Harm’s Way,” “The Parallax View,” “The Stepford Wives”) and Barbara Leigh (“Pretty Maids All in a Row,” “Junior Bonner”).
Man behind the star
Sydenham’s book opens with a forward by actor Robert Vaughn, who worked with McQueen on “The Magnificent Seven,” “Bullitt” and “The Towering Inferno.”
The opening chapter, “The Man Behind the Movie Star,” outlines McQueen’s early life with absent parents, living with grandparents and then a beloved uncle in rural Missouri; the wild and rebellious behavior that landed him in reform school in California; his stint in the Marines in the late ’40s; his days as a drifter that finally ended in New York, where a girlfriend persuaded him to try out acting, first at the Neighborhood Playhouse, then the storied Actors Studio, where his fellow students included Martin Landau, also interviewed in Sydenham’s biography.
The first chapter also summarizes the good and bad times in McQueen’s first two marriages, first to dancer Neile Adams (1956-72), then actress Ali MacGraw (1972-78), and the serenity he enjoyed in his brief third marriage to model Barbara Minty in 1980, the year he died.
The section also covers his breakthrough in the TV Western series “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (1958-61).
Subsequent chapters focus on each of his 28 big-screen films, with interviews from the people who worked with him on those features.
It is through these behind-the-scenes recollections that the complex nature of the real man is revealed to the reader, complete with his good and bad sides.
“I was able to go and interview some key people involved in these films,” Sydenham said. “I just thought it added a little more than what other books had done. A lot of the research was done the hard way, before the Internet was part of our daily diet. I spent many an hour at the British Film Institute library.”
Sydenham heard and read stories of McQueen’s clashes with producers and directors, professional jealousies, tensions between McQueen and certain co-stars (particularly Yul Brynner and Jackie Gleason), his tendency to carve up the countryside on his motorcycle between takes, deliberate absences that caused production hold-ups because he didn’t like the way his character was written, juvenile behavior on the set and the actor’s womanizing habits.
McQueen often bragged of sleeping with all of his leading ladies, although Jacqueline Bisset, Lee Remick and others deny that they were among his sexual conquests.
“He was terribly paranoid about everybody and everything,” Vaughn says of McQueen. “Steve was a frightened man about all sorts of things, from money, stardom, life in general, but he was especially insecure about his stardom. He never realized what a great star he was.“He certainly never regarded himself as much of an actor, but in my way of thinking, he is one of the greatest movie stars of all time because he had such an extraordinary personality on screen. It was so strong, so compelling and so sexual, yet he always thought of himself inadequate as an actor.”
Acts of generosity
Sydenham may have heard all the well-worn stories about McQueen behaving badly due to his insecurities, but he heard a lot of positive things about the King of Cool as well. Robert Relyea, McQueen’s business partner in Solar Productions, described the star as a dedicated family man who cared deeply for his children, trouble with his wives aside.
McQueen also had a reputation for being tightfisted with money, but Bob Bagley, head of production and cinematographer for the 1971 Bruce Brown-directed motorcycling documentary “On Any Sunday,” remembered acts of generosity on McQueen’s part while they were making the film.
“Steve could never drive past a kid hitchhiking without picking him up,” Bagley said. “That was just his nature. He spent time in reform school and never forgot how tough it was to be a kid.”
Bagley also recalled how McQueen would stop at a roadside diner and buy not one but three or four cheeseburgers, and when he saw anyone on a street corner who looked down-and-out along the way, he would pull over and hand the person a hot meal.
In another instance, when fellow motorcyclist Mert Lawwill seriously injured his hand in a race, McQueen footed the bills for a complicated surgery that Lawwill could not afford, and the hand was saved.
“That kind of generosity, that was quite touching, I thought,” Sydenham said. “Everybody talks about the fast cars and the women, the drugs, the motorcycling, the hell-raising. And these kinds of stories (of generosity) I thought were a lot more interesting, purely because they were fresher. You just saw a different side of Steve. We know he was the typical American rebel and bad boy. It just made him sound like a bit more well-rounded kind of person.”
How to get
“Steve McQueen: The Cooler King” is available on Amazon.com. Sydenham is looking for a mainstream publishing house to pick up his independently released book.