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.