Steve McQueen was the undisputed king of cool. So cool, he makes Samuel L. Jackson look like a dilettante. The original man that every woman wanted and every guy wanted to be. Hell, he had serious fun, even if you don't take all the women into account.
Born in Beech Grove, Indiana, on March 24, 1930, McQueen had a troubled early life. His father was a stunt pilot for an aerial circus (which explains a lot), who ran out on the family soon after baby Steve was born. His mother eventually sent him to the Boys Republic home for wayward boys in California. After a stint in the Marines, McQueen successfully auditioned to study at the famous Lee Strasberg Actors' Studio in New York, one of two from 2000 hopefuls.
His first big break came with the TV Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive, where he played the kind of anti-hero that became his forte and also, in a fortunate synchronicity with the times, became highly fashionable. Starring in a dodgy sci-fi B-movie with a quivering lump of jelly--The Blob--was a distinct wobble in his rise to stardom, but his iconic status was cemented by appearances in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (where he famously attempted to jump a barbed-wire fence on a Triumph motor-cycle, though how such a machine made it into Germany in the first place was pushing artistic license to breaking point).
Off-screen, McQueen indulged his passions, many of which involved wheels and engines, with the utter fearlessness and voracity that set him apart. At one point, he had 210 motorcycles, over 55 cars and five planes. As well as a bona fide racer, McQueen was a qualified pilot. He was also a European car guy, owning the 917 and 908 Porsches and Ferrari 512 racecars from the 1971 Le Mans film, a Ferrari 250 Lusso Berlinetta, a Jaguar XKSS (one of only 18 made), and a Porsche 356 Speedster.
If he hadn't become an actor, McQueen could easily have become a professional racer--on two wheels or four. He raced bikes in the Baja 1000, represented the United States in the 1964 International Six Days Trial and was inducted into the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Two weeks after breaking an ankle in one bike race, he and co-driver Peter Revson raced a Porsche 908/02 in the 12 Hours of Sebring, winning their engine class and coming in second overall, losing to Mario Andretti (who was in a Ferrari) by just 23 seconds. Andretti said: "This is the closest race I've run and I'm lucky to have taken it."
Although a commercial flop, Le Mans benefited from McQueen's driving prowess and knowledge, giving it an air of realism. But it was Bullitt that shows McQueen as we all love to remember him. The hallowed sequence of McQueen driving a 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 Fastback in hot pursuit of a 440 Magnum Dodge Charger through San Francisco has become an icon itself. The film forged the template for every car chase and maverick cop that came after it.
Some cool facts about McQueen
He would ask for things from film studios, like electric razors and jeans. It was later discovered that he gave this stuff to the Boys Republic home. He would sometimes shoot pool with the students.
He once threatened a studio exec with a chainsaw.
He designed and patented a racing bucket seat.
He was on Richard Nixon's infamous list of enemies for expressing a desire to attend Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 Washington march (he never went, but becoming an enemy of Nixon is cool).
Although he famously wore the square-faced Tag Heuer Monaco watch in Le Mans, Rolex made a Steve McQueen model.
He was invited to Sharon Tate's house the night she and her friends were murdered by Charles Manson and his gang. McQueen went out on a date instead.
Being the icon he is, McQueen has been mentioned in the lyrics of many songs, including one by The Rolling Stones (Star, Star) that depicts him being pleasured by a groupie. Now that really is cool.
Funny then, that his first name was actually Terence. Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?