In the next few years after starring in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Steve McQueen starred in the movies “The Reivers;” “Le Mans,” where he played a race car driver; “The Getaway;” “Junior Bonner,” about an aging rodeo rider where Steve did his own bronc riding; and “Papillon.”
In 1969, Steve was offered one of the starring roles in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but Paul Newman had already been signed. Steve wanted top billing over his old rival Newman, and when Newman refused, Steve backed out.
In 1974 Steve finally got top billing over Paul Newman in “The Towering Inferno,” a movie for which he received $14 million, making him far and away the highest paid actor in the world.
Steve and Paul were alike in many ways. In addition to being actors, both drove race cars in a professional capacity. Steve once said about himself, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.” Steve was even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated on an off-road motorcycle.
However, he was also featured in other magazines as an actor, including Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Playboy and Cosmopolitan. In addition to his racing, Steve was a student of the martial arts. Both Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were his personal instructors. In fact, Bruce Lee used to call himself “the oriental Steve McQueen.” Steve was a pallbearer at Bruce Lee's funeral in 1973.
About that time Steve began to moonlight as a bartender at a bar in Los Angles. He was a regular there, and it was a place where the people he hung out with went, so he got behind the bar one night and enjoyed it so much he did it as often as he had time. There was no stress or media attention when he was there, pouring drinks for friends and strangers alike.
Steve dated many beautiful Hollywood women, including Sharon Tate. He was supposed to stop by and visit with her and his hair stylist and friend, Jay Sebring, the night the “Manson Family” killed Sharon, Jay and two others.
Steve was married three times. He was with his first wife, Neile Adams, for 16 years; his second wife, Ali MacGraw, for five years; and married his third wife, Barbara Minty, in 1980, the year of his death. He had two children by his first wife: a daughter, Terry, and a son, Chad, who also became an actor.
Steve's need for speed also included airplanes. He got his pilot’s license and bought several classic old aircraft, including a 1945 Stearman, a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub and a 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 biplane. Of course, he also owned more than a hundred motorcycles and more than 50 classic cars. They were sold after his death for many times what he paid for them.
Steve was so knowledgeable about motorcycles that he wrote a series of reviews of various models in Popular Science in the mid-1960s.
Steve made two more movies, “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter,” both released in 1980. That was the year that Steve was diagnosed with mesothelioma, possibly due to contact with asbestos in ships during his time in the Marines and also in sound stage insulation and in the protective suits he wore while racing.
In the last year of his life he told his wife he wanted to go back to Slater, Mo., for a visit, but then he got too ill to go. Instead, he ended up in Mexico seeking a nontraditional treatment and died there on Nov. 7, 1980, at the age of 50.
Steve had been inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1986 he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. After his death he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2007.
During his years as a movie star, Steve never forgot the California Junior Boys Republic where he spent part of his youth. Steve made unusual demands to star in a movie. He asked for cases of electric razors, blue jeans and sanitary items. He then would donate them to the school. He also visited the school to give talks to the boys, established a scholarship there in 1962 and left them money in his will. The Steve McQueen Recreation Center was built there in 1983.
In his boyhood home of Slater, the first annual Steve McQueen Days Festival was organized in March 2007 and continues to this time. As for Steve, he always appreciated his boyhood home. As he once said, “I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It gives you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which is lacking in our society.”
Steve’s biographer described McQueen as the most complex person he had ever researched, going on to say he was “sweet and scary; caring and selfish; cocky and insecure; funny and humorless; generous and thrifty.”
He was also a good actor, a very interesting character who had to overcome a terrible childhood to be successful, and a man who was indeed, “The King of Cool.”