Somewhere between Paul Newman and Robert Redford there had to be a Steve McQueen, and Steve McQueen did a pretty good job of being it. He died yesterday at 50 in Juarez, Mexico, where he was being treated for lung cancer.
McQueen was an in-between movie star, and there is some evidence that he liked the role.
He didn't live long enough to become a statesman, like John Wayne, although like John Wayne he was taciturn and skillful with the shrug. He lived too long to be a cult figure, although like James Dean he expressed a certain attractive juvenile delinquency of the spirit.
Men liked him because he smiled without showing his teeth, a tight smile that suggested he would rather steal your motorcycle than your wife. Women liked him because he seemed stron, and protective, particularly if there was a Blob threatening the populance.
From all accounts, McQueen hated everything about "The Blob," that film of 1958 in which he wielded a fire extinguisher against an icky, attacking excrescense. But like James Arness in "The Thing," it provided a memorable first meeting.
McQueen struck other human beings as a natural escape artist, which the movies served well by casting him in films such as "Papillon," "The Great Escape" and "The Towering Inferno." He was also a solcial Houdini, we are told, eschewing parties. Once, he was spotted by a fan at an L.A. nightspot -- "There's Steve McQueeen"; he, almost instantly, vanished. He was accomplished enough to escape from television to the movies, after getting his start in "Wanted: Dead or Alive" in the 1950s. That was a distinction he shared with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, but not too many others.
Hollywood made him look like a guy who courted trouble. "Bullitt" gave theatergoes, not to mention the San Francisco Police Department, near-heart attacks. So did "The Thomas Crown Affair," in which he piloted a soarplane to a lilting theme that left millions to surrogate Faye Dunaways breathless.
It was helpful that McQueen also buttressed his reputation in real life. He owned motorcycles, which he raced in the desert, and he broke enough bones to be considered authentic. He also raced automobiles, and won, and so when he was cast in the movie "Le Mans" his role reverberated with verisimilitude.
But his was not rally reverberating style. He seemed steady, and trustworthy, and wised-up.He had been in a reform school as a lad, and reformed. He wrote a little story about himself for the Associated Press in 1963, in which he used the expletive "man" a great deal."One thing they taught me at Boys' Republic was discipline, and man, it helped when I started the acting scene." McQueen never oppressed the world with a tell-all autobiography, however.
That discipline, that untalkative strength, was a good part of why he could be an actor as powerful as the best. It did not happen often, but it did in "The Sand Pebbles," for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 1966. d
He seemed, at the distance we moviegoers knew him, to be an honorable fellow. When he broke up with his first wife and married the actress Ali McGraw in 1973, the public did not hold it against him. No, the public held it against Miss McGraw. If life is unfair, publicity is worse; but it gave you the measure of his image.
So did the way he handled his recent illness. He had not told the world because "hopefully the cheap scandal sheets and curiosity seekers will not try to seek me out." But then he made a public statement, because he thought people ought to know.