Steve McQueen is often thought of as a Western actor and was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers in April 2007, yet he only made three Western movies – four if you count Junior Bonner.
His being thought of as a Western character may be because he became such a big star (probably the hottest property of the 60s) and his tough-guy image made him a natural in Westerns – he just looked right.
He was quite good in oaters, in fact, judging by the few parts he played, although perhaps not right up there in the top rank. It could be that he came too late to the genre: by the 1960s it was a case of ‘the glory hath departed’. He missed the mighty big-screen Western era of the 1950s.
In fact he debuted in the genre in the medium that was popular when he emerged as an actor, namely Western TV shows. His first ever Western, aged 28, was in a TV series and in 1958 he was billed second, after Dale Robertson, as the Texas gunman Bill Longley in a Tales of Wells Fargo story, Bill Longley.
But for many people, Steve McQueen’s Western standing is really down to his appearance in no fewer than 94 episodes of the black & white TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive.
This Dick Powell Four Star production aired on CBS for three seasons from 1958 to 1961 and despite the less than wonderful production values, did well. McQueen was of course Josh Randall, the bounty hunter, in it. On TV, bounty hunters couldn’t be ruthless exploiters, mercilessly bringing in their quarry for money; they had to be tough but fair and deep-down decent, and that was how McQueen played it. The number of times he donated his bounty to worthy widows and children, it’s a wonder he made a living at all.
He didn’t have an easy start in life. Terrence Stephen McQueen was born in Beech Grove, Indiana in 1930, the son of a former Navy pilot who made a living stunt flying, but McQueen Sr deserted the family when his son was six months old, and his mother dumped the child on an uncle, who brought him up on a farm. She subsequently remarried and took her son back to live in LA but Steve detested his stepfather. The youth missed most of his regular schooling and drifted into petty crime. It wasn’t an auspicious start.
After stints in reform schools, he hired on as a merchant seaman but jumped ship and enlisted in the US Marines in 1947. He wasn’t exactly the most disciplined and rule-respecting marine, though.
He’d always had a love of engines and he worked at odd jobs as mechanic and driver, before trying acting school because, he said, there were more girls there. He got a few gigs on Broadway and then touring. He married an actress, Neile Adams, in 1956 and followed her to Hollywood.
She said of him, “Steve was a far-out guy from Endsville. When I first met him, he had a heart like steel. But I could also recognize in him a yearning to be tender.”
Steve got a good role in Never Love a Stranger in 1958 and then was assigned the lead in the tacky but commercially successful The Blob.
It was now that he landed the part of Josh Randall. The series Wanted: Dead or Alive was in fact a spin-off of an episode of Trackdown, a 1957/59 show in which McQueen appeared twice (The Bounty Hunters and The Brothers). Randall was famously armed with ‘the mare’s leg’, a cut-down center fire 1892 Winchester 44/40 carbine, which he could fire with amazing speed. It was the era of the gimmick-gun Western.
The series was actually quite well written, directed and acted and, if inevitably rather formulaic, is still quite good viewing today. French TV ran them all again a couple of years back in a long Wanted-athon and they were enjoyable. There is in fact now a colorized version but I haven’t seen that.
McQueen didn’t always get on well with the show’s execs, and he longed for star roles on the big screen, but Wanted paid well. There is a well-rehearsed story (I don’t know how true it is) that he feigned whiplash from an auto accident in order to make him available for The Magnificent Seven. Towards the end of the second season he made it plain he had had enough of Wanted but a bumped-up salary and various promises kept him on for a third. Though the show had made number sixteen in the ratings during its first season, this declined, and it was nowhere in Season 3. The show folded in March 1961 and Steve was free. He did almost no TV work afterwards.
The Magnificent Seven (United Artists, 1960) – and by the way, you can find full reviews of all Steve’s Western movies in the index – is one of the liveliest and most fun Westerns of all time, wonderfully written and directed as well as acted. McQueen got $50,000 for it, more than half what he got for the whole season of Wanted. As you know, second-billed McQueen played Yul Brynner’s sidekick Vin Tanner.
He had thirsted for the role of Chico and was annoyed that it went to the young German Horst Buchholz, who ended up disliking him intensely, and indeed director John Sturges had to manage a good deal of slightly teenage rivalry on the testosterone-riddled set as each actor tried to steal the limelight. McQueen especially is well known for having hogged the camera with every bit of actor’s ‘business’ known to man. But he’s ineffably cool in it. He certainly has some great lines and scenes, notably his first when he rides shotgun on the hearse. With the camera on Brynner saying his lines, McQueen beside him kept fiddling with his hat, looking up at the sun, anything to catch the eye away from Yul. Brynner told him that if he continued that, he (Brynner) would simply take off his hat. That’d soon stop people looking at McQueen.
The Magnificent Seven, er, shot Steve McQueen to fame and marked him out immediately as a Western actor of note. It is in some ways surprising that he didn’t do more in the genre, although of course Westerns were becoming less frequent and McQueen’s tough-guy persona could appear instead driving race cars or as a hard-bitten cop (or in the case of Bullitt, both). Steve was all for doing the sequel Return of the Seven but it is said that Brynner vetoed the idea.
Non-Western success had arrived anyway. In particular, The Great Escape in 1963, once more with director Sturges, was a monster hit and McQueen’s role as the Cooler King particularly memorable. The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 also did pretty well, and McQueen was now a hot property.
This probably accounted for much of the commercial success of his next Western, Paramount’s Nevada Smith in 1966. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the film, which, despite direction from Henry Hathaway and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, was mediocre at best. A straight revenge Western, it suffers from incoherence, implausibility, miscasting and bad acting. McQueen was 35 and blond yet trying to play a sixteen-year-old half-breed Kiowa. The movie has a ponderous plot. It was written by John Michael Hayes “based on the character in” the extraordinarily popular Harold Robbins novel (not to say potboiler) The Carpetbaggers. Brian Keith is solid if uninspiring as the traveling gunsmith who befriends McQueen and teaches him to shoot after Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau have brutally killed the boy’s parents. But the rest of the acting is pretty dire. Suzanne Pleshette was extremely unconvincing as a Cajun farm worker, the love interest (such as it was). Of course, the cast are not helped by the clunky dialogue. The worst is Karl Malden, never a good Western actor, who hams it up embarrassingly badly. He is last seen screaming hysterically at the top of his voice, a typical mode for Malden. Still, the picture made a buck or two for McQueen.
1968 was a good year for him, with fashionable hit movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, but Westerns were eschewed. Fancy eschewing. I mean, honestly. You really shouldn’t eschew. Not where Westerns are concerned. But there we are. The Getaway in 1972 had some vaguely Western credentials, I suppose, in a way, but not really. It did net McQueen another wife, Ali McGraw.
1972 was much more notable, however, at least for Westernistas, for another McQueen role in a Peckinpah film, not probably an oater in the true sense of the term (present-day rodeo tales aren’t oaters, really) but pretty damn Western for all that, and in any case a darn good film. McQueen is outstanding as Junior Bonner, the ‘motel cowboy’ on the slide down from the peak of his bronc-busting career and he suits Peckinpah’s elegiac ‘end-of-the-West’ theme perfectly. The film and McQueen’s performance are as far from the tawdry Nevada Smith as you could get. Junior Bonner alone would have got him into that hall of fame.
But the rest of the 70s elapsed and there were no more Westerns, or even semi-Westerns. It was all Papillon, The Towering Inferno and so on, doubtless good films if you like that kind of thing. Ironically, in one late movie, The Hunter, he played a modern-day bounty hunter.
However, at the end of McQueen’s career and very nearly at the end of his life, came a true Western, and in many ways rather a good one, Tom Horn (Warner Bros, 1980). Poor Steve looked terribly ill and in fact by the end of filming was coughing blood and was diagnosed with a cancer associated with asbestos (he had taken part in replacing asbestos-based insulation in a ship’s engine room during his time in the Marines and this may have been the cause).
In my view, Tom Horn was his best Western role. He was rather moving and more poignant and understated than before. This could be, partly, because we know now as we watch it that he was soon to die but I don’t think it’s only that. He portrays Horn’s stoic resolve very well. He refuses to justify himself: a true Western hero does not stoop to do that. He behaves as he thinks fit and if other people judge him harshly for it, so be it. There’s a certain nobility there. I think Tom Horn is an underrated film, and it is sometimes panned by the critics, but it is in fact a fine example of the late Western. A lot of that is down to William Wiard’s direction and John A Alsonso’s photography but much is also due to Steve McQueen’s very fine performance.
So four big-screen Westerns, or three and a half, was all he did.
In the ‘what-might-have-been’ department, it’s quite interesting that Steve McQueen was considered first to play with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Fox, 1969) but withdrew, typically, because of questions of who would get the top billing. One wonders, of course, how different his Sundance would have been from Redford’s. Not that either Redford or McQueen would have made it a good Western, though, because it was weighed down too much by the poor writing and direction. Still, it was a huge hit and would have added to McQueen’s aura (and pocket-book).
Also interesting is that that very good Australian Western Quigley Down Under was written for McQueen. Now, Tom Selleck was absolutely excellent in that but once you know that it was designed as a McQueen vehicle, you can see Steve in the outback in chaps with that Tom Horn-ish long gun. But by the time it was ready, he was too ill. In the end it didn’t come out till 1990.
He also turned down Marlon Brando’s role in The Missouri Breaks (United Artists, 1976). That was a great pity. He would have been steely, whereas Brando played it like an overweight fairy.
Before his death, McQueen optioned two Walter Hill screenplays: one was the non-Western The Driver and the other was The Last Gun, a Western which so far remains unfilmed.
Steve McQueen died in Mexico in December 1980, aged only 50. He hadn’t starred in many Westerns but he had done enough to be thought of as one of the leading Western actors of his time.