A private view of Steve McQueen, king of cool
The iconic actor always protected his personal life but a new book of long-lost photos reveals the family man and keen amateur racer, writes Joseph Dunn
You probably know him best as Hilts, the defiant prisoner of war in The Great Escape, or as the oil-spattered racer in the epic Le Mans, but a newly unearthed collection of photographs will show Steve McQueen in a different light.
For the past two years Yann-Brice Dherbier, a French photographic sleuth, has been piecing together a lost archive of the man they called the “king of cool”. He says the resulting images, many of which will be published for the first time next month in Steve McQueen: a Life in Pictures, will redefine the way the actor is remembered.
“Throughout his life McQueen was very protective of his private life, he never wanted anyone to see him outside of his film roles,” says Dherbier. “But some of the best pictures I found show him totally relaxed, enjoying what he is doing either with his cars, his bikes or playing around with his family.”
The most striking pictures show McQueen teaching his first wife, Neile, judo, wrestling with his dog and playing with his young son Chad. They were discovered by Dherbier at the Washington house of a private collector. “I e-mailed him and arranged to visit. He kept them in a safe and when I took them out it was like I had found gold. We’ve seen him looking mean and gorgeous, but to see him as a family man is completely new.”
In all Dherbier, 36, reckons he has ploughed through more than 130,000 pictures of the star to bring together his collection.“I thought I had seen everything, but there were many images kept in the archives of photographic agencies and in private collections, just waiting to be found. Most of them have been forgotten about. It just took a bit of time to go through them all.”
As well as the pictures of McQueen relaxing at home, there are others showing him indulging his twin passions of motorcycling and car racing. In one, taken in 1959, he is seen at the wheel of his 1958 Porsche Speedster. This was the car that launched McQueen on a part-time racing career that would last until he died of a heart attack in 1980 after surgery to remove an abdominal tumour. Another picture shows him driving his Lotus Eleven.
Along with Paul Newman and James Garner, McQueen was one of a generation of actors who lived life as fast off screen as they did in character. He once explained his enthusiasm with a typically disdainful reference to his fame: “I enjoy racing in any form because the guy next to me couldn’t care less what my name is. He just wants to beat me.” Adding that it was “the most exciting thing there is. But unlike drugs, you get high with dignity”.
In 1970 McQueen competed in the 12-hour race at Sebring in Florida – driving his Porsche 908 with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks before – and came second behind Mario Andretti, the former Formula One champion. Then, when film commitments meant he had to ease up, he decided to combine racing with acting and embarked on the making of Le Mans. An account of the 1970 24-hour race, it was a box office flop when it was released in 1971, but McQueen didn’t seem to mind.
His enthusiasm for motorcycles began on a dirt bike borrowed from a neighbour, before he started racing in southern California on specially modified Triumphs. And it was while riding a Triumph that one of the great movie myths grew: that it was McQueen himself who made the 12ft-high jump over the barbed wire fence in the 1963 film The Great Escape. In fact his stunt double Bud Ekins carried out the jump. “I always felt a bit guilty about that,” McQueen said later.
Of course, it wasn’t just his racing that endeared him to millions. It has been said that he was a man who could look cool even when he was dressed like a geography teacher. The director George Cukor came closest to explaining his appeal when he said simply: “Everything he does is authentic.”
Authenticity was also at the heart of one of his best known films, The Thomas Crown Affair. McQueen did all his own driving during the high-speed action sequences, including those on the beach in a Chevrolet Corvair-powered beach buggy with his co-star Faye Dunaway. “She was more than a good sport,” he said. “We did one big jump for the camera right off the edge of a high dune, and it was wild. I looked over and Faye was all bug-eyed: the back of the floorboard was scratched raw from her heels digging in.”
There is no picture of the incident in Dherbier’s book, but if there were, it’s easy to guess what it would show: McQueen, wind in his hair, blue eyes blazing, having the time of his life.
Steve McQueen: A Life in Pictures is available at the Sunday Times BooksFirst discount price of £22.50 (retail price £25) on 0870 165 8585 and www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst