Though eventually he'd be anointed "The King of Cool" in Hollywood, actor Steve McQueen's origins were anything but cool. A stunt pilot father who abandoned his alcoholic mother, a series of physically abusive stepfathers, petty crime and reform school all figured in the first twenty years of his life. 

Unquestionably, part of his "cool" was his essential mystery; viewers could sense there was a lot he contained within himself and bore privately. This quality would become an essential part of his allure and charisma. 

Young Steve could well have ended up a career criminal, but a stint in the Marines finally straightened him out. Released from the service, in the early fifties he began studying under legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner.

Augmenting his income by winning motorcycle races (from an early age he was drawn to anything with wheels), Steve paid his dues with bit parts on TV and supporting roles in the theater.

His big break came in 1958 with his first starring role in the campy horror flick "The Blob" (astonishingly, this was given a release on The Criterion Collection — it's really not very good). Next came a co-starring role in a TV Western series called "Wanted: Dead Or Alive." Then, in 1960, back on the big screen he became one of "The Magnificent Seven," and peeved star Yul Brynner was keenly aware that this magnetic young man was drawing all eyes to him.

Brynner was right to be concerned: McQueen quietly dominated the screen in that film. There was now no question that he'd become a big star. And so he did, with classics like "The Great Escape" (1963) and "Bullitt" (1968) in his not-so-distant future.

McQueen lived high in Hollywood, eventually divorcing his first wife to marry the stunning Ali McGraw, whom he met on the set of 1972's "The Getaway." (She was then powerful producer Robert Evans's wife — now who else could have gotten away with that?) 

But just as McQueen had enjoyed very little luck in the beginning, he'd have little in the end. A rare form of cancer took him when he was just fifty. However, through the pictures that follow, The King Of Cool lives on.




Callow youth with promise. In one of his earlier films, "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery." 1959


Brynner felt Steve snapping at his heels. On the set of "The Magnificent Seven."  1960


Whoever the lady is, she's lucky. Steve with Robert Wagner on the set "The War Lover." 1961


Shirtless and seriously cool. 


Looking this good never comes easy. 


I give up, Mr. McQueen.  Photographed by John Dominis for Time, 1963


Steve never stopped racing.  Photographed by John Dominis for Time, 1963


 He even looks great in the back of a pickup truck.


James Garner and James Coburn needed a ride.  On the set of "The Great Escape," 1963


Running around in the City Of Light — looks like fun!  1964, Paris


A man and his Triumph.  1964


Not sure who's drawing my attention more, McQueen or his lion rug.  


Which did he prefer, cars or beautiful women? Likely a toss-up.  c. 1960s


The King of Cool in color.  1966


With first wife, Niele Adams. 


Never afraid to get his hands dirty. Right after placing his prints in front of the Kodak Theater.  1967


Care for a dip? 


Looking good in corduroy — and that ain't easy.  1967


Practicing polo for "The Thomas Crown Affair."  1968


The perfect kiss with Faye Dunaway in "Thomas Crown."  1968


The only motor vehicle we hadn't seen him drive was a beach buggy — until he played the dapper Mr. Crown.  1968 


All ages loved him. Greeting young fans on the set of "Bullitt." 1968 


This critter may have brought out the wolf in Steve.  


Chewing the fat — and a stogie — with director Norman Jewison.  1968


Yucking it up with another director, Peter Yates.   1968


Man in the mud, on the set of "The Reivers."  1969


Four megastars: Steve with Paul Newman, Barbara Streisand, and Sidney Poitier.  1972


Reclining in style. How else?  


They've got something to smile about. With soon-to-be second wife, Ali MacGraw, on the set of "The Getaway." 1972


A premature finish: Steve resting at the ranch he shared with third wife Barbara Minty.  1980


More:  How McQueen Chases McQueen in "The Great Escape"