Steve endured a difficult childhood. As a young boy, he was shuttled back and forth between his mother's care and his Uncle's farm in Missouri. In his adolescence, his problems at home led him to take to the streets, and he was often in trouble. Eventually he was remanded to the care of the California Boys Republic in Chino. It was here that Steve began to get his life under control and he later credited the Boys Republic with setting him on the right path. When he became famous, he would regularly visit the Boys Republic and he supported the organization with donations of clothes and money. To this day, the McQueen estate along with supporters of the Boys Republic, hold a major car show every year in Chino to raise funds for the school.
At age 16, McQueen left Chino, traveling first to New York City and then across the country, working various jobs as a merchant marine, a lumberjack, a trinket salesman in a carnival, and an oil rigger. In 1947, he joined the Marines. After some early rebelliousness, he served with distinction until 1950 when he was honorably discharged.
With financial assistance provided to him by the G.I. Bill, McQueen began taking acting lessons in New York. He began his acting career with small roles on the stage and on live TV, and made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play A Hatful of Rain.Later that year, at the age of 25, McQueen left New York and headed to Hollywood to further his acting career. After nabbing bit parts in several films, he landed his first starring role in the 1958 horror cult classic The Blob. However, his first big break came on the small screen, where he landed the starring role as the bounty hunter Josh Randall on the CBS Series Wanted: Dead or Alive. Steve McQueen became a star on TV and would soon replicate that stardom on the big screen. His first major hit was in The Magnificent Seven along with Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. His next starring role, in 1963's The Great Escape, firmly established McQueen's box-office clout and secured his status as a superstar. The images from The Great Escape of Steve McQueen bouncing the baseball off the wall of his cell and riding his motorcycle across the countryside are etched indelibly into the annals of Hollywood history. Following this in quick succession, he starred in Love with the Proper Stranger with Natalie Wood, in the huge western hit Nevada Smith, as a poker player in The Cincinnati Kid, and as a sailor in The Sand Pebbles, a role for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.
In 1968, McQueen starred as San Francisco PD Detective Frank Bullitt in Bullitt. The film was a huge box-office success featuring Steve's cool, fashionable persona and the most famous car chase scene in film history. McQueen himself did a good portion of the stunt driving (at least until the insurance agents showed up on set), and the green Ford Mustang in Bullitt became one of the many vehicles made famous by association with Steve McQueen. He then starred in The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway, in which his role as the wealthy, debonair art thief helped to cement his status as a sex-symbol and fashion-icon.
After the successes of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen pursued his dream of creating a film about his passion: auto-racing. The result, Le Mans, was not a box-office hit, but has grown into a cult classic and is considered the most authentic film ever made about auto-racing. After Le Mans, McQueen starred in The Getaway with future wife Ali McGraw, and in Papillon he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman. By this time, he was the world's highest paid actor, and he agreed to star in The Towering Inferno with Paul Newman. The Towering Inferno was a smash success and one of the highest-grossing films of all time. He appeared in three more films, An Enemy of the People, Tom Horn, and The Hunter, but after The Towering Inferno, he retreated from the public eye to focus on more personal pursuits, chief among them collecting vintage cars and motorcycles.
As any true fan knows, McQueen was an avid motorcycle and racecar enthusiast. When his films involved cars and motorcycles, he would often perform his own stunts (it was difficult to find drivers and riders as skilled as McQueen!) Although the legendary jump over the fence shown in the film The Great Escape was done by friend Bud Ekins (again, for insurance purposes), legend has it that McQueen did in fact complete the jump himself the morning of filming, and McQueen did log considerable screen time on his 650cc Triumph TR6 motorcycle. At one point, through the magic of editing, McQueen is actually seen in a German uniform on another bike chasing himself!
At one time in his life, McQueen considered being a professional race car driver, and there is no doubt he would have been successful. In fact, he was quite successful in the limited opportunities he did have to participate in top events. He had a one-off outing in the British Touring Car Championship in 1961 driving a BMC Mini at Brands Hatch and finished third behind Vic Elford and Sir John Whitmore. In the 1970 Twelve Hours of Sebring race, Peter Revson and McQueen (driving with a cast on his left foot from a motorcycle accident two weeks earlier) won in the three-litre class with a Porsche 908/02, and just missed winning the overall title by mere seconds (losing to a team with Mario Andretti).
McQueen's first off-road motorcycle was a Triumph 650 that Bud Ekins built for him in his shop in Southern California. In 1964, McQueen and Bud Ekins were part of the first official American team that competed in the renowned off-road race, the International Six Days Trials, the most challenging motorcycle event in the world. Unfortunately, McQueen didn't finish due to an accident, but his teammate Cliff Coleman finished and went home with a gold medal. McQueen raced in many top off-road races on the West Coast, including the Elsinore Grand Prix riding a Husqvarna, Baja 1000, and the Mint 400, both in the Baja Boot In 1971, McQueen’s Solar Productions funded the classic motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, directed by Bruce Brown, in which McQueen is featured along with friends and bike racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith. The same year, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike. And in 1978, he was inducted in the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame .
Steve McQueen died in 1980 at the age of 50. But he remains a cultural icon to this day. A large part of his allure was the element of danger that surrounded him, and that his coolness always shone through whatever role he was playing on screen, whether a cowboy, gambler, millionaire, detective, fireman, etc. And that same coolness was always evident in his real life, during interviews, while racing the hills of Hollywood or the Mojave Desert, and certainly in the many photographs of him that exist taken by some of the top photographers of the time
He was always (effortlessly) at the forefront of fashion, be it in a tuxedo, jeans and a tee shirt, racing coveralls, or shorts and nothing else. The simple clothes and other items he wore continue to sell today as "McQueen" genuine articles, such as Barbour jackets, Persol sunglasses, and TAG Heuer watches. He is frequently cited by today's celebrities as the inspiration for their fashion choices and he still graces the covers of top magazines. Documentaries about his life continue to be produced, and he has been the subject of several popular songs. The King of Cool lives on.