When most people think of Steve McQueen, they picture a blonde, blue-eyed action figure with chiseled features who’s largely inseparable from his starring roles in such films as The Magnificent Seven and Bullitt.

Did you hear? Guns n' Roses' Duff McKagan has a new memoir out, It's So Easy.

Marc Eliot, the author of bestselling biographies of such Hollywood icon as Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood, sees a singular talent caught between a rough childhood and his restless pursuit of artistic perfection. In Steve McQueen: A Biography, he presents a compelling picture of a searching mind. The author tells us what drew him to this misunderstood icon. 

Why a biography of Steve McQueen, and why now?

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Being an auteurist critic following in the footsteps of Andrew Sarris and people like him, I find that most biographies of Hollywood legends are missing something because the biographer either doesn’t understand moviemaking or doesn’t understand the business of Hollywood. So when I started this run of revisionist biographies I decided to try to go back and correct the issues of studio, of contracts, of independent contracting, of choices of films, of producing them—and then to try to link the characters that these actors play, that they’re attracted to, with themselves.

Clint Eastwood was a natural because he’s probably the only true auteurist working in film today. He runs his own operation, which allows him to produce, direct and star in films that only he wants to do. Steve McQueen seemed to me the other side of Clint Eastwood. Where Eastwood had been able, relatively late in his career, to find his persona onscreen—the “Man With No Name,” and variations of—he really only played three characters in his acting career.

McQueen, on the other hand, couldn’t get the business end of it to work. And because of that, the films he produced didn’t work. He went out of business, and he kind of retreated from the film industry, and today he’s far less known than Eastwood. So these books work in tandem, in a way.

I read a lot of McQueen books before I did this, and to me they’re all the same—uninformed. Not to criticize other writers, but they didn’t capture him. Even his wife [Neile Adams], who wrote a pretty good memoir, saw him with such stars in her eyes that she couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I thought that a lot had been missed there with Neile’s book, the whole notion of a star is born, where he’s an unknown and she’s a big star, then he rises up to superstardom and she fades into the background, and what that did to them. Also the Marlon Brando complex that he had, the burden of Method acting, that really destroyed his greatest attempts at working. 

Do you think that McQueen is in danger of being forgotten?

Oh, absolutely. When you study auteurism, and you go back to Andrew Sarris and you see the list—Chaplin, 500-plus pictures; Hitchcock, 52 pictures; Ford, 100 pictures. With Steve McQueen, who only made 28 moves, it’s really not enough to make him a Paul Newman who made 85 or 90 movies—but however, the quality of most of the films are such that each film counts. I could name five or six Paul Newman films we probably haven’t thought of in a long time that were made, didn’t do well, and let’s move on to the next.

McQueen wasn’t like that. He chose carefully. His early black-and-white romances which we really don’t see anymore—Love with the Proper Stranger, films like that—are good kitchen-sink dramas that show you mostly the Marlon Brando detritus that he was trying to shake to find his own persona. When you get to the action films, the bigger action films like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and my favorite The Sand Pebbles, you see a complex actor on the screen, totally in synch with what film should do for him.

He was always pushing for less dialogue in every film he made. “We don’t need this dialogue; just show it,” he would say to the directors, and that’s a natural filmmaking instinct. It’s film, it’s visual; show it. In Bullitt there’s virtually no dialogue, you can watch it without a soundtrack. That film is the commercial peak of Steve McQueen’s career, but because he’s Steve McQueen and not Clint Eastwood, he turns away from that because there’s something there that he feels is not complete and he doesn’t want to become exactly what Clint wanted to become, which was being stereotyped as an action figure.

Had he lived, do you think he might have become a savvy director, like Eastwood did?

He was looking for something more. Did he find it? I don’t think so. I think Le Mans was a disaster; the Henrik Ibsen movie [An Enemy of the People] was an out-and-out disaster; he made The Towering Inferno for money that he needed, and after that one or two cowboy films that he made because he had an eye toward directing. He really was supposed to direct Tom Horn because the director had been fired, but because of the DGA rules he couldn’t do it.

It’s always hard to say what people will do when they’re dead. Had he lived, I think he probably would have drifted into directing. And at that point, if he had successfully been able to make the transition, he would have discovered what Clint Eastwood had discovered, that it’s really not an acting medium after all, and actors are like messengers, no matter how glorified they are. McQueen was moving toward that, but didn’t live long enough to have that opportunity.

So we have his 28 films, of which I would say maybe 18 or 19 are first-rate movies. Will they live forever? Maybe not. But sometimes in art, longevity maybe isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes with art, the flash, the moment is what counts. And he certainly had a moment.