by Diane Howard
Steve McQueen was a man of paradox. He displayed humility and defiance, stinginess and generosity, gentleness and violence, self-assurance and insecurity.
Director Norman Jewison said, “He was a loner, and he was troubled, and he was looking for a father.”
Author Esther O’Reilly observed: “They said that he could act with the back of his head! No fancy dialogue or frills required – his mere presence loomed larger than life in every shot. Put him next to some of the finest actors in the business, and he would undercut every one of them simply by being in the frame. His piercingly distinctive blue eyes were set in a rough-hewn, unconventionally handsome face that rarely betrayed strong emotion. His smallest physical gesture was precisely calculated and gracefully executed. You couldn’t best him, you couldn’t buy him, you couldn’t touch him. He was the King of Cool. He was Steve McQueen.”
The documentary is a redemption story that chronicles McQueen’s retreat from the world of fame and fortune, as he searched for meaning, truth and significance. It recounts how McQueen experienced a transforming, fulfilling faith at the end of his life.
The film is hosted by Greg Laurie, one of America’s leading pastors, who is not only an avid McQueen fan but who also experienced a similar childhood. In his mint replica “Bullitt” mustang, Laurie traveled the country in search of McQueen’s final untold chapter.
The primary interview for the documentary is with McQueen’s third wife, Barbra Minty McQueen. She was a New York model and amateur photographer and took hundreds of never-before-seen candid photographs of McQueen in his last years. Other interviews include Academy Award-winning actor Mel Gibson, renowned stuntman Stan Barrett, celebrated McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, and actors Barbra Leigh and Mel Novak.
Laurie says McQueen was a product of the loss of his parents. His father, a wandering stunt pilot, left when Steve was a baby. His mother, an alcoholic involved with many men, gave him to grandparents to rear. It was on his grandparents’ farm that McQueen developed his love for racing and stunts.
He was arrested several times as a teen and sent to truancy homes for rebellious kids. He served in the Marine Corps, where he both demonstrated valor and rebellion.
He decided to become an actor, studying with Lee Strasberg. He went into movies, displaying skill at reacting to scenes and performing action roles. He became the highest-paid star in Hollywood.
Many who knew McQueen have fascinating stories about him. These include fellow Marines; young men from the Boys’ Republic, where he had spent some of his teenage years; and fellow movie stars.
His superior Marine officers tell how he spent 41 days in the brig for resisting arrest after going AWOL. The young men from the Boys’ Republic tell how he regularly came back and visited the school after becoming famous, personally responded to every boy’s letter and financially supporting the school until his death.
“Magnificent Seven” co-star Yul Brynner could tell how McQueen stole scenes with distracting bits of business to grab attention. Bruce Lee could tell of a frightening ride in McQueen’s Porsche with Lee cowering in the footwell and threatening to kill McQueen when they stopped. McQueen hit the gas again, refusing to slow down until Lee promised not to hurt him.
McQueen once declared he lived for himself and answered to no one. He said: “I believe in me. God will be number one as long as I’m number one.”
That philosophy guided him as he burned through drugs, marriage and affairs.
In the late 1970s, when his career was fading, he felt empty, unsatisfied and unfulfilled. He began to retreat and developed lung problems.
He followed the advice of doctors and moved in 1979 to the small, quiet town of Santa Paula, northwest of Los Angeles, where he eventually married Minty. They lived in an airport hangar filled with his motorcycle collection. He bought a yellow Stearman bi-plane and learned to fly it. He was quick to master flying as he had done earlier with car racing.
Sammy Mason was McQueen’s flight instructor. In their long hours in the air, they talked about the meaning of life. McQueen asked Mason what made him different. Mason told him it was Jesus Christ.
McQueen respected Mason so much that he began regularly attending Mason’s church. The pastor was Leonard Dewitt, who later recalled that the icon had sat quietly in the balcony without even introducing himself for several months. McQueen requested a meeting with the pastor and fired off questions about life and faith.
At the end of their time, Dewitt said, “Steve, I just have one question for you.”
McQueen, with his signature grin, said, “You want to know if I’ve become a born-again Christian.”
Then, still smiling but serious, he told DeWitt: “When you invited people to pray with you to receive Christ, I prayed. So yes, I’m a born-again Christian.”
Mason said the difference in McQueen was “dramatic.” He also said, “I doubt that I have ever seen a man flourish with more spiritual reality in such a short time.”
Another close Christian friend, John Daly, said: “I think I had more faith that my hammer and saw would have gotten converted before Steve, but I was hearing it from the horse’s mouth. I was blown away.”
Under the discipleship of Mason and DeWitt, McQueen would often pray and read the Bible. He shared his faith with others, including his former assistant, Mario Iscovich.
Iscovich said McQueen “felt he had hurt a lot of people” but had finally “made peace with God.”
McQueen was finally fulfilled by faith.
At the end of his life, McQueen was generous. For example, he became the legal guardian of young girl, whom he sent to school.
He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a fast-spreading and incurable form of cancer. In an audio recording from that time, McQueen talked about his illness, his faith and the change in his life.
“My body is gone … broken, but my heart is not broken, and my spirit is not broken. … It is part of the plan … to keep me hanging on,” he said.
McQueen shared dreams of “changing some people’s lives with what I know of the Lord, and what I have to offer with what’s happened to me.”
One of the last people he talked to was famed evangelist Billy Graham, whom McQueen had wanted to meet.
Graham met with McQueen a second time on an airport tarmac just before McQueen was flown to a hospital for surgery to remove his tumors. Graham said McQueen, though bed-ridden and on oxygen, was still “a fighter … under that oxygen, he would talk. His eyes were just as bright, but he looked emaciated and old.”
McQueen told Graham how God had made him a new man. Because McQueen had misplaced his Bible, Graham personally inscribed his own Bible and gave it to the dying actor. He stayed by McQueen’s side and prayed with him.
Four days after meeting with Graham, at age 50, McQueen died of a heart attack with Graham’s Bible resting on his chest, opened to his favorite verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Laurie introduces the documentary:
Franklin Graham, chief of Samaritan’s Purse, took to social media to recommend the movie.
“My wife Jane and I are going to the movies tomorrow night to see ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon.’ I’m really looking forward to it! Everything Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough for this huge star. My father Billy Graham had an impact on him later in his life, and Steve found the only One who could satisfy his soul – the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a fascinating true story developed into a movie by my friend Greg Laurie. I hope you’ll go see it too – and take a friend.”