Renowned as the “king of cool,” the ultimate alpha male, in the 1960s and 1970s he was Hollywood’s hottest actor, the star of classic films such as “The Great Escape,” “Bullitt” and “The Magnificent Seven.”
Steve McQueen’s life is well known, including his tragic death at age 50 from cancer, but conspicuously missing in most recountings of his story is his decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.
Greg Laurie, a prominent evangelist and pastor in Southern California, is seeking to fill that gap with a big-screen documentary movie he has produced, “Steve McQueen: American Icon.”
Narrated by actor Gary Sinise, the 110-minute documentary includes interviews with McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen; actor Mel Gibson; renowned stuntman Stan Barrett; and actors Barbara Leigh and Mel Novak. The film is directed by Jon and Andy Erwin (“Woodlawn,” “Moms’ Night Out” and “October Baby”).
Asked by WND in an interview why the story of McQueen’s dramatic conversion is virtually unknown or written off as a “deathbed conversion,” Laurie said he wasn’t sure.
“It’s almost like the story has been buried,” he said.
Laurie said he had heard at the time of McQueen’s death in November 1980 that the actor had become a Christian, but Laurie had no first-hand knowledge. The pastor’s interest was piqued a little more than a year ago when he saw a documentary film about McQueen that told of his difficult childhood, rise to stardom and eventual abandonment of Hollywood.
“And then the movie also pointed out that he got cancer and he died. It just sort of ended. And I thought, wait, I’ve heard McQueen had become a Christian.”
In fact, McQueen – who once famously said, “I live for myself and I answer to nobody” – declared his faith six months before the cancer diagnosis and lived another year, dying with a Bible clutched to his chest.
Laurie, the senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, is the author of more than 70 books and has created two other feature films. A WND columnist, he hosts the nationally syndicated radio broadcast “A New Beginning” and is the founder of Harvest Crusades, a large-scale evangelistic ministry attended by more than 7.6 million people worldwide.
On a quest to find out what happened at the end of McQueen’s life, Laurie began searching the Internet, discovering only a few old news articles about his conversion. The name Leonard De Witt, McQueen’s pastor, kept popping up, and Laurie wondered if he was still alive.
“As we began to talk, he was indeed Steve McQueen’s pastor and his friend, and told me the story in rich detail,” Laurie said.
“And it just shocked me. I thought, this is an incredible story that needs to be told to more people.”
Laurie ended up writing a book published this year, “Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon,” which is the basis for the film.
He put McQueen’s stardom in perspective, particularly for younger generations.
“Think about it this way,” he said. “Take Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Tom Cruise, and put them all into one guy. And that was, effectively, Steve McQueen,” Laurie said.
“He was the original Hollywood bad boy. He did his own stunts, he was iconic, he was a fashion icon. He was so many things simultaneously. In the world of cars, he was a racing icon. In the world of motorcycles, a motorcycle icon,” he said.
“I can’t think of any modern movie star or celebrity that occupied the unique spot that McQueen occupied in his day.”
See a trailer for “Steve McQueen: American Icon”:
Flight from Hollywood
But by the late 1970s – having relentlessly pursued fame, wealth, drugs, alcohol, women and just about anything fast (he was a real-life car and motorcycle racer) – McQueen decided to leave it all behind, moving to the small agricultural town of Santa Paula, California, in Ventura County, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where he poured himself into learning how to fly.
He let his hair and beard grow to give him a degree of anonymity and found a flight instructor, a stunt pilot named Sammy Mason.
“And Steve saw something in Sammy that changed him, this peace and serenity, ” Laurie told WND. “They would spend hours in the cockpit flying. And he would ask him, ‘Sammy, what is it about you that makes you different?'”
Mason told McQueen it was his faith in Jesus Christ, and McQueen wanted to know more. Eventually, McQueen asked Mason if he could go to church with him.
They sat together in the balcony of Ventura Missionary Church, Sunday after Sunday.
A member of the church told DeWitt of McQueen’s presence, and the pastor advised that they should just give him some space.
One Sunday, McQueen came up to DeWitt and tapped him on the shoulder.
Laurie recounted the scene, citing DeWitt: “The actor said, ‘Hello, I’m Steve McQueen’ – like he needed to tell the pastor who he is – and said, ‘I’d like to ask you some questions. Could we go out to lunch?'”
After two hours of answering McQueen’s questions, DeWitt said he had a question for him.
McQueen said, “I know, you want to know if I’ve become a born-again Christian.”
McQueen informed DeWitt he had prayed along with the pastor a few weeks earlier when an invitation was given to accept God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The pastor and McQueen then met weekly for an hour of Bible study, bringing others along with him and growing in his faith, Laurie said.
Then came the cancer diagnosis in December 1979.
Laurie noted that McQueen had lived most of his life with a daredevil abandon, “almost as if he didn’t want to live.”
But now, with doctors telling him there was nothing they could do, he fought the cancer with everything he had, filled with a desire to tell people what Jesus had done for him.
He eventually sought an alternative treatment in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
McQueen, through DeWitt’s arrangement, had met with evangelist Billy Graham, and before leaving for Mexico, Graham went to meet him again.
On a runway, where McQueen’s chartered jet was preparing to take off, they prayed together.
McQueen realized he had misplaced his Bible, and Graham gave him his personal Bible, inscribing it to “my friend, Steve,” with the verse Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Laurie said that before undergoing surgery to remove tumors, McQueen – too sick to meet with fellow patients at the treatment center – recorded a prayer for them on an audio cassette, which is featured in the film.
The cancerous tumors were removed through surgery, but McQueen died during recovery of a heart attack, holding on to the Bible Graham had given to him.
“You could see his faith was real,” Laurie said. “He wanted to tell people” about what Jesus had done for him.
“So, I am sort of righting a wrong,” Laurie told WND. “Steve wanted to tell the story and was never able to tell it. So I feel like, OK, I’m going to tell it for him.”
Laurie said he didn’t write the book and movie for a church audience.
“I wrote this for Steve McQueen fans and maybe people who wouldn’t read a Christian book, to tell a really powerful and true story,” he said.
“And really what I want to say in this story and in this book and in this film is no one is beyond the reach of God,” said Laurie.
“I mean, if Steve McQueen, the guy he was, with all his fame and all his fortune and all his cool cars and all that he had saw the emptiness of it and found what he was looking for in a relationship with Jesus Christ, why shouldn’t everyone look for that?”
Laurie said he was surprised to find in his research that McQueen’s troubled childhood was almost identical to his: born to an alcoholic mother and a father he never knew then sent to live with various relatives.
“When you’re raised that way, you learn to fend for yourself,” Laurie said. “So he developed survival skills, he became a very self-absorbed man. He had no one to defend him but himself. He kind of fought his way through life. Yeah, he had a chip on his shoulder. He became very arrogant, but the reality is – and this comes out in the film; people who knew him well talk about it – Steve for his whole life, into his adult years, he was searching for his father.
“When it was all said and done, I think Steve was searching for God.”