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If you’re looking for someone to idolize, you could do a whole lot worse than Steve McQueen. The man was far from perfect, but his was a life lived to the fullest. This actor and daredevil didn’t suffer fools lightly, and when he wanted to do something, he usually just did it (before the Nike slogan). In doing so the man defined the “cool” of an entire generation.

The Origins of a Screen Idol

McQueen’s youth was less-than-ideal. His stunt pilot father abandoned his family before Steve was born, and even worse, his mother was prostitute and an abusive alcoholic.

Terence Steven McQueen, born in Indiana, lived with his grandparents, ran around with gangs, worked in a brothel, got involved in crime, took hard beatings from his stepfather and ended up in a boarding school before dropping out to wander the country. He took odd jobs here and there, and lived a wild life from a very early age.

McQueen and the Military

Steve joined the Marines one day when he was bored, and then promptly fought tooth and nail against the military hierarchy. He spent lots of time in the brig for insubordination, and was continually being demoted back down to private. Eventually the rigid military structure knocked some sense into his nonconformist brain, and he understood that he was there to do a job. He even managed to save the lives of several fellow marines while in the Arctic. Later in his life, he admitted that he’d enjoyed his time in the military immensely.

The King of Cool

After the Marines, McQueen started acting. He garnered a fair bit of attention in the Western, The Magnificent Seven. It wasn’t his first flick, but it helped him project his onscreen veneer of cool to a wider audience. Other stylish films soon followed, adding to the cult of Steve, including: The Great Escape, Bullitt, The (original) Thomas Crown Affair, and later on, The Towering Inferno.

McQueen’s star power smoldered. He turned down some fairly hefty characters in his time, like the leads in Apocalypse Now, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The French Connection, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and oddly enough, Rambo, which later became a Sylvester Stallone franchise. Can you imagine McQueen as Rambo? At least the line delivery would have been much easier to understand.

A Wild Man Set Loose

McQueen‘s off-screen presence was as large, if not larger, than his onscreen persona. His passion for racecars, dirt bikes and planes, combined with martial arts (Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were his teachers), drugs, booze and hard work out regimes fueled his “wild man” legend. He was an all around awe-inspiring guy, able to take tons of abuse, including a near miss with the notorious mass-murderer Charles Manson — Steve was actually number one on Charlie’s infamous kill list.

When he wasn’t racing, filming or being a slob on his couch, McQueen was out having tempestuous affairs with famous actresses, like Ali MacGraw (wife), Barbara Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset and Lauren Hutton. He seemed to be constantly skirting death and humiliation, and laughing about it all the while.

The Legend Lives On

Steve McQueen died in 1980 after a long battle with cancer. He opted for alternative cancer treatments in Mexico when traditional medicine didn’t cure him. After his death, his reputation for chic continued to grow. The public seems to have forgiven him his worst characteristics in order to celebrate a man who overcame tragedy and a hard childhood, and transformed himself into one of the coolest actors to ever walk, or race a motorcycle, on the planet.