“It was his passion project but it became a nightmare that almost destroyed him.”
– Don Nunley
Numley, who worked with McQueen on the 1970 movie, “Le Mans,” exposes the debauchery, drugs and disasters that plagued the classic film in his new book: Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror.
The movie revealed the pitfalls of a man idolised by a generation; handsome, gregarious, modish, McQueen’s screen persona was far from the man who only knew how to live on the edge.
The son of a circus stunt pilot and an alcoholic prostitute, McQueen was passed around as a child. Abandoned by his biological father, he was regularly beaten by his step father. A string of petty crime led him to the California Junior Boys Republic, an institution for juvenile delinquents. This sense of abandonment manifested itself in a lifelong mistreatment of women, a fact that will become abundantly clear.
At sixteen, McQueen left Chino Hills and returned to his mother, now living in Greenwich Village, New York. He then met two sailors from the Merchant Marine and volunteered to serve on a ship bound for the Dominican Republic. Once there he abandoned his new post, eventually being employed as a “towel boy” in a brothel–where he was encouraged to indulge.
Afterwards McQueen made his way to Texas and drifted from job to job. He worked as a roughneck, a carnival barker and a lumberjack. The chaos that dominated his early years was temporarily interrupted by three years in the United States Marine Corps, and he was honourably discharged in 1950.
Steve McQueen in the Great Escape (1963). He performed all his own stunts:
Fast forward 20 years and Steve McQueen was running out of things to achieve. Hollywood’s perennial pinup boy appeared lost, caught between the alpha male you see on screen, and an enduring urge to portray it in real life. Motorcycles were a feature of this lifestyle, and this obsession would lead to one of the biggest failures of his career.
“I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts.”
– Steve McQueen
In 1970 McQueen was set to fulfil his career long ambition of making a film about racing. Unfortunately for McQueen, James Garner had beaten him to the punch with the hugely successful “Grand Prix” four years prior. Offended by this unintended slight, McQueen would never speak to Garner again.
“Steve dreamed of making this movie for more than a decade and had invested his heart and soul into making it a reality.”
– Don Nunley: “Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror”
The movie was doomed from the very first day. McQueen’s ambition to merge reality with fiction was a death sentence.
“He planned to drive in the actual Le Mans race, he thought he could win. Steve was a great race driver. He’d come second in a major race shortly before Le Mans.
“But just two days before filming was to start, the film’s insurance company said Steve couldn’t drive in the race. Somebody had died in the previous year’s Le Mans and the insurers felt it was just too dangerous to risk the star of the film.
“Steve was devastated. He suffered a mid-life crisis, plunged into numerous affairs, did way too many drugs, his marriage collapsed and the film collapsed around him.”
While he was quarrelling daily with the director on set in France, his wife Neile flew over to see him. He turned up to meet her at the airport with a floozy by his side. On set, Neile was forced to watch in dismay as young girls swarmed around her husband who seemed to have abandoned the mild sense of discrepancy that typified his previous philandering.
When she confronted him, his answer was chilling: ‘Look, I should tell you — there’ll be women coming from all over the world to visit me this summer.’ A despicable way to treat his long suffering wife, McQueen was on a downward spiral. His drug taking increased as his marriage collapsed.
“He was partying pretty hard every night, using cocaine and marijuana. He drove too fast down winding French roads and wrecked a Porsche 911. Then he crashed a Peugeot, sending his beautiful Swiss co-star Louise Edlind through the windscreen. It’s amazing she wasn’t killed, escaping with cuts and bruises.”
The selfish behaviour of an actor who seemed to fall out with directors, producers and co-stars throughout the entirety of his career, was coming to the fore. Beneath this childish behaviour was a man who retained some sense of honour, albeit selective.
“The first day of filming was the actual Le Mans race. We had two drivers in our car instead of Steve but we needed him to film scenes with the real race as the backdrop and 200,000 screaming fans. But Steve refused.
“Before the race all the drivers walked onto the apron of the track to acclaim by the crowd but Steve refused to do that because he felt it would be dishonest if he was no longer racing.”
“He was supposed to be filmed in the VIP area behind the paddock, where all the race drivers go during their breaks but again he refused. He felt it wasn’t fair to the real drivers who earned that privilege.”
This does reveal one of his more likeable traits. A revisionist assessment of his chequered past seems to ignore some of McQueen’s redeeming qualities. He had an unusual reputation for demanding free items in bulk from studios when agreeing to do a film, such as electric razors, jeans, and other items–it was later discovered McQueen donated these things to the Boys Republic reformatory school, where he spent time in his teen years.
Le Mans was a disaster for Steve McQueen, professionally and privately:
“The six-week shoot became five long months. The last day of filming is usually a celebration on a film set with a wrap party and emotional goodbyes. Not on Le Mans. There was no wrap party, no farewells. Everybody just turned and walked away, glad it was over.”
1970 was a turning point for the star; two years later would mark the end of his first marriage, and with certain exceptions, Steve’s life started to tail away from him. He would be dead within a decade–lung cancer that he blamed on asbestos poisoning from his youth, but more likely a result of his excessive smoking habit.
His premature passing was symbolic of a life lived to excess. It would preserve his boyish looks and gift his legacy with immortality. His life was like a 24 hour Le Mans, and like many who would compete in this race, a sharp corner spelled the end.