Friday, March 26, 2010

Belated Happy Birthday, Steve McQueen

Hard to believe, but the coolest movie star to ever shift gears of a Mustang fastback along the hills of San Francisco would have turned 80--yes 80!--two days ago. I can't quite imagine McQueen as an octogenarian. Having come of age watching his stardom grow from "The Magnificent Seven" through "The Getaway," McQueen seems eternally frozen in his mid 30s or so, an actor the camera loved, as well as an actor who could steal a scene with the simplest of actions (watch McQueen use a hat and a shotgun shell to make Yul Brynner practically disappear in the great early scene of "The Magnificent Seven" in which the two drive a horse-drawn hearse up to boot hill. Brynner became enraged when he realized what was going on, and Brynner himself was an expert at scene larceny).
McQueen gave some great performances (think "Bullitt," "Papillon," "The Sand Pebbles," several others), and he epitomized a coolness that survives to this day in the best of his films.
So the other night I watched an episode of "Wanted: Dead or Alive," McQueen's TV series that ran from 1958 to 1961. He played a bounty hunter named Josh Randall. McQueen was maybe 29, still boyish, confined to the preposterous gimmick of the show that made Randall a nice bounty hunter who always tried to give away half his bounty to charity or deserving people. Crazy, but remember this was TV in the 50s when westerns were all the rage (in fact, McQueen first appeared as Randall in an episode of "Trackdown," another western starring Robert Culp, who sadly died this week). McQueen also was saddled by wearing a sawed-off Winchester '86 rifle holstered down his right leg, a weapon that seemed at times to make him limp, as well as a weapon that bordered--looking back--as somewhat pornographic (it was referred to as a "hogleg"). But who thought of such things back then?
The episode I watched guest-starred Ralph Meeker (leering as well as he had in '55 as Mike Hammer in "Kiss Me, Deadly") and James Coburn, himself a prince of cool who would co-star with McQueen in both "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape."
McQueen's Randall is extremely polite, an inspiration perhaps for many of Elmore Leonrad's heroes (check out the new FX series "Justified" and you see Timothy Olyphant riffing on McQueen). The "Wanted" episode lasted but a half-hour, and virtue naturally triumphed at the end. Several people were shot dead in that 50s style in which no blood ever erupted. But McQueen worked a minimal style that got him noticed, and soon he was on his way to making Yul Brynner angry.
McQueen died in 1980 when he was but fifty. Way too soon.
So happy birthday, Steve. You are missed.


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