“You do a thing, you go all the way. Which means I give every scene my best shot. Every line counts. If it doesn’t, then how come I’m out here in my funny hat making a damn fool of myself?”
“McQueen” by William F. Nolan (1984)
Maybe you’re like me and you hate to leave anything behind. When you’re out at the thrift stores or at the garage sales and you see something interesting but borderline, sometimes you’ll err on the side of just buy it, take it home, decide later. Many are the times I’ve gotten home and realized I didn’t own that movie or I do need a better copy of that record and I’m kicking myself for leaving something behind. The other side of that is seeing something out in the wild, thinking you should buy it, taking it home and seeing it sit on your shelf untouched for years. That’s what happened with me and the book we’re looking at today.
Steve McQueen and I have had a complicated relationship. I had always heard that there was no one cooler but I didn’t see it at first . Perhaps because I didn’t think he was handsome like Montgomery Clift. I think I initially saw him in Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), a film I loved and would watch every autumn. Gradually I came around; I mean, obviously, considering The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), to name but two. Concerning this book, I always was hesitant to read it because it looked like it was a cheap, dime store bio. But I was wrong. Like I may have done with McQueen himself, I was guilty of literally judging a book by it’s cover. Lame, I know.
McQueen was the first biography on the actor to be written and published after his death. Maybe it was the “As Told To His Friend” on the cover that made me skeptical but William F. Nolan was indeed McQueen’s friend and had been granted unusual access to the star. Nolan was a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction who’s biggest claim to fame was perhaps having written the 1967 novel Logan’s Run. Nolan had written an episode of McQueen’s series Wanted – Dead or Alive but it was his interest in racing that brought the two together. I realize just as I am writing this that William Nolan died on July 15, 2021 – the day before I started reading this book.
Turns out this book is good. The fact that is was written by a friend led to me to believe that Nolan would be able to share the many conversations he had with McQueen and would be able to discourse on the personal side but what of the professional? My concern that I wouldn’t get much skinny on Steve’s films was allayed early, though. Nolan’s book chronologically charts McQueen’s time in Hollywood but it also provides additional info on McQueen as a youth.
Nolan details McQueen’s father abandoning the family, prompting lifelong contempt from McQueen. Additional instability arose when Steve clashed with a stepfather resulting in a stay on an uncle’s farm, a time and a man McQueen cherished. At 14, Steve ended up in a home for wayward boys but he turned the reform school experience into a positive, learning many values there and he continued to support the school financially and with visits deep into his stardom. Nolan’s fine research details Steve’s wanderings before enlisting in the Marines.
“Just 12 months had passed since he left New York – truly an incredible year for a 16-year-old boy; from Cuban seas to Texas oil fields, from traveling carnivals to the forests of Canada. The Missouri farmboy had become a crew-cut Marine…”
Then at 21, Steve had a girlfriend who was trying to break into show business. She suggested he try it, too. McQueen was amused; “Actors, he told her, look like Clark Gable; he had the face of a monkey, and no acting talent”. But he joined an acting school and made inroads into Broadway productions. At this point in the book I realized that Nolan is no joke as a biographer. In McQueen, you get all the info you need.
From his breakthrough and through every step of his career, Nolan gives you what you want in a bio. He gives you the story of each film from getting the role through production and out to the critics’ and the fans’ response. Nolan ably charts the highs and lows of McQueen’s screen roles; from his Oscar-nominated turn in The Sand Pebbles (1966) to the abject failure of his passion piece, An Enemy of the People (1978). Along the way Nolan shares many taped interviews with Steve who dishes on his own father, his role as a parent, his ideas regarding the Hollywood establishment and most notably in this book, racing.
Nolan shows a certain prowess in describing for readers not familiar with the sport the tense nature of a race and the moments that can make or break a run for the checkered flag. Whether it’s motorcycles or race cars, Nolan breaks down Steve’s interests and details some of his racing achievements. Particular time is spent reporting on another project Steve passionately pursued to completion, his 1971 racing film, Le Mans. All of this leaves the reader with no doubt that McQueen was serious about racing and that attitude was respected by the professionals of the sport.
Of particular note is Nolan’s description of McQueen’s performance in the March 1970 race at Sebring. Co-driving his Porsche 908 Spyder with a broken left foot, McQueen and his partner finished second overall to racing legend Mario Andretti who had to use two of his team’s cars after blowing a transmission. What did it take for the champ to beat the screen idol? “I never drove so hard in my life”, Andretti said. A sports writer summed it up nicely; “It took the sport’s champion driver operating at the top of his form, in not one but two powerful factory Ferraris, to beat a single, privately-entered 908 Porsche co-driven by a lame film star”.
Nolan is also able to report on Steve’s marriages, first to Filipino-American actress and dancer Neile Adams with whom Steve had two children. Later came his high profile union with his The Getaway co-star Ali McGraw. The author is also expansive on McQueen’s final years with his last wife, model Barbara Minty and his reporting includes a detailed retelling of McQueen’s final days battling cancer with controversial treatments. William Nolan, then, really does provide the reader with a full accounting. So, the less-than-original moral of the story? Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
McQueen can be found easily at AbeBooks. There are more recent biographies of “The King of Cool” out there that may be more expansive but I can advise, if you see this one in the wild, don’t leave it behind.