Like a wild Steve

Steve McQueen is the unchallenged king of cool. On screen. And on the track. But what does it look like behind the scenes? Everything different? Not everything. But some.
Text Christian Krug
Photo John Dominis

When the French customs officers check the freight of the American film crew, they find all kinds of strange things: Fake blood, wounded rubber bodies, pyrotechnics. The usual arsenal of an action movie. Maybe that's why they don't notice the Walther P38, which is located between the helmets and the driver's suits. It's a German-made Wehrmacht weapon. The weapon is real. And it is loaded with 9-millimeter cartridges. It will end up in the hands of a drug addict plagued by delusions this summer of 1970.

The gun belongs to Steve McQueen since August 9, 1969. That day, actress Sharon Tate and three of her friends are murdered by the Manson Family at a dinner at their home in California. McQueen is also invited to the deadly dinner. His luck is that on his way to Tate's house he meets another girl with whom he wants to have some fun. He tells his friend Jay Sebring that he will join later. McQueen never shows up to the party. "The floozy saved Steve's life," says Neile Adams, his then wife. He is deeply convinced that Tate was not the intended target of the attack, but himself. McQueen carries a gun ever since. Even in his swimming trunks at his home pool.

But he doesn't like bodyguards. He thinks it's unmanly to be protected. "If it comes to that, I'm gonna handle things with my own hands," he says. Every time he drives home from a meal with Neile now, he feels like he is being followed. He looks around, drives zigzag, takes an hour for a path that he used to take 15 minutes. "He was totally paranoid," says his ex-wife. Probably a side effect of the drugs the actor's been using regularly for a few years, she suspects. Grass and cocaine are his constant companions. Now they have an explosive ally: the Walther P38.

»Every day, groupies lounge around the film camp next to the race track. He literally harvests them.«

Credit: REX

The marriage of Neile and Steve McQueen has been hanging by a thread since the summer of 1969. The star lives in three houses in California. For her, the beach house near the Pacific Ocean is only accessible by appointment. Because this is where he welcomes his girlfriends. Formerly hidden, now completely unashamed. Neile lives with the mostly blond groupies like with vermin: At first you try to slap them, later you arrange yourself with them.

Neile is a dancer. She was already filling the theatres on Broadway when he was still on rehearsal stages. She had offers from Hollywood when he couldn't even pay the rent for his dump in Manhattan. She introduces him to directors and producers, gets him his first roles, feeds him. As he becomes famous, he wants children. She grants him his wish and stops dancing. She reads the scripts for the dyslexic, advises him on films like "The Magnificent Seven" and "Bullitt", which make him the best paid actor in the world. He is the superstar, she the mother of his children. This is the role he has reserved for her in his life.

Now and then she breaks out, visits her friends Grace Kelly in Monaco or Claudia Cardinale in Rome. When she is on a return flight from New York to Los Angeles, she meets a real Casanova in the first class. An actor from Europe who had just won an Oscar. He compliments her and invites her to the Beverly Hills Hotel where he resides. Just a few blocks from the Beverly Wilshire. McQueen rents a suite there all year round. Just in case he wants to stay in the city. She's meeting with the Oscar-winning actor. They're having an affair. Her first one in 12 years of marriage. An eye for an eye, she thinks as an excuse. After a few weeks, she lets the romance fade. "I felt guilty and empty," she says.

»Neile lives with the mostly blond groupies like with vermin: At first you try to slap them, later arrange with them. «

In early 1970 the marital situation calms down a bit. There are other problems. McQueen's film company Solar is on the verge of bankruptcy, only advances on future roles of McQueen bring enough fresh money into the box office. This does not stop the so far unsuccessful film producer from pushing his most daring project so far: A feature film about the Le Mans race. He is an enthusiastic amateur racer. He has a lot of racing experience, especially on cross motorcycles. He doesn't want to be involved for "Le Mans" only as an actor, he wants to shoot the racing scenes as a driver himself. But half a year before shooting starts, he still lacks a licence. He wants to complete the 24 hours with none other than Jackie Stewart, the upcoming star of Formula 1.

But he is sceptical. He thinks that too many amateurs drive at Le Mans. McQueen is ambitious. He wants to wipe away all doubts about his driving skills in the 12-hour race of Sebring. Despite a broken foot, he sensationally finishes second. He is all the more disappointed that the race control at Le Mans is still refusing him a start. But McQueen can't be shaken off. He registers his Porsche 908 for the race and lets three professionals at the wheel who have the necessary license. Equipped with three cameras, whose film reels have to be laboriously changed during the pit stop, the Porsche folows behind the field, but it crosses the finish line. And McQueen has his racing pictures. If he hadn't brought his car to the start, the film would never have been made. As so often, he had put all his eggs in one basket - and had apparently won.

»McQueen is ambitious. He wants to wipe away all doubts about his driving skills in the 12-hour race of Sebring. Despite a broken foot, he sensationally finishes second. «

The "Bullitt" star feels like the king of the world in France. Every day, groupies lounge around the film camp next to the race track. He literally harvests them. Sometimes he disappears in his trailer with three girls at once. His personal assistant Mario Iscovich worries about him. In a few days he expects Neile with McQueen's children Chad and Terry. He asks him why he is risking everything. McQueen answers: "Look at me. I'm the biggest star in the world. The number one sex symbol! All those women wanna fuck me, man!" Then he turns around and disappears with a blonde in his arms.

The following night the star crawls out of his caravan, completely drunk, and wants to experience something else. He calls an employee to wake up Mario. "We're going for another ride," he says. "You're coming with us." Mario doesn't think that's a good idea. His boss is obviously drunk and coked up. But he won't tolerate any argument. He gets behind the wheel of a production car and races through the rainy night. Mario begs him to slow down, but McQueen laughs at him. "You little, fat coward," he shouts and accelerates even more. In a curve, he can't hold the car any longer. He races over a fence and crashes into a tree. The blonde doesn't breathe. McQueen panics: "Fuck, fuck, fuck! What did I do? It's all over now. They're gonna lock us up. She's dead. Fuck!" He screams around, carrying the unconscious woman on his arms across a field. Suddenly she coughs, opens her eyes and begins to breathe again. McQueen immediately recognizes the chance of the new situation. They flee the scene of the accident. The four of them limp down the road like a troop of wunded soliders. Mario's left arm is broken. The girl's already blue with cold. McQueen sees this as one of his action movies. He sees a farmhouse and a car in front of it. He wants to hot-wire the car. But the farmer hears the gang and comes out of the house with a shotgun. The prevented car thieves run for their lives. Into the bushes. And they wait.

Via dirt roads they reach the hospital in Loué. Three hours after the accident they finally receive medical attention. The crash is covered up.

Credit: Tony Adriaensens

When Neile arrives with the children, Mario hides the real reason for his injury and takes the blame. The children are looking forward to their summer holiday on the film set. Especially Chad shares his father's passion for fast cars. He can hardly wait to finally get to the set. Neile and Steve McQueen play the perfect lovers. But when nobody is within earshot anymore, Steve makes the rules clear: "There'll be a few more girlfriends," he says to his wife. "What do you mean girlfriends?" she wants to know. "Listen, we're actually separated. So don't get upset." Neile breaks into tears and hides from the eyes of the crew members in a car.

In the evening Neile and Steve meet again in the bedroom of the castle that the production company has rented for the family. He says he feels sorry for what he said. He loves them and does not want to hurt them anymore. It gives her hope that he really wants to change. He takes her gently in his arms and asks: "Please be honest with me, have you ever cheated on me?" She denies. She wants to sleep, forget everything, not talk about the past. But he won't let go. "Take a little cocaine to relax," he says, sniffing away. He wants her to take some too, prepares a dose on a nail file. She grabs it. He asks her again: "Did you have an affair?" Neile feels strong. The cocaine makes her euphoric. She responds: "Yes, indeed, I did. And you know what, honey bunny, you don't have the only golden dick in the West. He has an Oscar, by the way. And if you behave, you might even win one yourself."

»McQueen sees this as one of his action movies. He sees a farmhouse and a car in front of it. He wants to hot-wire the car.«

Steve gets up without a word and goes into the adjoining room. When he comes back, he is holding P38 in his hand. He pulls his wife up by the arm so that she is sitting upright in bed and holds the gun to her temple: "Who is it?" She won't say a word. Then he puts the gun to her chest. He screams: "Who's the motherfucker? You better tell me right now. Or you're gonna watch him die!" Neile is afraid for her life. She says the name of the man who's about to drive McQueen out of his mind with jealousy: Maximilian Schell.

The very next day McQueen offers Schell a role in "Le Mans". Neile is sure that McQueen wants to involve him in an accident on the track. But the Swiss rejects the offer. Maybe this saves his life.

That night though, the marriage between Neile and Steve McQueen ends.

Taken from the book: „Mein McQueen – Barbara McQueen über den Mann hinter dem Mythos“ from Christian Krug. The McQueen-Biography has been published in 2010 by Ankerherz-Verlag.


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