Steve McQueen died 37 years ago so to many of you this story will have little significance but to the Baby Boomers he was The Man, The King of Cool. He was the bad boy girls were irresistibly drawn to and simultaneously feared. Steely blue eyes and a killer smile said, “Come here and go away.” Who can see a 1968 Ford Mustang GT without thinking of McQueen roaring through the streets of San Francisco in the movie Bullitt?
The Salvation of an American Icon is the inside story of Steve McQueen who seemed to have it all. Told by Pastor Greg Laurie, the real Steve was born to alcoholic parents, abandoned by his father as an infant, and knocked around by stepfathers. Angry and neglected, he found himself a street kid at age 15. Petty crimes led to arrests and ultimately, to reform school. He learned and taught a few tricks there before enlisting in the Marines where his misfit ways continued but he managed to eek out an honorable discharge anyway. He finally stumbled into acting and found his purpose. Even there, he could not control his behavior, costing him jobs and allies.
His breakout roll came in the TV series Tales of Wells Fargo. The camera loved him and he knew how to make the most of it with subtle use of crystalline eyes and a dangerous smile, employing little distractions with his hands, his signature ploy. Other actors complained about Steve’s distractions: fiddling with shotgun shells or a rope, toying with anything he could get his hands on. At age 29, he starred in The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brenner. He drove Brenner crazy with his fidgeting and stole the show. He starred in a total of 28 movies and in 1968, received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the movie Bullitt. His life seemed charmed.
But, success and celebrity sent McQueen on another quest that would have made Solomon envious. He bought a castle, scores of fast cars and motorcycles and had an insatiable appetite for women. He strove tirelessly to fill the hole left inside by his rough childhood and absentee parents. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
On the evening of August 9, 1969, Steve received a wake-up call. On his way for a night of partying at actress Sharon Tate’s house, he is distracted by a female hitchhiker. That hitchhiker inadvertently saved his life; Charles Manson and his gang broke into that party and gruesomely murdered all in attendance. Along with career, financial and personal losses, Steve’s world is rocked and all seems to be vanity, indeed. He withdraws from Hollywood, grows his hair and beard, and becomes a recluse.
Where is God in all of this? As is His way, He has been working behind the scenes, behind the camera. Throughout McQueen’s career he kept bumping into Christians, some who witnessed to him and some whose witness was their mysterious peace and joy. He was curious and open but doesn’t meet God head-on until flight instructor Sammy Mason, a father figure to him, introduces Christ as they soar over the beautiful coast of Southern California. Steve McQueen accepted Christ in the late 1970’s shortly before being diagnosed with Mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by asbestos. He died November 7, 1980; he was only 50 years old. Shortly before passing away he asked to meet Billy Graham. Graham flew to a Mexican clinic and gave him his Bible. McQueen was clutching that Bible at his death.
For all of us of a certain age, Steve McQueen – The Salvation of an American Icon is a must see. It is filled with wonderful close-ups and movie clips. Widow Barbara McQueen contributes amazing candid photos and her own personal stories of their relationship. Mel Gibson offers understanding into the actor’s skill, patterning his own performances after The King of Cool. It is inspiring to see a troubled, restless, contentious life saved and transformed by Christ. In the last recorded interview, two weeks before his death, McQueen regrets that he won’t be able to do more good for Christ, to tell others what the Lord can do for them. In the final scene thousands pack into a stadium to preview the movie and Steve McQueen’s voice rings out his dying wish to them. I imagine those blue eyes and killer smile again from heaven; his prayer answered 37 years later.
The movie is based on the book by Pastor Greg Laurie and may still be available in limited theaters. Keep an eye online for the DVD.