8 Fast Facts About Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen stars in The Great Escape (1963).
Steve McQueen stars in The Great Escape (1963).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Before his death in 1980 at the age of 50 following a battle with pleural mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer, Steve McQueen was considered one of cinema’s greatest leading men. The actor’s laid-back screen persona helped films like 1963's The Great Escape, 1968's Bullitt, and 1972's The Getaway become indelible parts of 20th century filmmaking. In honor of what would have been McQueen’s 90th birthday March 24, we’re taking a look at some facts surrounding his life and career.

1. Steve McQueen was sent to reform school.

Steve McQueen’s counterculture, anti-authority onscreen presence wasn’t much of a stretch. Born in Beech Grove, Indiana on March 24, 1930, McQueen was a less-than-model student. His parents, William and Julian, separated when McQueen was only a few months old. When he was 12 years old, McQueen reunited with his mother and relocated to Los Angeles, where the soon-to-be-super star began running with area gangs who committed infractions like stealing hubcaps. McQueen eventually wound up in the California Junior Boys Republic, a reform school in Chino. McQueen fled from the property a few times before a staff member took him under his wing and eased some of his antisocial behavior. McQueen would later return to the school to give inspirational talks after making it in Hollywood.

2. Steve McQueen’s military service led him into acting.

Steve McQueen.McCarthy, Getty Images

After reform school, McQueen moved to New York with his mother and then enlisted in the Merchant Marines. In 1947, he joined the Marine Corps and received training on how to be a tank driver. He served through 1950, at which point he returned to New York and, with the help of the G.I. Bill, enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse acting troupe. Later, he was admitted to the Actors Studio under teacher Lee Strasberg, which is where his career began taking off.

3. Steve McQueen was almost a member of the Rat Pack.

One of McQueen’s first big-screen breaks came in the 1959 World War II film Never So Few, co-starring Frank Sinatra. McQueen got the role while he was a regular on the television series Wanted: Dead or Alive because Sinatra's friend Sammy Davis Jr. criticized Sinatra’s boorish behavior on a radio show. A vengeful Sinatra recast him with McQueen, who later resisted becoming a full-fledged member of the singer’s boozing Rat Pack social circle because he was warned he might never break out from under Sinatra’s shadow. He likely chose wisely, as major stardom was around the corner with 1963’s POW drama The Great Escape.

4. Steve McQueen partnered with Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman to open a film studio.

Steve McQueen on the set of Nevada Smith (1966).Keystone/Getty Images

Echoing the 1919 formation of United Artists by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, the 1969 formation of First Artists was intended to give movie stars autonomy over their careers. Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and Sidney Poitier were among the early enlistees, with McQueen and Dustin Hoffman joining later. At First Artists, actors would forego their typically high salaries in order to have creative control over their films. McQueen made the well-received 1972 film The Getaway under this agreement, though his other film, 1978's An Enemy of the People, saw him overweight and with a beard, a stark contrast to his matinee idol image. Unfortunately, the group was only loosely organized, turning out just 15 pictures over a 10-year period before folding in 1979.

5. Steve McQueen once scared Bruce Lee.

McQueen and Bruce Lee were friends at a time Lee was gaining popularity as the co-star of The Green Hornet, the mid-1960s action series that aspired to emulate the success of Batman. According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, Lee was intent on acquiring a Porsche 911S Targa like the one owned by McQueen. But while McQueen was an avid racing fan and skilled driver, Lee was not. To make sure Lee understood the risk involved with the fast car, McQueen took him out in the Santa Monica Mountains, which featured steep cliff drops, and proceeded to slide the car and do 180-degree turns. Lee eventually wound up huddled on the floor, screaming at McQueen to stop.

6. Steve McQueen’s pet project was a dangerous one.

Filming of 1971’s Le Mans was a precarious proposition for McQueen, who wanted to imbue the movie—about a race car driver—with his own personal love of racing. As such, McQueen insisted on doing much of his own driving and shooting several retakes of dangerous driving stunts. One stunt driver, David Piper, lost part of his right leg after an accident. McQueen even got into an accident off-camera, rolling a car but escaping without any serious physical injury.

7. Steve McQueen insisted on a peculiar contract for The Towering Inferno.

Producer Irwin Allen was known for disaster epics, none more incendiary than 1974’s The Towering Inferno, with a plot that seems self-explanatory. When Allen recruited both McQueen and Paul Newman for the project, McQueen’s management insisted that neither star receive “top” billing over the other. As a result, credits for the film on posters and other material have McQueen’s name first, with Newman’s being no higher than half a letter above McQueen’s.

8. Steve McQueen was originally supposed to star in The Bodyguard.

The Bodyguard, the 1992 hit film about a private security guard (Kevin Costner) protecting a pop singer (Whitney Houston), had been in development for years. The script was originally written in 1975 for McQueen by Lawrence Kasdan, who would go on to write 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Diana Ross was considered for the part that ultimately went to Houston. McQueen was also one of the names talked about for the role of John Rambo in the long-gestating adaptation of David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood.

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Wa Wa Wee Wa: The Origin of Borat's Favorite Catchphrase

Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was released in 2006, a new audience was exposed to Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen who had made frequent appearances on the comedian’s Da Ali G Show.

Soon, in our country there was problem: People mimicked Borat’s catchphrases, "very nice" and “wa wa wee wa,” incessantly. The latter phrase was used to denote surprise or happiness on Borat’s part. While some may have assumed it was made up, it turns out that it actually means something.

Wa wa wee wa is Hebrew, which Cohen speaks throughout the film and which helped make Borat a hit in Israel. (Cohen is himself Jewish.) It was taken from an Israeli comedy show and is the equivalent of the word wow. Reportedly, the expression was popular among Israelis, and they appreciated Cohen’s use of it.

The original Borat also sees Cohen singing a popular Hebrew folk song, “Koom Bachur Atzel,” or “get up lazy boy,” among other Hebrew mentions. It remains to be seen how much of it he’ll be speaking in the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, October 23.

[h/t The Los Angeles Times]