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.

Actor Steve McQueen is pictured in London, England
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).
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.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.