He’s still too cool for the room

Times Staff Writer

Just how cool was Steve McQueen?

Norman Jewison, who directed the legendary actor in 1965’s “The Cincinnati Kid” and 1968’s “The Thomas Crown Affair,” says McQueen was so cool that he couldn’t understand him.

“He looked at me at one point and said, ‘Are you twisting my melon, man?,’ ” Jewison recalls with a chuckle. “I never knew what he was talking about, he was so hip.”

Jewison was well aware of the volatile actor’s reputation for being difficult when he replaced original director Sam Peckinpah on “Cincinnati.”


“David Foster, who was his publicity agent at the time, said, ‘Just watch him around the full moon, he goes a little nutty.’ I remember scheduling the picture, and I remember not scheduling any heavy scenes with Steve around the full moon. He would get on his motorcycle and literally disappear and go into the desert.”

This year marks the 75th anniversary of McQueen’s birth and the 25th anniversary of his death from cancer at age 50. But his performances in such films as “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “Bullitt,” “The Getaway” and “Papillion” seem fresh.

One of the most popular actors of his generation, he was the box office champ in 1968. And, with enduring appeal, he’s featured in the advertising for Ford’s 2005 Mustang, as well as Tag Heuer watches.

On Tuesday, Warner Home Video is offering the Steve McQueen DVD collection, featuring a two-disc special edition of his 1968 thriller “Bullitt,” as well as the DVD debut of “The Cincinnati Kid.” On June 7, New Line Home Video will release the first season of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the TV series that made him a star.


A Turner Classic Movies documentary, “Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool,” premieres Wednesday.

“It’s amazing the mark that he left, isn’t it,” says Chad McQueen, the actor’s son, who shares his father’s passion for automobile racing. “Time has no barriers with his work. I guess that is what makes him different.”

Jewison says McQueen, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his alcoholic mother, wanted him to be a father figure. “I said to him, ‘I can’t be your father. I am too much a contemporary of yours, but I’ll be your older brother who went to college. I’ll look out for you.’ He kind of liked that.”

McQueen began his acting career in New York doing theater and live TV. Martin Landau recalls that he and McQueen “got into the Actors Studio the same night -- literally. I think 2,000 auditioned that year, and he and I were the only ones accepted that year. But the first time I met Steve, I was on the back of James Dean’s motorcycle. Jimmy was having a problem with it and drove into a shop on 10th Avenue to have someone check the engine. McQueen was the mechanic.

“Over the years, I worked with him on ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ and ‘Nevada Smith.’ I never saw anything that was negative,” Landau says. “He always came prepared and ready to work. I never saw anything to suggest anything different.”