From the Archives: Actor Steve McQueen Dies in Juarez Hospital

Times Staff Writers

Steve McQueen, the actor who went from a one-line part in a Yiddish play to become one of Hollywood’s biggest box office attractions, died Friday in a Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, hospital. He was 50 years old.

McQueen, who was suffering from a rare, normally fatal form of lung cancer, was in the Mexican hospital for surgery on a massive tumor when he was stricken with a heart attack, the actor’s publicist said in Los Angeles.

McQueen in recent months underwent an unconventional and controversial cancer treatment program in a Baja California hospital.


The program included intramuscular injections of animal cells, large doses of vitamins, an organic diet and the use of frequent coffee enemas.

He was suffering from mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer considered incurable by most doctors. The cancer had spread widely through McQueen’s upper body and more traditional forms of therapy had been ruled out.

Unusual Regimen

McQueen’s cancer was being treated in Mexico by Dr. William Donald Kelley, a Texas orthodontist and metabolic researcher, who, in the 1970s, had run into difficulties with that state’s medical authorities and had been prohibited by court order there from practicing medicine without a license.

Though Kelley and his associates had called several news conferences and told reporters their therapy program for McQueen was working well, the actor remained secluded from the press until his death.

Kelley could not be reached for comment. Nor could Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez, the Mexican physician who supervised McQueen’s care in Baja and joined Kelley in the press conferences north of the border in an apparent effort to promote the clinic’s program while McQueen was under treatment there.


However, a surgeon at the Juarez clinic where McQueen died said his death came after a three-hour operation that began Thursday night.

(Last weekend Rodriguez and Kelley disclosed that McQueen had gone home for a few days to rest prior to returning to Mexico for removal of a small neck tumor.)

Cesar Santos Vargas, a heart and kidney specialist with the Santa Rosa Clinic in Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, told reporters he had found “a very huge tumor in the right lung which was malignant and had spread to his left lung, neck and down into the intestines.”

Santos Vargas said McQueen entered the hospital Wednesday “in great pain and he was barely able to walk even with a cane.”

His abdomen was distended by the five-pound tumor so that McQueen “looked more pregnant than a fully pregnant woman,” Santos Vargas said, adding that the actor weighed about 150 pounds at the time of the operation. (There were unsubstantiated reports that McQueen had dropped to less than 100 pounds.)

Santos Vargas said it was apparent that McQueen should have been operated on for the tumor long ago. “Somebody should have operated on this man immediately after the tumor was discovered,” Santos Vargas said.

After being examined by a cardiologist who said the actor’s heart was apparently able to withstand the surgery, McQueen was wheeled to the small clinic’s operating room. On the way there, “He took my hand and made a signal with his thumb up, wishing me good luck,” Santos Vargas said.

Santos Vargas said it was impossible to remove all of the tumor; instead, he concentrated on the part of it that was pressing against McQueen’s “one good lung, his left lung.”

After the operation, McQueen was in good spirits, talking coherently. Santos Vargas said he gave another thumbs up sign and said in Spanish, “Lo hice,” or “I did it!”

Santos Vargas said he interpreted that to mean that McQueen thought he would survive. But McQueen took a turn for the worse when an embolism developed and he died shortly after 3 a.m. Friday.

Santos Vargas attributed the cancer to either what he said was McQueen’s former two-pack-a-day cigarette habit over the last 20 years, or to McQueen’s dockside work with asbestos in his teen-age years.

No Connection With Clinic

Santos Vargas said he had no connection with Kelley or the Baja clinic and know nothing of them. The actor was referred to him by other former patients, Santos Vargas said.

At his bedside was McQueen’s third wife, model Barbara Minty, and two children from a prior marriage — Chad, 21, and Teri, 20.

A spokesman for the Juarez clinic said Mrs. McQueen claimed the body and it was being returned to Southern California where funeral arrangements were pending. The McQueens live on a ranch in Santa Paula, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

McQueen was one of the film industry’s biggest draws. Like Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood, he had that special quality of manliness that women found attractive and men admired.

But he was different from the others. He seemed somehow less complicated than Newman, more rugged than Redford, less wooden than Eastwood.

A Man of Action

Critics have called him the model of the lean, laconic hero — or anti-hero. He was more physical than cerebral — a blue-collar man of action.

McQueen and the McQueen image often transcended the films in which he starred.

His best movies were among the finest of their genres. “The Great Escape” (1963) was one of the better prisoner of war tales; “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) a well-received action and adventure film; “Bullitt” (1968) an exciting police-chase yarn; “Papillon” (1973) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) as good as any of the disaster flicks that the studios ground out. But they rarely appeared on anyone’s Best 10 list.

There were effective performances in smaller, quieter films. McQueen played the musician who got Natalie Wood, a strictly brought-up Italian girl, pregnant in “Love with the Proper Stranger” (1963); the shiftless singer married to long-suffering Lee Remick in “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (1965); and the gambler who overplayed his luck in “Cincinnati Kid” (1965).

For all financial success, McQueen, though respected by his fellow professionals, never got an Oscar. He was nominated for “The Sand Pebbles,” but lost to Paul Schofield’s portrayal of Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons.”

Although his professional training was extensive, McQueen didn’t see himself as a serious actor. “I’m not a great actor, let’s face it,” he once said. “I don’t have a great deal of scope. Someone like Richard Burton has great range as an actor. There are certain things I can do. but when I’m bad, I stink. ... There’s something about my shaggy-dog eyes that makes people thing I’m good. I’m not all that good.”

McQueen was born in Indianapolis where his father abandoned his mother when he was in infant. His mother eventually remarried and moved to California.

It was a perfect childhood for the sort of alienated, independent kind of character McQueen came to play so well.

He later described it as lonely, insecure and troubled. He became involved in what he said in one interview was “a little stealing ... enough to get me into trouble.”

The teen-age McQueen was sent off to Boys Republic, a school for problem children in Chino, where he stayed for 18 months. From there, he did a series of odd jobs — merchant seaman, laborer in Texas oilfields, barker in a traveling carnival, lumberjack — and even errand boy for a brothel.

He went into the Marine Corp in 1947 where his main achievement was a 40-day hitch in the brig after going AWOL.

First Acting Job

By 1952 he was in New York working as a bartender, and an actress he met there got him interested in acting. A stint in amateur theater acting earned him his first paying job — $40 a week to say only “Nothing will help” in Yiddish.

There was more training — in Uta Hagen’s acting school on the GI bill and then, on scholarship, he was one of five out of 2,000 applicants accepted for the prestigious Actors Studio.

There was more summerstock and small TV roles; in 1956 he reached Broadway as a replacement for Ben Gazzara in “A Hatful of Rain.” Movies were next.

McQueen’s first film was “The Blob” (1958). In it, McQueen played a high school student who, with the help of his girlfriend, outwitted a blob of lethal jelly from outer space.

His biggest break came the next year when McQueen was cast as the young bounty hunter Josh Randall in CBS’s “Wanted — Dead or Alive.” The series lasted three years and by the end of its run, McQueen was a star.

Unlike many actors, McQueen was able to transfer that stardom from the small screen to major films — in “Never So Few” (1959) with Frank Sinatra and “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) with Yul Brynner.

His passion was auto and motorcycle racing, and he was not unmoved by attractive women.

McQueen was married three times. He had two children by his first wife, actress-dancer Neile Adams. His second marriage, to actress Ali McGraw, ended in 1978. In January of this year, he married Barbara Minty, a 25-year-old model.

His last years were not overwhelmingly successful. His partnership with Newman, Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman in 1st Artists Productions resulted in few films of lasting worth. His 1976 version of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” remained in the can for four years and was just recently released to pay TV operators. Two McQueen films released to theaters earlier this year, “Tom Horn” and the “The Hunter,” have received lukewarm reviews, though he reportedly received his usual $5 million per film.

But those who knew him said McQueen was not upset. Rather, he had achieved most of what he wanted. He put it this way in an interview back in 1966:

“I’ve leveled off in some respects, plan my business and my career ahead now and try to schedule my work so I’ll have time off. ... I just want the brass ring and the pine trees and my kids and the green grass. I want to get rich and fat and watch my children grow.”

A spokesman for the late actor said the body would be cremated and that, at McQueen’s request, there would be no funeral services. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Boys Republic in Chino.