Steve McQueen would've turned 80 late last week if he hadn't died at 50 in 1980. So he was a bright and shining star for slightly less than two decades. His cult status began in 1958 as the teen hero in The Blob, which immediately identified him as someone special, because here was a young punk that has the town against him and yet we identify with his intelligence and morality right away. And this is in a low budget '50s monster movie (a fav, btw). Less than two years later he was the cool and sharp-witted gunfighter in The Magnificent Seven. But by then he was a household name as the star of what would be a three year run of the still most popular TV series of all time Wanted: Dead or Alive.
But I'm not talking about him here because he was a star in some good movies. He was the coolest actor of his generation, the automatic replacement to James Dean, except who know where Jimmy Dean would have headed, because Steve McQueen seemed to so encapsulate the new sexual revolution and non-political libertarian male that both progressive and conservatives could identify with. He could flower power it with the best of them and then go do the 24hr Le Mans, then appear on Johnny Carson and then go bareback bike riding. And through all this he just looks so cool in all the photos.
But if there is one film that truly puts him the status of Planet Blog worship then it is his 1968 cop thriller Bullitt. He redefined the action hero, allowed him to be tough as nails, tougher then the bad guys, yet intellectual and person of style. Bullitt makes a big point that he has style, even elegance. After all, the best car chase in cinema history is Steve McQueen in a 1967 Mustang (and you don't have to be into cars to know that's a cool car). And McQueen did all his own driving. I'd like to think that five years earlier McQueen did most of the riding in the coolest bike chase seen ever for The Great Escape.
But it isn't about his prowess as a driver but that something actors have tried to copy but can't capture. That rugged Renaissance man, that such an air of cool calm control (even though he made films where he portrayed characters quite the opposite) he played in all his key films and he made those characters all an iconic part of the late twentieth century cinema. Steve McQueen is Reese from Hell is for Heroes, he is The Cooler King, he is Bullitt, he is Thomas Crown, Nevada Smith, The Cincinnati Kid, Doc McCoy, Junior Bonner and in his crowning achievement as an actor he is Papillon.
Steve McQueen is rightly considered a legend and remains the coolest actor on the Hollywood screen since his death. Only Clint Eastwood surpasses him in icon status but that could well be because Eastwood kept on going. Personally, I think Chow Yun Fat is the only actor that rivals McQueen for on screen cool, but I wouldn't be surprised that he has used the Steve McQueen legacy as many an actor has in the last thirty years. Frankly, I don't think there'll be another Steve McQueen and for that reason his legend will only build.