Bullitt: Steve McQueen stars in 1968 trailer
Steve McQueen built up quite the renegade reputation throughout Hollywood, and, although he earned this by playing a number of ruthless petrol-head rebels in various movies, he was defying societal norms long before he hit the big screen.
The iconic silver screen star has been dead for almost 42 years on November 7, 2022, but he is still one of the most unique actors of all time.
Before the glitz, glamour and fame, however, he was a struggling star with no acting roles.
After McQueen was honourably discharged from the US Marines in 1950, he wanted a change of pace in his life. He started taking acting classes in New York City.
He managed to get some minor TV roles before he moved to Los Angeles in 1955 to further his career. His major break came shortly thereafter when he played the bounty hunter Josh Randall in an episode of a popular TV western, Trackdown.
In fact, it was so well received that he was offered a spin-off series titled Wanted: Dead or Alive. And the solo series was so successful he was given a second season, and a third – but that’s when a problem arose.
At the same time as season three was being created, McQueen was offered a role in the historic John Sturges movie The Magnificent Seven.
Straight away, McQueen’s manager, Hilly Elkins, tried to negotiate the star out of his contract with McQueen’s series boss, Tom McDermott.
Steve McQueen used his car skills to help his Hollywood career
Steve McQueen drove cars in a number of his movies
Marshall Terrill recalled the events in his biography, Steve McQueen in His Own Words. He revealed: “‘Tom McDermott, may he rest in peace, was out of New York and was a tough guy, a tough Irishman, and knew what I was coming into his office for,’ Elkins said, who tried to appeal to the business side of McDermott by telling him the movie would draw more attention to the series.”
Elkins bargained: “Give [McQueen] a couple of weeks compensation leave. I know that in the spirit of Dick Powell, you’re going to help us out.”
But McDermott would not let McQueen off the hook. Then things turned ugly.
“Don’t start that Mafia approach with me, kid!” McDermott screamed. “He’s got a deal, he’s got a contract, and that’s what he’s going to be doing. Hey, listen kid. When we need your help, we’ll call you.”
So Elkins came up with an ingenious idea. But it was risky.
Steve McQueen was a massive car fan
Uprising: BBC releases trailer for Steve McQueen film
Elkins called McQueen – who was in Hartford Connecticut at the time – and gave him some unexpected advice: Have an accident. But there was method behind the madness.
“I felt comfortable advising Steve on that level [to have an accident] because of his racing and driving skills,” Elkins recalled. “And I knew he’d be careful but convincing. But I had no idea he would take it to the level that he did.”
Indeed, McQueen took it one step further. He put his wife, Neile Adams, in the car, and drove directly into a branch of the Bank of Boston.
McQueen and his wife were relatively unharmed, it is understood, but the superstar was seen around town wearing a neck brace.
Elkins later recalled McQueen would “pull out all the stops” to feed his ambitions.
There was another problem, however.
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McDermott did not believe what had happened. “Hey, look,” Elkins told the gruff TV boss. “It was an accident. He’s got a neck problem and he can’t do the show, he can’t do the movie. We’ve got a problem.”
Terrill wrote that McDermott “knew when he was licked”. He arranged a meeting with Elkins and signed off on the movie once and for all.
McQueen was let out early of his TV contract star in The Magnificent Seven. However, Elkins had a better idea still.
“Thank you, Mr McDermott,” McQueen’s manager told the TV exec. “That was then, this is now. There’s another requirement, and that is you double the salary.”
The rest, as they say, is history. McQueen had a memorable spot in the 1960 movie The Magnificent Seven, and it boosted his career in Hollywood.
In the following years, McQueen starred in such classics as The Honeymoon Machine, Hell is for Heroes, The Great Escape, Bullitt, and many more.
Wanted: Dead or Alive did not have such a happy ending, however. After season three – the series Mcqueen fought over – the show was cancelled as ratings plummeted.