“He was my dad first and foremost, but I get it,” says 54-year-old Chad McQueen of the aura that still hovers around his father, the late, great Steve McQueen. “It’s been 35 years since he passed, and the way that he resonates today is fucking phenomenal. He laid the groundwork for Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt…but it’s different. My dad was a fighter. If you backed him into a corner, there’d be trouble. I don’t see the fight in Brad Pitt, or George Clooney, or whoever. Not many people had that simmering, ready-to-go-at-any minute thing. I would recognise it, but I haven’t seen it.”
That brand of fight is vividly showcased in the documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans. Directed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna – with Chad McQueen on board as both executive producer and interview subject – the film highlights not just Steve McQueen’s charisma and volatility, but principally the torture that the car racing fanatic went through to realise his pet project: the 1971 on-track drama, Le Mans. In development for over five years, the big budget Le Mans initially had top-flight director, John Sturges – who had guided McQueen to big screen success with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) – at the helm.
By the time that shooting began, however, McQueen and Sturges were banging heads over the film’s focus. McQueen wanted to make a fly-on-the-wall semi-fictionalised documentary about the eponymous 24-hour race, whereas Sturges felt that ignoring story and characterisation could spell box office disaster. During shooting, McQueen pared the script down, leaving little but brief interchanges between extended race sequences. Finally pushed to the edge, Sturges eventually left the project, and McQueen brought in TV director, Lee H. Katzin, to finish the job. To make matters worse, Le Mans was a major disappointment at the box office.
As Chad McQueen explains, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans has been burning around the racetrack known as “the development process” for a long, long time. “About ten years ago, a guy named Michael Kaiser had written a book called French Kiss With Death, which was the first time that I really got to know every little disaster that the film laid in store for my dad,” McQueen explains. “And at that time, I thought, ‘Boy, this would be interesting to put on film.’ So ten years go by, and [executive producer] Andrew Marriott, John McKenna, and Gabriel Clarke call me and say, ‘Come to Los Angeles.’ They had a pattern in mind, and that was the movie, Senna. I dug that. We kind of saw eye to eye, and I said, ‘I’m in.’ I’m tickled pink. The film might be a little long, but I’m happy with it. I could have watched more. That’s where I’m at.”
Though renowned as a Hollywood hard-man, Chad McQueen smiles as he hints at his father’s more sensitive side, which was more in play in the actor’s lesser known films like An Enemy Of The People and Love With The Proper Stranger, than it was his big hits like Bullitt and Papillon. “My dad had a shitty childhood,” offers Chad McQueen. “He never knew his dad, and his mom was a drinker who abandoned him. He grew up in a delinquent home in Chino Hills, California. But having the shitty childhood that he had, benefitted my sister [Terry, who died in 1998 from respiratory failure after receiving a liver transplant] and I because from the time that I was born to the time that he passed away, we were on every movie set. On every location, we’d check out the school…we’d go to school in Taiwan, or wherever the fuck we were. I lived in Taiwan for 14 months. I lived all over…I was a little gypsy boy. Me and my sister benefitted from him not having a good parental figure. It’s known that he had a temper, but he was fair. But if I had to choose words to describe my father, they would honesty and integrity. You could count on him. It was a different world than it is today, and he was a different man. But we’re sitting here talking about him 35 years after his death, so he must have done something right.”
The son of Steve McQueen and his first wife, dancer/actress, Neile Adams (who were together from 1956 to 1972), Chad McQueen was at ground zero when his father controversially moved on with the much younger actress, Ali McGraw, who he “stole” from legendary Hollywood producer, Robert Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown). “After my parents got divorced, my dad went and did the movie, The Getaway, and he met Ali,” says Chad McQueen. “Me and my sister spent the summer in Malibu with my dad and Ali and her son, Joshua [Evans, now an actor and director]. And at the end of the summer, my dad said, ‘It’s up to you. Do you want to live with your mum or with me?’ And I said, ‘I’m going where the action is! I’m going with you, Dad,’” McQueen laughs.
Did lots of movie stars drop by the house? “Early on, when I was young, I remember James Coburn would be there, and there would be Ferraris in the driveway, and Charles Bronson was around,” McQueen replies. “I remember being woken up, and there were people in the living room area, and there was fucking George Harrison and Ringo Starr! I knew who they were. I made sure it was real…I shook their hands!”
Chad McQueen, a retired actor (mainly appearing in exploitation actioners, and in a small role in 1984’s The Karate Kid) and racing enthusiast (“I started racing motorcycles when I was nine, and I won The World Mini Grand Prix when I was thirteen”), is happy to keep his father’s legacy well and truly alive. On the surface, Steve McQueen was the essential Hollywood action man, a rough-hewn talent characterised by a magnetic masculinity that practically burned off the screen. “My dad had such a bad childhood,” McQueen reiterates. “If you watch him in a close-up, there’s so much going on underneath the skin. You can’t replicate that…you have to live that.” A truly underrated talent, there was much, much more to Steve McQueen than his famously untouched brand of cool. He was, without doubt, a true artist.
“My dad always had a very clear vision,” says Chad McQueen. “Whenever my dad had something in mind, and once he made a decision about the way that he wanted to go with a character, that was it. No director, or [studio boss] Jack Warner himself, could tell him what to do…he just said, ‘Go fuck off.’ In Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, you get the sense that he was an artist who was trying to bring his vision to the screen. And ultimately, 43 years later, he was proven to be right. I go to races all over the world, and I’ve had seventy-year-old race drivers come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Le Mans was my inspiration.’ That’s why my dad made the movie: not for the general public, but for racers. That’s who he wanted to appease: the racers…the real guys out there. He accomplished that. It’s a vindication for me. When Le Mans came out – and I remember it from when I was a kid – they crucified my dad because they knew that he was at the helm. I talked to Lee Katzin about two months before he died, and he told me that Le Mans came out on the same weekend as Dirty Harry. It did the same business, but it fell off. Le Mans had a huge budget for the time, but ultimately, Steve McQueen’s vision was right.”
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.