How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a Cadillac

Steve McQueen may not have done all his own stunts, but to get The Magnificent Seven role that launched his career he had to pull off one real crash. Here's the story of how and why he did it.

Historian Marshall Terrill shares this excerpt from his new McQueen biography explaining the actor's love of cars, and the reason he had to crash one to get out of a contract holding him back from real fame.

Screen icon Bette Davis once asked Steve McQueen why he would he risk his life and his career by tooling around Hollywood on a motorcycle.

"So I won't forget I'm a man and not just an actor," McQueen replied. Davis smiled and did so knowingly, for she knew the industry could be dangerously all consuming. McQueen understood that he needed an outlet and friends outside the movie business to keep his sanity. He needed to have something on standby to allow him to escape to his own world. A car, a motorbike, a young starlet-all of these would provide ways for him to disconnect from Hollywood when he had to. He was never truly at ease as an actor, so these other activities helped him keep hold of the reality he had created for himself.

McQueen was fascinated by anything with a motor and wheels from an early age, and that fascination developed passionately during his life, so much so that his racing exploits are as much a part of his legacy as his films. In his 50 years, he competed in motorcycle and car races in the United States, England, France, and Germany. He flew antique airplanes, executive-produced an Oscar-nominated motorcycle documentary (On Any Sunday), and risked his career on Le Mans, known today by motoring enthusiasts as the definitive racing film. He also collected and restored hundreds of antique bikes and cars, and these vehicles have formed a cottage industry of their own. McQueen and his machines were inextricably linked.

Psychologist Peter O. Whitmer said, "There was a sexualized relationship between Steve and the bike, the automobile, the biplane, and anything with a machine. Unlike the human, it would pretty much do-with total positive regard, never talking back-what he could make it do. It was a hyperextension of our own deepest fantasies of grace and power and finesse, usually displayed in a competitive arena. It was an issue of power and control and personal skill and creativity, bringing about the whole union-the yin and the yang of the Tao."

McQueen's appreciation for wheels started around the age of 12, when he and an older buddy successfully pieced together a potent street machine. They did so by joining together a Model A frame with a Ford 60 engine.

"It had an Edelbrock manifold," Steve recalled. "We could accelerate with a J-2 Allard, which was the going sports car around there at the time. Our rod didn't handle for beans, but when the engine stayed together, that machine had stark acceleration. It was a real jumper."

How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a Cadillac

With money from the television series, McQueen's fascination turned into a full-time hobby with the purchase of a 1958 Porsche Speedster. It was his first factory-purchased automobile and doubled as his racing car on weekends. Steve's first competition was for the Sports Car Club of America at an event held in Santa Barbara on May 30, 1959. He joked that the worst possible thing happened to him: "I won. That really got me hooked."
Neile said of that first victory, for which he was awarded an engraved Sheffield Pewter tankard, "Steve was so proud of this. He talked about it for weeks to anyone who would listen!" He also participated in several other races that year at Del Mar, Willow Springs, and Laguna Seca, taking the checkered flag in two of those instances.

How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a Cadillac

Driving legend Bob Bondurant was at the Santa Barbara race and said McQueen made a lasting impression on him. "I had enjoyed watching him on Wanted: Dead or Alive, and when we met that day, he was quite congenial and much more interesting in person," Bondurant said. "We talked about cars and
Indian motorcycles, which were also my first passion. I believe his handling of motorcycles helped him as a race car driver because the handlebars of a bike are close, just like the steering wheel of a car. Not all actors know how to race, but he most certainly did."

McQueen won the respect of his peers and was named 1959's Rookie of the Year by the American Sports Car Association. It was one of his proudest accomplishments.

A few months after the Santa Barbara race, McQueen traded in the Porsche for a Lotus Mark II, a serious racing machine. The car was primarily designed to compete in the 1100 cc class where it was one of the most successful cars during the mid- to late-1950s. He enjoyed several good battles in it, winning a few races along the way. McQueen said of the machine, "In that Lotus, I really started to become competitive. I was smoother, more relaxed. The rough edges had been knocked off my driving. I was beginning to find out what real sports car racing was all about."

McQueen wasn't academic or highly literate, but he was inherently intelligent and eager to learn, and he was curious and anxious to learn from the best. When the legendary racing driver Sir Stirling Moss came to the United States, McQueen sought him out.

"I met Steve back in 1959 in California. He was keen on racing bikes and cars, and he had heard that I was going to be at a particular race," Moss said in 2009. "I suppose in those days when you were in the know and somebody came to town, it was quite easy to track him down. Steve found out I was staying in Beverly Hills and invited me to stay with him and his wife, Neile. At the time, I'd never heard of Steve, but he was so friendly and persuasive, it was hard to say no."

It was a friendship that grew over the years, and Moss became extremely close to both Steve and Neile. In fact, Neile often stated that she felt Moss had a little crush on her, though in an innocent and complimentary dimension as opposed to flirtatious, often sending them both charming letters. McQueen and Moss had a mutual respect and appreciation for one another. Moss never treated McQueen like a big movie star because they were peers on the racetrack. McQueen was not the big shot from the studio anymore; he was on an equal footing with Moss as the seasoned professional. Perhaps that is what McQueen found most enduring; he would regularly grow weary of the mendacity of Hollywood and liked the raw intensity of the racetrack where he was first or nowhere.

McQueen was just as fierce on the motorcycle circuit, said stuntman-turned-director

Hal Needham, who raced against McQueen on many weekends. "One time during the middle of a race, his motorcycle broke down and he could not start it because of a bad spark plug. I drove past him and stopped. I had a wrench and a spark plug, and in less than a minute, he was back in the race," Needham said. About five races later, the opposite situation happened to Needham, who needed a helping hand when his bike suddenly conked out and McQueen came roaring past. However, there was one exception-McQueen didn't stop to help. When the race was over, Needham mentioned the snub after the race. "I said, ‘Thanks a lot, Steve, for helping out your buddy. I'll remember that next time your bike breaks down.' Steve said, ‘I'm sorry, Hal, but I was running second and I just couldn't afford to stop.'" Needham couldn't stay mad at McQueen because he understood and admired his competitive spirit.

Be it a bike or a car, racing was something that was real and tangible to McQueen, who thrived on competition. "You see, around the studios, everybody waits on me," McQueen explained. "They powder my nose and tell me what they think I want to hear. After a while, you're convinced you are superhuman. "But when you're racing a motorcycle, the guy on the next bike doesn't care who you are. And if he beats you in the race, well, it means he's a better man than you are. And he's not afraid to tell you that you're lousy. "Racing keeps my equilibrium intact. It makes it difficult to believe I'm God's gift to humanity."

Whitmer said McQueen's thrill-seeking nature was a large part of his psychological makeup and a major trait of Attachment Disorder. "The accepted clinical interpretation is that early developmental psychological experiences-the punitive family life, the inconsistent parenting, the constants of chaos in flux – directly impacts the endocrine system [especially the androgen-estrogen balance, determining male or female secondary sex characteristics], and secondarily, their neurological wiring," Whitmer said. "As they grow older, this renders them under-stimulated from baseline, in comparison to the normal population, and as a consequence, in order to feel ‘normal,' they have to go to extremes and inundate themselves, overload themselves with what the average person would perceive as frightening, dangerous, crazy-making activities. [It's] life on the edge."

McQueen needed racing because it was a great equalizer for him. He had only himself to rely on, and his ego would have to take second place if he wanted to finish in first. Bud Ekins, a racing legend who ran a Triumph dealership on Ventura Boulevard, certainly never thought McQueen walked on water when he came in to inquire about a Triumph 650 cc. "I recognized him from Wanted: Dead or Alive, but I had worked with movie-industry types and certainly didn't look at them through rose-colored glasses," Ekins said in 2006. "Steve wasn't magical or special; he was just a fellow human being. In fact, he was a bit of a nuisance and invariably picky, even with technical matters he did not understand. I think he liked that I didn't give him preferential treatment."

How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a Cadillac

Bud's brother, Dave Ekins, said he thinks their meeting was no accident. "Steve and Bud were both born the same year, and they lived parallel lives – early delinquents graduating into reform school and later self-made men who liked their booze and their talk straight. Of course, they loved their machinery and the freedom of the road. I believe they were destined to find each other."

Their friendship lasted more than two decades, three wives, and hundreds of verbal barbs. If Neile was the seminal female relationship in his life, then Ekins was her male counterpart. "Now, Bud is my friend in the fullest meaning of the word," McQueen once told a reporter. "He's got two kids, and I've got two kids. The old ladies hang around each other. We're pitching our kids off to get married when they grow up."

Ekins in turn was equally impressed with McQueen's respect for machinery and his innate curiosity. McQueen devoured manuals and history books on bikes and eternally peppered Ekins with questions. "When he got on a motorcycle, he wanted to know the complete history of the bike from the beginning. Why did this company do this? Why did this company do that? Of course, I gave him 30 years' knowledge in a year. He pretty well knew it, too. He was a good student."

McQueen was also an excellent student of the Hollywood game and adapted quickly. McQueen had now generated a great deal of interest in himself from the film industry, and he challenged the conventional wisdom that television actors couldn't make the leap to the silver screen. "I think it's ridiculous to say that somebody from TV can't make it in pictures," McQueen said to reporter Bob Thomas. "The movies have been at a standstill for the past two years. They've got to start moving or else."

Hedda Hopper noted in an April 29, 1959, column that producer Robert Webb (Love Me Tender) bought a property called Terror at Webb's Landing, a gripping kidnap story set deep in the Florida swamps, specifically for McQueen.

"It will star Steve in it later this year when other commitments allow," Hopper wrote. It's possible the item was a plant by McQueen to let CBS know there was interest in him outside of the TV realm, or it was a trick to get more money from his contract. Whatever the case was, CBS wasn't budging. When United Artists producer Walter Mirisch called Hilly Elkins to check on Steve's interest and availability in a new film directed by John Sturges, it was a project McQueen simply couldn't ignore. Nor could he ignore the $65,000 payday. Come hell or high water, McQueen was going to be in that picture.

Elkins read the script, which was a reworking of The Seven Samurai, a Japanese film classic directed by Akira Kurosawa. Sturges had planned to turn it into a western titled The Magnificent Seven about seven gunmen hired to protect a Mexican village. The immediate problem was how in the hell was he going to get McQueen out of his Four Star contract? Elkins was concerned about McQueen's limited speaking part-it had just seven lines of dialogue. McQueen would never be satisfied to be a small fish in a big pond, so if there were few lines then he would have to ensure his part was big enough in other ways. Elkins placed a call to Sturges, who acknowledged the part wasn't very talky. "I know, Hilly, but I promise I'll give him the camera."

Sturges was one of the few men in the industry whose word was as good as gold. He had helped McQueen in Never So Few by doing precisely that-giving him the camera. McQueen agreed to play the role of Vin, the movie's hotshot gunslinger, but Four Star Productions had to sign off first. Sturges was going to shoot the film on location in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in late February 1960, which would overlap with Wanted's tight shooting schedule. Elkins went to see Dick Powell, who steered him to business executive Tom McDermott, a person whose reputation preceded him.

"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. "Give him a couple of weeks compensation leave. I know that in the spirit of Dick Powell, you're going to help us out," Elkins said gently.

McDermott's face turned beet red. "Don't start that Mafia approach with me, kid! He's got a deal, he's got a contract, and that's what he's going to be doing," McDermott said. "Hey, listen kid. When we need your help, we'll call you." That was Elkins' dismissal, who politely nodded and left quietly. When Elkins got back to his office, he called McQueen, who was in Hartford, Connecticut, making another dreaded personal appearance on behalf of Wanted: Dead or Alive. Elkins explained the situation and was as succinct as possible-have an accident. "I felt comfortable advising Steve on that level because of his racing and driving skills, and I knew he'd be careful but convincing. But I had no idea he would take it to the level that he did," Elkins said. Once again, McQueen would pull out all the stops to feed his ambitions.

How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a Cadillac

With wife Neile in the car, McQueen drove his rented Cadillac into the side of the Bank of Boston, narrowly missing a police officer, and smashed the car into actual bricks and mortar. The incident made the papers, and McQueen came back to Hollywood in a neck brace. McDermott called Elkins and said he wasn't buying the story. Elkins's duties called upon him to sometimes act with feigned innocence. "Hey, look. 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," Elkins said. McDermott knew when he was licked. He called Elkins into his office and signed off on the movie, "Okay, look. This isn't what we like to do, but you get this round. We'll let him out early to do the picture." Elkins had some unfinished business. "Thank you, Mr. McDermott. That was then, this is now. There's another requirement, and that is you double the salary."

"You motherfucker!" McDermott screamed, followed by a string of epithets. No matter how many obscenities Elkins heard that day, he got McQueen the raise, and more important, he got him the part. "The rest, of course, is history," Elkins said.


How Steve McQueen launched his career crashing a CadillacMarshall Terrill is a veteran film, sports, and music writer and the author of more than a dozen books, including best-selling biographies of Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Three of his movies are in development to be made into movies. Terrill resides in Tempe, Arizona. For more information on Terrill and his books, visit MarshallTerrill.com

Motorcycle Photo Credits: Barbara Minty McQueen


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