(Publication date: Dec. 17, 2004)

Myths for Modern Times

The other day I was walking through the family room and Allison was watching that car
commercial where the guy builds a racecourse in the middle of his cornfield and then stands
there waiting for Steve McQueen to show up. (I’ve done a version of the same thing, waiting
for Sharon Stone, but let’s face it, there’s a chance she’s not coming.) In the commercial,
Steve McQueen does show up, moving relentlessly toward us with that coiled stride, like a
tiger in a turtleneck. He stops and raises his green-eyed gaze to the Racecourse Builder, who
immediately tosses over the keys to his Mustang. From that point, the commercial is pretty
much, you know, Testosterone City.

“When did Steve McQueen die?” Allison asked, jolting me from my reverie. Her question
reminded me that your daughter’s movie icons are not necessarily yours. But she does have
them, because movies, besides selling cross-promotional goods at Toys R Us in Emeryville,
create mythic characters that become signposts on the road to our humanity.

Steve McQueen, in fact, died in 1980 of asbestos-related lung cancer, an overweight recluse.
But his death wasn’t the point. His life was, and so was his work. A rebellious kid with a ninth-
grade education, he somehow landed in Lee Strasberg’s Actor's Studio in New York and
popped up as the teenage hero in
The Blob in 1958 and then as a moody bounty hunter named
Josh Randle in the TV series
Wanted: Dead or Alive. I was just a kid and didn’t know an icon
from a hula hoop, but every Saturday night I sat mesmerized by the guy who spoke in a
mumble I could barely understand and armed himself with a sawed-off Winchester rifle
strapped to his thigh. It took me years to realize that, as I followed Steve McQueen from
Magnificent Seven
to The Great Escape and beyond, I was seeing a myth in the making: the
thoughtful tough guy. The apex came in
Bullitt, home of the most famous car chase in movie
history, ten minutes of riveting wordless mayhem, Hitchcock on uppers, which took three
weeks to film on the streets of San Francisco, pushed McQueen’s Mustang to speeds of 110
mph, and blew out transaxles, transmissions, and trans-fatty acids all over town.

Most actors don’t create myths you remember, don’t say things that years later pop back into
your head and stop you in your tracks on a Solano Avenue sidewalk. But forty-five years ago,
I sat in the living room of a Midwest house, down the street from a cornfield, and watched
Steve McQueen, as Josh Randle, shake his empty canteen under a blistering sun and then pull
a bottle of water from his saddlebags and offer it to his companion. The water in the bottle
comes from the Jordan River and has been blessed by somebody important. The purpose of
the trip across the desert is to deliver it to somebody else important. Josh Randle nods to his
companion and says, “Drink it. It’s dirty and it stinks, but it’s water.”

I read a quote once that claimed most women would rather spend five minutes with Steve
McQueen dead than five hours with almost any other male movie star alive. I’m not sure about
that, but I can imagine what I’ll say if Allison ever comes across one of those tabloid photos
of Steve McQueen near the end of his life, looking bloated, unwashed, unshaven. She may ask
what the big deal is. I’ll tell her it’s simple. Maybe he’s dirty and maybe he stinks, but he’s still
Steve McQueen.

Life Is a Movie