Mozarks Moments - Steve McQueen

Clockwise from top left: Steve McQueen made a great cowboy; Steve in his role as bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with his sawn-off Winchester rifle that ‘Josh’ called his “mare’s leg”; Steve in one of his fast cars with his TV horse, “Ringo.”

Steve McQueen began pursuing his acting career in earnest. In 1953 he made his first television appearance as a judge on a show called “Jukebox Jury.” He continued to appear on stage in several plays and made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play “A Hatful of Rain” with Ben Gazzara.

In 1955 he decided to move to Hollywood to seek acting roles there. He was 25 years old. After appearing in the television show “The Defenders,” a Hollywood agent took him on and got him roles in several B-movies.

His first movie role was in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” That movie starred a young Paul Newman, whom Steve knew from acting class. The two young actors would go on to have almost a sibling-type rivalry in the years to come.

Next, Steve was in “Never Love a Stranger.” That led to his first starring role in a new genre of movie — a teen science-fiction horror flick called “The Blob.” It was a smash hit and developed a cult following, although it was campy and not something Steve was proud of.

Then Steve was in still another B-movie, “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.” He also got some TV roles. Westerns dominated the airwaves in those days. 

He appeared on an episode of “Tales of Wells Fargo” starring Dale Robertson and then got a part in an episode of “Trackdown” that starred an old New York motorcycle racing buddy named Robert Culp. Culp later said that on the first day of filming he showed Steve the mechanics of a fast draw. By the second day, Steve could beat him. 

In that show Steve played a bounty hunter named Josh Randall. The producers liked him as Josh Randall so much that they created a series for the character called “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” It began airing on CBS in September 1958.

When the series began, Steve asked to pick out his own horse to ride in the show. Naturally he picked one that was in the process of being broken and it bucked him off the first time he got on it. So that was the one Steve chose. 

The first week of shooting the horse kicked out several lights, stomped on Steve’s toe and broke it, and bit him in the back four times. Steve later said, “That horse and I fought for three years. He would step on me on purpose. His name was Ringo and we really loved each other. He proved better than me, and smarter, and he beat me.”

“Wanted: Dead or Alive” ran for 94 episodes, lasting into 1961. During that span, in 1959, Steve got a role in the movie, “Never So Few.” Frank Sinatra gave him the role that he had originally given to Sammy Davis Jr., but after Sammy said something mildly derogatory about Frank in a radio interview, Frank changed his mind.

“One afternoon on location ... I was sitting there reading my script ... and Frank crept up behind me and slipped a lighted firecracker in one of the loops of my gunbelt. When that thing went off, I jumped about 3 feet straight up. Which naturally delighted Frank. 

“So I grabbed one of the Tommy guns we were using in the film and jammed in a full clip — 50 rounds. Sinatra was walking away laughing it up with his buddies, when I yelled at him, ‘Hey, Frank!’ He turned around and I let him have it, zap-zap-zap-zap, the whole clip.”

After the clip was emptied, everyone stood frozen. 

“Frank just started laughing, and it was all over. After that, we got along fine. In fact, we tossed firecrackers at each other through the picture.”

The director of “Never So Few” liked Steve’s acting so much he gave him a starring role in his next movie, an ensemble cast in the hit western movie, “The Magnificent Seven.” In that movie, Yul Brynner refused to draw his gun in the same scene as Steve because he knew Steve was so much faster.

Steve also got a starring role in the director’s next film in 1963, which was the popular film “The Great Escape” where he showed off his motorcycle riding skills. In one scene he even played both his character and that of a German soldier, both on motorcycles in a chase scene.

That same year he starred with Natalie Wood in “Love with the Proper Stranger.” He was nominated for an Academy award for best actor for that film. 

Next he starred in another western, “Nevada Smith.”

In 1966 he starred in “The Sand Pebbles” and was again nominated for an Academy award for best actor. 

In 1968 he showed off his driving skills in one of the first full-tilt car chases on the hills of San Francisco in the move “Bullitt.” It was a big hit. 

Because of his demeanor and movie roles, Steve became known as the King of Cool. He added to that title when he starred in another big hit that year with Faye Dunaway in the movie, “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

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