The King of Cool may have died in 1980, but even four decades later, Steve McQueen's tough-guy persona continues to loom large over Hollywood. Example: Chase scenes are a staple in today's action flicks, and inevitably every chase is rated against either McQueen's 1968 Mustang chase in the crime drama Bullitt or his motorcycle jump in The Great Escape.
In addition to the lasting impression he left with vehicles, his presence still resounds in Tinseltown in other ways. In the 2016 remake of the 1960 classic Western The Magnificent Seven (which featured McQueen), Chris Pratt's character Faraday wields a cutdown Winchester rifle in homage to the one McQueen carried for three years in his 1950s bounty-hunter TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. Younger movie viewers may be interested to know that the American Westerns were remakes of the original Japanese film Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa. More recently in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio's character was based in part on McQueen.
What escapes most martial arts and action-movie fans, however, is the accurate portrayal of violence in McQueen's film fights. These scenes are flavored with McQueen's own knowledge of street fighting, his military training and his martial arts study with world-renowned masters.
In Hollywood, there are actors who "play" a role and actors who actually "live" the role. McQueen was a legitimate tough guy, both on and off-screen.
That chip you saw on his shoulder even as he portrayed various characters was based on the violence he endured while growing up. Abandoned periodically by an alcoholic mother and abused by a stepfather who had him sent to reform school at age 14, he was hardened from a lump of coal into a diamond.
As a member of a New York street gang, a young McQueen once was struck in the mouth with a bottle, which resulted in a 2-inch-long gash in his lower lip. As a teenager, he hit the road and found work as a logger in Canada, a deckhand on a tramp steamer and even a towel boy in a brothel. At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he learned to handle some of the weapons he would wield in his films. He also received a few lessons in the realities of street fighting.
In boot camp, McQueen was bullied by a fellow Marine who always seemed to be backed up by his bigger buddy. Knowing that one guy fighting multiple opponents without a weapon was a grim prospect, McQueen evened the odds by catching the bully alone one day in the latrine. He tapped the guy on the shoulder while he was using the urinal, then pounded him when he turned his head. Needless to say, he wasn't bullied again.
Soldier in the Rain, a 1963 comedy with comedian Jackie Gleason, featured a scene in which McQueen is jumped by a pair of soldiers. While the scene strains credulity with Gleason pressing one attacker overhead when rescuing McQueen, the fracas offers some legitimate reality-based techniques rarely seen in films 60 years ago. McQueen throws beer in the face of one soldier before landing a pre-emptive punch. When grabbed by one guy, McQueen uses kicks to keep the other one away. Finally, in the climax of the fight — using a move that would have made the Gracies proud — McQueen sinks in a chokehold, putting the man out of action.
McQueen's most realistic depiction of fighting multiple opponents, however, came in his 1965 movie Baby, the Rain Must Fall. Playing a country music singer just out of the penitentiary, he's heckled by a couple of drunks at a gig. After the show, McQueen bashes one of them with a groin kick and hammerfist. When he's jumped by the other man and thrown to the ground, McQueen uses kicks to keep him at bay and throws sand in his face. Seeing that he's outmatched, McQueen pulls a switchblade to back them off.
From the late '50s through the '60s, it seemed that every one of McQueen's movies featured a knife fight. His first big-screen film was 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me, a Rocky Graziano biopic that stars Paul Newman as the former middleweight champ. McQueen, as his gang mate Fidel, is in only half a dozen scenes, but two of them feature him using a gravity-blade knife. In the first scene at the pool hall, the blade is flicked out and ready for action in a heartbeat. In the second scene, McQueen wraps a coat around his non-blade hand to protect it during a knife battle.
In 1959's Never So Few, a World War II epic, McQueen draws a switchblade to thwart a pair of MPs trying to arrest him. In 1965's Cincinnati Kid, a movie about poker players, the director removed some love scenes and replaced them with a fight scene in a bathroom — predating the Jason Bourne toilet skirmish by 50 years. Here, McQueen uses a safety razor against a knife-wielding sore loser who wants his poker money back. In 1962's Hell Is for Heroes, McQueen uses a butcher knife in combat, and in 1966's Sand Pebbles, he uses an ax to dispatch an opponent.
McQueen's real-life military training with the knife, however, was best illustrated in Nevada Smith (1966). In a classic blade battle with Martin Landau, you can see McQueen twist the knife after stabbing Landau, a move that creates a blood channel that produces a quicker bleed-out. Pat Johnson, a former Hollywood fight choreographer and McQueen's martial arts instructor, confirmed that the technique was a product of McQueen's Marine Corps training before the Korean War.
After a brief hiatus, McQueen returned to blade play in 1973 in the Devil's Island prison movie Papillon. In it, he carves up the face of a fellow inmate who tries to kill Dustin Hoffman's character.
Many die-hard Bruce Lee fans know that for many years, McQueen studied with the founder of jeet kune do. The two met at the famous Whiskey a Go Go nightclub through another of Lee's students: hairstylist Jay Sebring, who later was murdered by Charles Manson's cult.
This same murderous group had placed McQueen's name on its hit list for rejecting a script that was penned by Manson and submitted to McQueen's production company. Manson's plan was to force McQueen at gunpoint to overdose on drugs. McQueen was supposed to be at a dinner party at actress Sharon Tate's house the night she, Sebring and others were slaughtered. It was only a chance encounter — running into a friend at a nightclub — that kept McQueen from being killed, too. After learning of his close call and the cult's plans for him, the reality-based fighter always made sure to have a firearm close by wherever he went.
At the time of their meeting, Lee was waiting to begin his breakout TV role in The Green Hornet and was teaching private lessons to stars like James Coburn, James Garner and Lee Marvin. Lee and McQueen started working out in August 1976 and continued until Lee's TV career took off. McQueen even brought Lee to his movie locations in San Francisco (Bullitt) and rural Mississippi (The Reivers) to continue his martial studies.
Despite all they shared, Lee found that McQueen was suspicious of him at the beginning, and it took time for them to bond. According to Lee's widow Linda Lee Cadwell, when they did become friends, they really connected.
Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Poly says that Lee was impressed by McQueen's determination and resilience. In his book Bruce Lee: A Life, Polly quotes Lee telling a friend:
"That guy doesn't know the meaning of quitting. He just keeps pushing himself for hours — punching and kicking for hours without a break — until he is completely exhausted."
In a television interview with Canadian broadcaster Pierre Berton, Lee describes his student:
"Now, as a fighter, Steve McQueen … now, he is good in that department because that son of a gun got the toughness in him, you know."
A more descriptive depiction of McQueen's fighting style is given by Hollywood super-agent Marvin Josephson, who along with McQueen studied under Johnson:
"Steve adopted street-fighter tactics even in the gym. His idea of a gradual, full-length contest was to go ballistic in the first 10 seconds, swinging at you like a threshing machine. You could be his best friend in the world, but the instant you squared off with him, you were the enemy. Let's just say he didn't pull a punch very well."
During their time together, Lee and McQueen pushed each other in a friendly — and sometimes not so friendly — rivalry. McQueen wanted to be a great fighter like Lee, and "The Dragon" wanted to be a movie star like "The King of Cool." Polly believes that the charisma, energy and swagger that Lee brought to the screen in his movies was pure McQueen.
Polly also writes that Lee learned from McQueen how to be a movie star. McQueen replaced directors he didn't like, and so did Lee. McQueen counseled Lee that he'd develop his own acting style over time but said it was just as important to "meet the right people in the industry and impress them" and to dress the part of a star.
However, it was an incident involving the two men that may have served as the key motivator for Lee's success. He was developing The Silent Flute with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant, who already had won an Academy Award, was a Lee student and wrote some episodes of the TV show Longstreet, which showcased Lee. They approached McQueen to star in the picture but were turned down summarily, reportedly with the curt phrase, "I'm in the business of being a star, not making them!"
This is said to have infuriated Lee, who told Silliphant that one day he would be a bigger star than McQueen. Silliphant scoffed at the statement but admitted that Lee later proved it true.
Despite their rivalry, the pair continued to be friends, with Lee sending a letter to McQueen after he made it big in Hong Kong, claiming to be a bigger star worldwide. McQueen, tongue in cheek, sent Lee an 8-inch-by-10-inch photo on which he'd written, "To Bruce Lee, my biggest fan." Their friendship continued until Lee died in 1973. McQueen, along with Lee protégé Dan Inosanto and actor James Coburn, served as pallbearers at Lee's funeral.
According to Polly, after Lee ended their private lessons, McQueen asked whom he should study with. Lee advised his friend to contact Chuck Norris. The two had previously met when Lee brought McQueen to Ed Parker's International Karate Championships and introduced him to the karate fighter shortly before Norris took on Skipper Mullins.
Initially, McQueen called Norris at his Sherman Oaks, California, school to set up karate lessons for his son Chad (who would later star as Dutch in The Karate Kid). Chad had gotten into a fight at school, and McQueen wanted him to start martial arts. However, Norris and McQueen soon began a training relationship that would blossom into a friendship over the years.
Richard Norton, an actor and fight choreographer as well as a good friend of Norris, provided another great story about the influence McQueen had on the champ. When Norris was shifting out of teaching and wondering what new field to move into, McQueen suggested he try acting. Never having acted except for a small cameo (set up by fight choreographer Lee) in the Dean Martin spy spoof The Wrecking Crew, Norris burst out laughing and said McQueen must be kidding. McQueen explained that in addition to learning the craft of acting, one needed a certain presence to come across on-screen and Norris had it.
A short time later, Norris mentioned to McQueen that with all the actors in Hollywood, his chance of success seemed slim. Norris writes in his biography Against All Odds that McQueen took him to task for the comment:
"Remember that philosophy of yours that you always stress to students: Set goals, visualize the results of those goals, and then be determined to succeed by overcoming any obstacles in the way. You've been preaching that to me for two years, and now you're saying there's something you can't do?"
Norris agreed to give it his best shot and began taking acting lessons under the GI Bill. Fast-forward a few years: Norris tore up the big screen as the bad guy in Return of the Dragon.
According to Norton, after Norris played the heavy so well, it was McQueen who suggested that he look for good-guy roles so he wouldn't be typecast. Norris did so, but after his first movie Good Guys Wear Black, he was somewhat disappointed in his performance on-screen. He went to McQueen for advice on how to portray the John Wayne type of character that he wanted to play. Norris recalls in Against All Odds that McQueen provided him with sound advice:
"You are verbalizing things on the screen that we have already seen. Movies are visual, so don't reiterate something verbally that the audience already knows. Next time, let the other actors fill in the plot. When there's something important to say, you be the one to say it."
As an example, McQueen pointed out that in Bullitt, he tore up pages of dialogue that he was supposed to use in a scene with Robert Vaughn and used but one line that everyone who's seen the movie still remembers: "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."
Norris obviously took the advice to heart and began portraying the strong, silent type in his movies. Soon, steely-eyed characters like those in Lone Wolf McQuade and Walker, Texas Ranger would carry him to superstardom in the action-film genre.
When Norris' career prevented him from teaching McQueen, the chief instructor at his schools, one Pat Johnson, took over the task. Displaying once again the initial suspicion he had with Lee, McQueen took a dozen lessons with Johnson before their first conversation. Gradually, McQueen opened up a bit, and a friendship developed that would continue for the final eight years of McQueen's life.
Johnson is perhaps best-known to martial arts movie fans as the referee in The Karate Kid, but he also portrayed the thug who threatens John Saxon's character in the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon. It's Johnson who utters the famous line, "It's the dough, Roper, or we have to break something!"
A legend in competitive karate with 300 wins and just one loss, Johnson was Black Belt's Instructor of the Year in 1995. In addition, he trained Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi), Ralph Macchio (Daniel-san), Chad McQueen (a karate student) and all the other actors in the Karate Kid films. He summarizes McQueen the fighter in the following manner:
"Steve was the most aggressive person I ever met. He fought like he behaved, generally — fast, furious, with lethal opening moves, intense and incredibly focused. In eight years, I never once saw him have a lapse in concentration."
During his career, McQueen was one of the top-grossing box-office stars in the world. In addition, many of his movies have scenes or dialogue that are iconic and constantly referred to in popular culture. In fact, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood includes both a scene from The Great Escape with DiCaprio playing McQueen's character and, at the end, a remake of the cigarette commercial McQueen did while starring in Wanted: Dead or Alive.
It's apparent that Steve McQueen's knowledge of street fighting and his rigorous study of martial arts blazed the trail for modern action stars like Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise. These new leading men train constantly in the arts to ensure that their on-screen performances are believable and exciting. That influence, coupled with McQueen's relationship with two martial arts movie icons, are proof positive that he's left a unique and lasting martial arts legacy.
Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He's the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.