″I’m gonna die young, so I gotta take a big piece out of life.″ — Steve McQueen
There are few icons of mid-20th century cinema and few symbols of “cool” who were as readily identifiable in their heyday as Steve McQueen. McQueen star vehicles like The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, Papillon, The Great Escape and The Thomas Crown Affair have cast a long shadow over the silver screen ever since. They’ve spawned remakes and inspired scores of would-be leading men to try to live up to the legacy of the King of Cool, an exemplar of the “live fast, die young” motto.
Most of those who idolized McQueen’s image, however, didn’t know what his life was like behind the scenes or the struggles he suffered with addiction and its complicating effects on his family life.
Reports on McQueen’s Struggle with Addiction
McQueen himself never spoke of his issues with drug use, but reports of his addictive struggles have come about in the years since, especially in “My Husband, My Friend,” a biography penned by ex-wife Neile McQueen Toffel. Published six years after his death, when Toffel judged her children old enough to be told the truth behind the tension they’d always sensed in their parents’ marriage, this account in particular aimed for a nonsensationalized portrait of McQueen. It touches on common themes that often emerge in the phenomenology of drug addiction.
For example, Toffel relates that “Steve had been an abused child, and often that results in an abusive parent. But even in his drug-abused state, he always stopped short of harming the children.″ Adverse and traumatic childhood experiences are frequently linked with the development of substance use disorder in adulthood.
Addiction & Domestic Violence: A Complicated Linkage
Victims of untreated childhood trauma also often replicate abusive patterns in later life. Though she notes that McQueen was able to avoid replicating those patterns with his children, according to her they were nevertheless shocked to learn that domestic violence had been a significant factor in the rocky nature and eventual breakup of their parents’ marriage. She relates one incident in particular where McQueen held a gun on her.
″He felt the final ‘yes’ would give him the excuse necessary to haul off and punch me, which is what I was expecting,″ she writes. ″Surprisingly and thankfully, he slowly straightened himself up and gave me a look of such hatred that I cringed.″
This kind of account, told alongside stories of McQueen’s addiction to cocaine and erratic behavior, is familiar from other stories of the co-occurrence of domestic violence and substance use, but here we need to be careful. The linkage between substance use disorders and domestic violence is widely attested but also highly complicated, with very different views of causal factors between those who perpetrated the abuse and those who survive it, and one cannot be said to specifically cause the other.
There’s also a common pattern of abusive partners attempting to coerce or cajole their significant other into joining them in substance use, something Toffler credits in an interview with leading to the first physically violent episode of the marriage. Her relation of the episode:
“[Unfortunately] one night, in Le Mans, he gave me some coke. He didn’t force me, but he kept saying “oh please do”… and I was so exhausted and I knew he was not going to let me go to sleep if I didn’t have some coke with him. So I said “OK let me have some.” And as soon as I had some … it hit me like a ton of bricks, and I started to giggle, which was really surprising. And Steve … knew somewhere along the way that his wife had had an affair somewhere [because] he kept saying, “… I would really understand if you had because I’ve put you through hell.” And then I said “really honey?” [Then] I suddenly saw that pain in his eyes because he knew …”
About all that can be said about any particular case of co-occurrence is that it’s important to know the specifics of each case in order to address the underlying problems. What’s certain is that substance abuse disorder was inextricably linked in a number of ways with the problems between McQueen and his ex-wife.
The Professional Effects: Erratic Behavior and the Bad Boy Image
A common thread in many stories of celebrity addiction is the reportage of erratic, unpredictable and high-risk behaviors. This turns up in the stories of Steve McQueen’s life, too. A motorcycle and racing car enthusiast, he was prone to sometimes-reckless car racing and found himself in at least one wreck that ultimately had to be hushed up.
McQueen was also known for being a sometimes-difficult star who made outrageous demands of studios. His refusal of the co-starring role in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was reportedly owed to his insistence on being billed above Paul Newman. Later, when the pair eventually co-starred in “The Towering Inferno” (and top billing was split up market-by-market depending on where the film was screened), McQueen famously insisted that they have exactly the same number of words to speak in the movie and that he get the last line.
Though he fell out with directors, co-stars and producers all through his career, probably the clearest example of McQueen’s addictions interfering with his career was the disastrous filming of Le Mans, a passion project of more than a decade. Colleagues reported him as partying heavily during the production, during which one of the infamous car wrecks mentioned above occurred.
The Big Picture
Despite McQueen’s struggles, it’s important to remember that as with anyone who suffers from a substance abuse disorder, there was more to the man than the disease. He had a reputation for gregariousness, generosity, a sense of honor and a sweet and charitable disposition, and as Toffler herself hints at in the title of her biography, it’s wrong to caricature him in retrospect.
That said, there is perhaps a lesson in the fact that all the reports we do have on McQueen’s struggles came from other people. It’s possible that had he come from a generation more willing to open up about such issues, he could have found treatment and lived a longer, better life. Nobody is just their addiction, and recovery is possible if you reach out.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at (844) 632-2221 to learn more about our intensive inpatient treatment or outpatient detox center in South Florida.