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Sunday, November 7, 2010



SIZZLING BOOK OF THE WEEK: Marshall TerrillSteve McQueen: A Tribute To The King Of Cool (Dalton Watson Fine Books) :: Some things you never forget, even after three decades, which is why I clearly remember that exactly thirty years ago today I was working in the Toronto Star building on the afternoon of November 7th 1980 when I heard that the seemingly immortal Steve McQueen had somehow died at the impossibly, ridiculously young age of 50. The news hit me so hard that, despite my credo of abstinence because booze plays hob with my acute critical faculties, I immediately made an exceptional exception to that long-standing rule by going down to the Star’s bar and having a drink in honor of McQueen—a form of tribute that I’ve yet to repeat for anyone else.

As it happened, the man holding court at the table next to me was none other than Orson Welles’ venerable collaborator and arch-rival, John Houseman. Who knows, perhaps Houseman thought I was toasting him when I raised my glass—and who knows, perhaps I would’ve had the situation been radically different—but that day’s drink was downed exclusively for McQueen and McQueen alone.

Now an entirely different kind of drink has been hoisted to the heavens in the form of Marshall Terrill’s essential new 400 page hardcover coffee table book Steve McQueen: A Tribute To The King Of Cool, which is nothing less than a complete chronological delineation of McQueen’s entire life, as told by those who grew up with him; went to school with him, worked with him; raced with him; loved him; and were understandably somewhat less than enthralled with him.

“He was an ornery little bugger,” is how one of his classmates remembers him.

“He sure could fight,” recalls another.

“The first and only time that I ever met Steve McQueen, I got in trouble,” laments a third.

It sometimes seems as if almost everybody who ever knew McQueen—from the soda jerk who used to sell him ice cream to his roommate at the Boys Republic school and treatment community—is on board to offer up an insightful opinion about what it was like to know the man, however fleeting. But as illuminating as these early entries are, it’s not until McQueen starts acting that the book really revs into high gear and doesn’t shift down for a second.

James Dean’s pal Martin Landau weighs in with a remembrance of the day that McQueen met Dean; Memphis Mafia member Sonny West likewise recalls how Elvis had a run-in on the road with McQueen; and on and on it goes as personal recollection after personal recollection comes careening off each profusely illustrated page, all told by a veritable who’s who of classic Hollywood heavyweights, including:

James “Manufacturer” Coburn, Faye Dunaway, Karl Malden, Robert Wise, Ben Johnson, Richard “Big X” Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Peter Yates, Eli Wallach, William Shatner, James “Scrounger” Garner, Anthony Zerbe, Charles Durning, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Loggia, Don Gordon, and Robert “Where’s My Witness?” Vaughn.

you know why it’s a 400 page book—and that’s just a partial list of participants which doesn’t include the dozens and dozens of other contributors such as Edd “Kookie” Byrnes who got a solidarity show of support from Steve during a salary squabble; or hip scene-shaker Lloyd “Tiger Beat” Thaxton who tells timely tales of when he and Steve used to burn midnight rubber up and down...well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

Needless to say, this book doesn’t explain why Steve McQueen was the epitome of cool; you’ll hold that truth to be self-evident every time you watch one of his films. What this book does do, however, is distill the very essence of the man down into a number of key components, not the least of which was McQueen’s undeniable if unlikely status as style symbol, from his tailored suits in The Thomas Crown Affair to his iconic turtleneck panache in Bullitt. I’ll give him credit, Alan R. Trustman, who was lucky enough to have written the screenplay for both of those movies, is man enough to confess that he didn’t think McQueen would be able to play the part, let alone dress the part, in Crown. Which only goes to show that sometimes even the best writers don’t know their act from a hole in the ground.

But just like a circular race track itself, the core of the book inevitably always comes back around to the topic McQueen’s well-known life-long passion for always maintaining a high rate of speed. Page after page, photo after photo, is devoted to it—and deservedly so. As legendary race car driver Stirling Moss confides: “Our conversation was fairly simple: girls and cars. Yes, in that order. If Steve had buckled down and given up acting, he would have become a very competent driver.”

Luckily for us he didn’t give it up, and in 1978 McQueen essayed what was undoubtedly his most radically cool role ever, when he made it a personal point of pride to portray Dr. Thomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People. It was an exceptionally gutsy career move, which is why it’s especially gratifying to see that Terrill gives this seldom-seen performance its much deserved due.

Most poignant, however, is how the book inevitably ends, with recollections from evangelist Billy Graham and César Santos Vargas, the doctor who tried to save McQueen’s life by operating on him in Mexico that fateful day. What follows are two brief excerpts from their contributions in the book.

In the first excerpt, Graham tells of the day that he spent with McQueen shortly before he left for Mexico on November 3rd, 1980: “Steve called and asked if I would pray with him again. It was at that point that I gave him my Bible and inscribed it to him. I look back on that experience with thanksgiving and some amazement. I had planned to minister to Steve, but as it turned out, he ministered to me. I saw once again the reality of what Jesus Christ can do for a man in his last hours.”

And finally, fittingly, the last word goes to Dr. Vargas: “Despite the poor prognosis, Steve was full of hope. I was relieved when it was oven and I checked on Steve several times. He mostly slept, but the one time he was conscious, he looked at me and smiled. ‘I did it,’ he said weakly, raising his thumb. He seemed tired but also excited. I told him to sleep and to get well.”

You owe it to yourself to get this book.

You also owe it to Steve to go here:

Why? Because Steve literally went here:

And because Steve McQueen is the Cooler King of Cool.

Be seeing you!

Sun, November 7, 2010 | link 

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