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Steve McQueen's Last Fight

The rebellious leading man lost his battle with cancer 14 years ago

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When most moviegoers think of Steve McQueen, they picture a World War II prisoner soaring through the air on a motorcycle in The Great Escape or a cool loner cop behind the wheel of a speeding Mustang in Bullitt. But it was the brooding McQueen’s last role, as a 50-year-old actor on an unorthodox quest to cure his cancer, that turned out to be his most physical and courageous.

The bad-boy heroes whom McQueen played so often came naturally. Abandoned as an infant by his Navy flier father and shipped off to a school for delinquents by his mother in his early teens, he said he was ”born with the word loser nailed to my forehead.” But after a three-year hitch in the Marines, he took up acting, landing his first major roles in the 1958 cheeseball sci-fi film The Blob and, soon afterward, the TV series Wanted — Dead or Alive. McQueen’s sensitive, earthy bounty hunter made the show a hit, and with his macho swagger and rugged good looks, he soon became one of Hollywood’s first modern action stars in The Magnificent Seven and The Getaway, as well as a quirky leading man to Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid.

Off screen, McQueen was a karate black belt (he served as a pallbearer at Bruce Lee’s funeral) and a skillful motorcycle rider and race-car driver. His gun-packing, hard-drinking, pot-smoking exploits made him a natural for rebel director Sam Peckinpah, with whom he made the ’72 films Junior Bonner and The Getaway. And it was on the Getaway set that McQueen began a six-year love affair with the hot model-actress Ali MacGraw, whom he would steal away from her husband, producer Robert Evans; marry; and divorce. Peckinpah once told MacGraw that if she wanted to know what acting was all about, she should just watch McQueen’s eyes in a close-up.

In 1979, shortly after filming The Hunter, McQueen was diagnosed as having mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos. Told the condition was inoperable, he secretly checked in to a controversial Mexican clinic run by a self-promoting Texas dentist with no medical degree. There he underwent an arduous, three-month regimen involving coffee enemas, animal-cell injections, laetrile (a substance derived from apricot pits), and more than 100 vitamin and mineral pills a day — as well as a born-again experience. But his health only deteriorated, and on Nov. 7, 1980, Steve McQueen died from a heart attack following surgery to remove a tumor — a fighter and renegade to the bitter end.

Time Capsule / Nov. 7, 1980

At the box office, Private Benjamin glittered like Goldie; ”Woman in Love” had Streisand fans smitten; One Day at a Time was tops on the tube; and James A. Michener’s The Covenant was the tome of choice.