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When McQueen was king.

STEVE McQUEEN WAS AN ICONIC antihero screen star of the 1960s and 1970s. The foundation to that monumental movie career was a hit Western television series about a bounty hunter, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" (CBS, 1958-61). After the completion of the program's first season, Hollywood powerbroker columnist Hedda Hopper wrote an insightful profile of the actor. McQueen revealed in the piece that he long had been a student of one of the Western's signature film stars--Gary Cooper. The young actor also managed to dovetail from his New York method acting training to a Cooper minimalism that he admired more than any technique: "I went to Actors Studio [home of the method] three years, [but] the only 'method' is ... to find out what you can do as an actor. I admire Gary Cooper, an actor who never studied in his life. He had something; he's gifted with a casual manner I've had to work for. Simplicity came naturally to him."

"Wanted" came on at a time when Westerns dominated the small screen. There were so many of them on TV that Bob Hope joked about needing to brush the hay off his set before turning it on. Indeed, there were more than two dozen cowboy stories on in prime time the season "Wanted" premiered. Even more impressively, 12 of the top 25 Nielsen-rated programs that season were Westerns. "Wanted" also was pivotal to McQueen because the Western was of ongoing significance in the actor's about-to-skyrocket career. He became a bona fide film star with the epic "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), a sage brush remake of director Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954). "Seven" also inspired the parody "Three Amigos!" (1986).

Arguably, McQueen's greatest movie was the neglected Sam Peckinpah-directed contemporary Western, "Junior Bonnet" (1972). Yet, even McQueen's more signature crime movies, "Bullitt" (1968) and "The Getaway" (1972), essentially were Westerns in modern dress. In fact, the actor actually pitched "Bullitt" along cowboy lines, while "The Getaway" was a product of two of the genre's major auteurs--Peckinpah and writer Walter Hill. The latter artist, who went on to become an accomplished director, too, later claimed he saw all stories in horse opera terms. McQueen also starred in the underrated Henry Hathaway cowboy picture "Nevada Smith" (1966) and the sadly forgotten "Tom Horn" (1980).

A central McQueen element brought out by his series, though not fully showcased within it, was the actor's sense of humor. This funny side often has been obscured by his later long-haired reclusive years, when McQueen's public appearances became much less frequent. The actor was, however, a natural wit, which first came to the surface during his emergence as a television star. An early comic catalyst was his horse problems on "Wanted." McQueen told Hollywood columnist Earl Wilson, "They first gave me an old horse you had to put roller skates on to get into the studio. I said, 'I want a fresh horse--one with some fire.' I sure got one. The first time we met, [Ringo bit me] and I popped him right in the mouth and they had to pull us apart. They've now asked me if I want another horse. I've told them, 'Don't take the horse away. He's crazy but I like him!'"

McQueen's misadventures with Ringo soon became an ongoing source of humor for the actor. For example, the following season, he told Wilson, "This horse is murder--but I'm going to win. He's been out in pasture all summer thinking up new dirty tricks. He's really a neurotic, that horse. Wait'll he reads that I said that!" Erase Ringo, and McQueen still kidded about everything, including himself. He told another syndicated columnist, Sidney Skolsky, "I became an actor because it was the softest job with the best pay. Get to the theater between 7:30 and 8 at night. Finish at 11. No responsibilities. [Now that I'm on TV], I get up at 5:30 in the morning to be at the studio by 6:30. I come home at 9, dog tired. Somewhere along the line, I got caught."

Even when McQueen was angry, he could coin a comic comeback. During a television feud with fellow video cowboy Jack Mahoney (the star and title character of "Yancy Derringer," 1958-59), whose series sidekick was Native-American "Pahoo," McQueen comically proposed a sissy-like duel. He told syndicated columnist Joe Hyams, "You tell Mahoney I'll meet him at [Hollywood's famed] Schwab's Drug Store any morning. Kleenex at thirty paces. The color is up to him." Then, in mock toughness, McQueen topped himself with a smiling final comment, "If he meets me ... tell him to leave the Indian at home."

While McQueen's series was not the ideal showcase for the actor's wit, Ringo notwithstanding, "Wanted" occasionally did have its humorous moments. Some episodes, moreover, completely embraced comedy, such as the first season's Christmas show--"Eight Cent Reward" (Dec. 20, 1958). This was the amount a child (Jay North, later TV's Dennis the Menace) gave McQueen's character, Josh Randall, to find Santa Claus. After several misadventures, including Randall hiring a substitute St. Nick that turns out to be a lush, a sort of frontier Father Christmas puts in a poignant, yet funny, surprise appearance.

Of course, McQueen's sense of humor hardly was limited to his "Wanted" years. Well into his stardom, McQueen once was asked what he would be doing in 10 years. Laughing, he replied, "I'm guessing I'll be all gray by then and be playing Paul Newman's father." At the same time, McQueen confessed that he still found his first wife (Neile Adams) something of an enigma, but then wryly added, "Did you ever know any man who understood his wife?"

Regardless, Hopper would coin a two-word description of McQueen as a young Western star--"He excites!" For most future film fans, that never ceased to be true.

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. His more than two dozen books often key on biographies of filmmakers, including his current Steve McQueen study.
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Title Annotation:REEL WORLD; Steve McQueen
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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