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Steve McQueen was the best of the best anti-heroes

Bevan Springer | 4/12/2011, 5:25 p.m.

"Well, if I killed that kid, it'd been the best shot I ever made, and the dirtiest trick I ever done..."--Steve McQueen, "Tom Horn" (1980)

"The Cincinnati Kid" (1965) was the quintessential, high-stakes card game movie--marathon stud-poker in front of a crowd. After a day and a night, the end was in sight.

An elderly Edward G. Robinson, as "The Man," stared at young Steve McQueen, who sought to succeed him. McQueen was showing a pair of aces and a pair of 10s and bet $3,500. Now Robinson was dealt a nine of diamonds, giving him a possible straight flush.

Robinson called McQueen's bet and raised him $5,000, which McQueen didn't have. He said, "I can get the money," and Robinson agreed. "Let's see it," McQueen intoned.

Robinson dramatically turned over his hole card--a jack of diamonds--completing the flush. He actually had it. A gaggle of bleary-eyed male and female onlookers gasped.

"Gets down to what it's all about, doesn't it?" Robinson said to his shocked, sweating foe. "Making the wrong move at the right time."

"Is that what it's all about?" replied the crestfallen McQueen, turning over his hole card to reveal a third ace, giving him an aces-over-10s full house. Not enough.

"You're good, kid, but as long as I'm around, you're second best," Robinson smirked. "You might as well learn to live with it."

Ambling out into the night, McQueen encountered a young Black shoe shine boy who loved to challenge him pitching pennies. This time, the boy won. "You tried too hard, man," he said. "You just ain't ready for me yet." Then the closing credits rolled as Ray Charles gave out his guttural rendition of the legendary title song.

"The Cincinnati Kid" was vintage McQueen--part of a memorable body of work by my all-time favorite star, renowned as "The King of Cool." To this long-time cineaste, he was the last really convincing American film actor--the anti-hero to end all anti-heroes.

His magic ended 30 years ago--Nov. 7, 1980--when he died at 50 of lung cancer after 27 films. Millions mourned this powerhouse performer and his scalding realism.

One of my memories involving McQueen was an emotional phone call from his daughter, Terri, about my 1990 New York Daily News column on the 10th anniversary of his death.

Indiana-born and New York-trained, McQueen appealed to men and women. Men liked his straightforward manner, street-level humor and genuine toughness. Women liked his honesty and soft-spoken demeanor, as well as a smoldering volatility.

By no means a pretty boy, McQueen possessed rugged good looks that strongly appealed to females--among them three wives, including actress Ali MacGraw. While not that big, he didn't carry himself like someone you'd want to mess with in a bar.

Audiences loved McQueen's mesmerizing presence, which enabled him to dominate the screen based on sheer personality. In my book, there never has been anyone who could hold a candle to him on that score--and I think I've seen them all. He was simply electric.