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Steve McQueen was the best of the best anti-heroes

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

One of my McQueen faves is his blowtorch performance as a doomed combat soldier in 1962's "Hell is for Heroes," which helped define the non-comformist '60s, while his cold, calculating bank robber in "The Getaway" (1972) was Humphrey Bogart revisited.

I took note of McQueen in his first film in 1956, as Paul Newman's pal in "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Newman, of course, played boxer Rocky Graziano, but I recall thinking that this other young man "has something." The feeling continued watching his intense work in a 1959 low-budget film called "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery."

Just about that time, America at large discovered McQueen in the TV series "Wanted: Dead or Alive" as bounty hunter Josh Randall. His trademark was an icy stare and lever-action rifle cut to handgun-size he lugged in an extra-big holster.

McQueen soared to popularity in the '60s with "The Magnificent Seven" (1960); "The War Lover" (1962); "The Great Escape," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Soldier in the Rain" (1963); "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" (1965); "Nevada Smith" (1966); and "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt" (1968), for which he did his own dangerous stunt driving. In 1966, his shattering work in "The Sand Pebbles" earned an Academy Award nomination.

In the '70s, McQueen scored as a rodeo rider in "Junior Bonner" (1972); a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance in "Papillion" (1973); and as a fire chief with Paul Newman in "The Towering Inferno" (1974). Ironically, he turned-down the Robert Redford role opposite Newman in the 1969 smash-hit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"--reportedly because Newman would be billed above him.

McQueen also passed on "Dirty Harry" (1972)--which elevated Clint Eastwood--and 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (George Peppard) due to TV's "Wanted: Dead or Alive." He also declined 1960's original "Ocean's Eleven" (Frank Sinatra); 1971's "The French Connection" (Gene Hackman); 1974's "California Split" (Elliott Gould); 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Richard Dreyfuss); and 1978's "The Driver" (Ryan O'Neal). Illness cost him 1979's "Apocalypse Now" (Martin Sheen).

McQueen's final two films were in 1980 prior to his death--"Tom Horn" and "The Hunter." His ill health, induced by heavy smoking, had been well-publicized. Yet his passing was a shock to those of us who grooved on his gritty, one-of-kind work. Indeed, he was all a movie actor should be--and there may never be another like him.