“What makes you different?” Steve asked.
“I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” responded Sammy.”
The Christian faith of one of the most popular and highly paid 1960s-70s actors is the fulcrum on which Steve McQueen: American Icon is balanced. Greg Laurie, pastor, author, and long-time McQueen fan, narrates the engaging and entertaining documentary that is coming to select theaters this Thursday, September 28, for one night only.
Laurie was drawn to McQueen’s story largely because of many parallels in their lives – dysfunctional families (born to alcoholic mothers, never knew their fathers), abuse, abandonment, and rebellion.
“Steve was off the radar for some time near the end of his life,” Laurie said in an exclusive interview with AFA Journal. “But when the National Enquirer broke the story of his cancer in 1980, there was a lot of news coverage.”
Gangs and rebellion
McQueen spent a lot of his childhood at an uncle’s Missouri farm before his mother and stepfather brought him back to LA. The stepdad beat both Steve and his mother, and Steve hit the streets running with gangs until he was arrested. His stepdad sent him back to Missouri, but eventually, he was back on the streets of LA and out of control.
Desperate to see her son delivered from his destructive lifestyle, his mother sent him to Boys Republic, a private school, farm, and treatment community for troubled teens, in Chino Hills, California. He was not yet 15 years old.
In 1947, he joined the Marines, but his rebellious nature continued. After turning one weekend pass into a two-week AWOL, he spent 41 days in the brig. However, he later began to respond to the discipline of the military and take responsibility for his behavior. In a training exercise in the Arctic, McQueen’s ship crashed into a sandbar, throwing several tanks and their crews into the water. Many drowned, but McQueen dived into the water and saved the lives of five men. He was honorably discharged in 1950.
Good fortune and renown
Looking for stability and meaning in the 1950s, McQueen moved to New York City, where he decided to give acting a try. It turned into a career that catapulted him to fame and fortune he’d never dreamed of. His first film opportunity came in 1958 – The Blob, a low-budget sci-fi thriller.
On the documentary, McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill recalled, “Something interesting happened on that set. The film was produced by a company called Good News Productions, and nearly everybody that had anything to do with the production was a Christian.” For the first time in his life, McQueen saw how real Christians lived.
The Blob went on to gross $6 million ($51 million in 2017 dollars). In the years that followed, McQueen was dubbed the “King of Cool” and became perhaps the best known and highest paid actor in the world.
He is noted for his countless standout roles in television (e.g. Wanted: Dead or Alive) and films such as Bullitt, The Great Escape, Papillon, and many more.
The gospel and redemption
“He grew disillusioned with Hollywood and just walked away from it at the height of his fame,” Laurie said. For several years, he sought anonymity and solitude. But in 1980, when cancer brought him to his knees, he was suddenly fertile soil for the gospel.
“Steve had always wanted to fly a plane,” Laurie said, “so he hired flight instructor Sammy Mason. After spending hours and hours with Mason, Steve asked him, ‘What makes you different?’”
“I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” Mason replied. Steve began going to church with Mason and soon gave his life to Christ, only months before he died.
One of the film’s gripping segments tells of McQueen’s request to meet Billy Graham. The noted evangelist flew to meet him at the airport when he was headed to Mexico for cancer surgery.
The generation that remembers McQueen will enjoy the documentary and its intriguing stories of his life – how he missed the big bucks from The Blob, how he came to possess Billy Graham’s Bible, and more. Later generations will be gripped by how McQueen’s life exemplifies a timeless truth: Wealth and fame crumble when compared to life in Christ.
Editor’s note: Greg Laurie is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in California. His book Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, is co-authored with Marshall Terrill and is available at harvest.org and retail or online booksellers.
Steve McQueen: American Icon will be in theaters one day only, September 28. For theater locations, visit stevemcqueenmovie.com.
Read more at Steve McQueen’s Road to Redemption.