When it comes to salvation, not much separates a pastor from a pop icon.
That’s what Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Ministries, found as he delved into the life of the Hollywood star dubbed “King of Cool.”
Laurie’s latest book, “Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon,” explores how the actor became a born-again Christian six months before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It is set to be released Sunday night, June 11, during a Harvest America event at the University of Phoenix stadium in Arizona broadcast live worldwide on TBN.
“I’m nowhere near as cool as Steve McQueen,” the pastor declared on a recent afternoon.
Laurie’s spacious office in Irvine — he has another office in Riverside — includes memorabilia of all kinds, neatly stacked on wooden shelves. In one of the corners is an action figure of actor McQueen next to a tiny model of the 1968 highland green Ford Mustang 390 GT that he drove in the Peter Yates action film “Bullitt.”
A replica of that car sits in Laurie’s garage, as well. But that’s not where the similarities end.
As the pastor dug deeper into McQueen’s short and sparkling, yet troubled, life, he found they had a lot in common. Both had moms who were blondes and alcoholics. Both moms married and divorced several times.
“So, we both grew up with a number of stepfathers, but there was no real father figure in our lives,” Laurie said.
Both were troubled kids who were sent away from their homes — the pastor to the Southern California Military Academy and McQueen, to the Boys Republic private school in Chino.
“I realized I was the perfect person to tell his story of redemption,” Laurie said.
He said the epiphany came last year during the Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium.
“I talked about McQueen’s story, about him finding Jesus Christ before he died,” Laurie said. “I could see the emotion among the people there — young and old.”
After that event, Laurie partnered with filmmaker John Irwin to make a documentary about McQueen’s journey to salvation. The book was a product of that experience, he said. The film is set to be released in September.
The part in the book about Laurie journeying in his Bullitt replica across Malibu, Hollywood, the Midwest and New York is fictional.
However, Laurie did join McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill to conduct interviews with several key figures including Barbara Minty, McQueen’s wife at the time of his death, and Leonard DeWitt, pastor of Ventura Missionary Church where McQueen is believed to have accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
Laurie says in his book that McQueen found DeWitt’s church through Sammy Mason, a flight instructor he hired to teach him how to fly his newly purchased yellow bi-plane.
“There was something about Mason that McQueen couldn’t put his finger on and when he asked him, Mason said, it was his relationship with Jesus Christ,” Laurie said.
McQueen began to attend Mason’s church, and one day over lunch told DeWitt that he had become a born-again Christian in that church.
It was around this time that McQueen learned he had end-stage mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. He was given only a few months to live.
Laurie said even as he was undergoing cancer treatments in Mexico, he talked to his therapist about his faith. As he learned his days were numbered, McQueen requested a meeting with famed televangelist the Rev. Billy Graham. During their meeting, Graham gave McQueen his personal Bible and prayed with him.
McQueen died four days after that meeting, at age 50, with Graham’s Bible resting on his chest as he lay on his hospital bed.
Laurie describes the scene in his book based on the account of McQueen’s son, Chad, who found his father the morning of Nov. 7, 1980 — his eyes open and hands clutching the Bible.
While McQueen may have seemed larger than life on screen, performing hair-raising motorcycle stunts and car chases, he was very much human, Laurie said.
“He was, in every way, an ordinary man,” he said. “He did not grow up with a stable family, wealth or education. He was arrested. He was in a chain gang.”
McQueen found fame, fortune, drugs and women, but grew tired of it all, Laurie said.
“Sometimes, finding what’s true starts with finding out what isn’t true,” he said.
A turning point for McQueen was the day he was supposed to have gone with his hairstylist Jay Sebring to a party at actress Sharon Tate’s home. For some reason McQueen missed that party. It was the day when Tate, eight months pregnant at the time, was murdered by members of the Manson family, along with Sebring and three others.
McQueen should’ve been there that day. “And that freaked him out,” Laurie said.
Like many others, the realization of his mortality led McQueen on a spiritual quest, “to fill that hole in his heart,” the pastor said.
“He went looking for his father,” Laurie said. “Deep down he was looking for God. Everyone is.”
Talking about his own childhood in this book did raise some old wounds for Laurie. But he says he now uses that pain to help others who are going through similar challenges.
“When we experience pain, we can become bitter or better,” he said. “I use my painful past as a tool to connect with people and help them.”
Laurie says he is an example of the fact that people can change for the better.
“I’ve been married to the same woman for 42 years,” he said. “Just because you come from a broken home, doesn’t mean you have to live in one.”