Recently I've rediscovered Steve McQueen. Let me rephrase that. I have discovered Steve McQueen. Rediscovering literally means to discover again, and since I never paid much attention to McQueen to begin with, much less watched any of his movies when they were released, I can't truly say I have RE-discovered him. But, yes, I have discovered Steve McQueen now, 35 years after his death.
Back in the 1960's and 1970's, social commentary and car chases were becoming the big thing in movies. A lot of McQueen's pictures portrayed him as ultra-cool, hip, and an anti-hero (as it was called back then), and they were not the sorts of movies I went to see.
(I did see him in "The Blob" when it was shown on TV, but I don't count that as a bona fide Steve McQueen movie.)
Before he made his mark as a feature movie star, I knew him from TV's "Wanted Dead or Live" series where he played bounty hunter Josh Randall. The show was one of many western series I watched all the time as a kid. At the time, it was just another cowboy series to me, no better or worse than any other.
Now "Wanted Dead or Alive" has returned to television on a daily basis in reruns on the Encore Western channel and we've been watching them. Watching them with the eyes of an adult who has watched a heck of a lot of movies and TV shows throughout his life. Along with old movies, Encore televises many old westerns from the golden age of TV cowboy shows.
Of the dozens of western TV series produced through the years "Wanted Dead or Alive" is far and away one of the best ("Gunsmoke" being another prime example). The reason the show is so good has a lot to do with the writing. It also has to do with the characterization of bounty hunter Josh Randall, as played by McQueen.
Randall is not your typical two-dimensional TV cowboy chasing down bad guys with his six guns blazing, cleaning up the town, and saving the girl from the clutches of the crooked owner of the saloon. McQueen manages to make Josh Randall a unique, well-rounded, principled loner. A guy doing his job, living nowhere in particular, whose only agenda is to get his man and turn him in for the bounty. He's a bit quirky, but has a heart of gold and a pretty good sense of humor.
And there's something else about Josh Randall. We, as the audience, can't keep our eyes off him when he's on screen. He's interesting to watch. The way he jumps into the stirrups when mounting his horse, the way he walks, the way he reacts to other characters, even the way he eats. The character is watchable all the time, show after show, after show. Then we realize it isn't Josh Randall we are reacting to at all. It's Steve McQueen.
McQueen was a good actor, but he also had that special quality that separates a good actor from a real movie star. That indescribable something, a magnetic persona that is able to capture an audience's attention. We want to watch him; our eyes go to him no matter who else is on the screen. Not all big time actors have that quality. Bogart had it. Tracy had it. Cagney had it. De Niro and Nicholson have it. And McQueen definitely had it.
The "Wanted Dead of Alive" reruns whet my appetite to see more of McQueen on the big screen so I looked up his movies. Many of them, I'm afraid, still hold no interest for me. "The Great Escape," "Bullitt," "Papillon," and "Le Mans" are not my cups of tea. The prison escape stuff, the car chases, motorcycles, race cars and crazy Peckinpah violence turn me off. But as it turns out, those pictures aren't the best example of McQueen's acting.
For pure performance you can't beat "Love With The Proper Stranger," "The Cincinnati Kid," and "Nevada Smith." I've recently watched these and enjoyed them all. One I've never seen, but hear good things about is "The Sand Pebbles." That's the next one on my watch list.
All through the years I never appreciated Steve McQueen and now, thanks to TV reruns, I do. It's like discovering a brand new actor. I may be slow to pick up on things sometimes, but when I finally get there it's a nice treat.