The Digital Journalist

Photograph by William Claxton


Claxton Interview: Steve McQueen

Like a lot of Americans, I discovered Steve McQueen when I saw him on the television series "Wanted: Dead or Alive" in 1958. He had made his film debut only two years before with a bit part in Somebody Up There Likes Me, but his performances were unusual and provocative, especially in the close-ups. Like Spencer Tracy before him, in a matter of seconds Steve could register a vast number of moods, thoughts, and tensions with lightning-speed introspection.

In 1962, when he was about to work in the feature Love with the Proper Stranger, I happened to get an assignment to photograph him and his costar, Natalie Wood. Over a number of years, and through several movie productions, Steve and I became close friends. I had never met anyone quite like him. He was uneducated but intelligent, street smart, mean, often funny, and hip; in fact, he was super hip.

He was also very possessive of certain friends. While shooting a film, he wanted me to be on the set all the time, have lunch with him, hang out when he was not working, and, most of all, he did not want me to associate with any other stars. "And especially not Paul Newman," he always said. "I'll be bigger than Newman. You watch." It was a friendly competition, because they were friends, but he definitely measured himself against the other actor.

His possessiveness didn't bother me too much at first. I always had a camera when we were together, on road trips, at his home, and during rehearsals, and being so close to him gave me opportunities for photographs that I've had with few others. But after a while, it began to trouble me. I never knew where he'd turn up next.

One night, I was driving down Sunset Boulevard with my wife, Peggy, when she said, "I think that guy on the motorcycle is following us." There was a biker behind us with one of those black, bubble-plastic helmets that didn't reveal his face. "Yeah," I said, "that's Steve." "How do you know it's Steve?" she asked. "I just know. Watch." At the next stoplight, I rolled down my window, waved at the familiar silhouette, and shouted, "Hey! Steve!" Whereupon the mysterious biker turned onto a side street and sped off into the night.

The next day, I saw the same motorcycle and helmet near Steve's dressing room at the studio. I confronted him with his pursuit of us the night before. A sheepish look came over his face, and he said, "Hey, man, I got to have some fun, don't I?"

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