Steve McQueen (1930-1980) may have been known as the “King of Cool” during the height of his Hollywood popularity, but before that, he had a less than stellar career with the U.S. Marines.
McQueen had failed to find his calling during the first 17 years of his life. In 1947 he decided to join the Marines. He served with an armored unit and quickly rose to the rank of Private First Class and just as quickly got demoted back to the rank of private. This is a rank he would get to know very well. By the time he completed his service in 1950, he would be promoted from — and demoted back to — the rank of private a total of seven times!
His problems stemmed from an unwillingness to yield to authority. This was most evident when he went AWOL for two weeks. When military police attempted to arrest him, McQueen resisted. This earned him 41 days in the brig, with the first 21 days spent living off of nothing but bread and water.
This latest run-in with authorities seemed to get his attention. McQueen emerged from the brig with a renewed determination to live up to the values of the Marines. The reform of his character came just in time. When a training exercise in the Arctic went awry, sending several tanks and their crews off a landing vessel and into the water, McQueen jumped into the frigid water and saved the lives of five men.
McQueen’s heroism was recognized and rewarded. He was assigned to serve in the Honor Guard protecting President Harry S. Truman‘s yacht. He served out the remainder of his tour with the Marines and was honorably discharged in 1950.
“The Marines gave me discipline I could live with. By the time I got out, I could deal with things on a more realistic level. All in all, despite my problems, I liked my time in the Marines,” McQueen said.
The years that followed his military service saw him find his footing as one of the top actors in Hollywood. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sand Pebbles. Other popular films included The Cincinnati Kid, Love With the Proper Stranger, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and The Magnificent Seven. In 1974 he became the highest-paid movie star in the world.
His acting career was notable for his tendency to become combative with directors and producers. Despite this, he continued to command top salaries and leading roles in show business and never again got busted to the rank of private.
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