The Life: Steve McQueen by Dwight Jon Zimmerman Review

If all you knew about Steve McQueen was that he was a success on TV, in the movies and did some racing with cars and motorcycles, well, you’d probably say that was enough for him to be considered pretty cool.

You might have a special affinity for some of the roles he had in any of his 18 films such as Virgil Hilts, POW in The Great Escape, or as Tom Horn, western enforcer, or as a rich, slick thief in The Thomas Crowne Affair, or as a tough cop in Bullitt or as himself in Bruce Brown’s motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday.

The Life: Steve McQueen bookAll that would be remarkable enough, but it would be nowhere near the whole story. There was a lot more to Steve McQueen and just how much more there was can be found in the new book by Dwight Jon Zimmerman from Motorbooks, an imprint of Quarto Publishing, The Life: Steve McQueen.

He was the product of a very sad and broken family, his father walking out on him and his mother when he was only six months old and even his mother eventually turning her back on him, first sending him to live with relatives and later, signing him into California Junior Boys Republic in Chino Hills at the age of 15.

By that time, McQueen had already started running with a street gang and getting into trouble; ironically, his placement at Chino may have been one of the few good things his mother did for his future. In the years he spent there, he got the structure and guidance he needed and took control of his life—for the better.

McQueen never forgot the positive influence the place was in his life, returning there often and providing support to the program, even after he had established his status as a star.

Zimmerman reveals that McQueen was more than a hero figure on the big and little screens; he was indeed a hero in real life. While in the Marine Corps in 1948, during a training mission in the Arctic, the ship he was on with other tank crews struck a shoal causing men and machines to be thrown overboard. McQueen personally rescued five men during the incident. In recognition of his actions, McQueen was then assigned to the Honor Guard securing the Presidential yacht.

Steve McQueen motorcycle jacketZimmerman tracks McQueen’s rapid advancement as an actor from a bit part in Somebody Up there Likes Me, about boxing champ, Rocky Graziano where McQueen had his first contact with Paul Newman, and on through the films McQueen thought would bomb at the box office (but often didn’t) to his role in the poorly understood An Enemy of the People and beyond to his final film in 1980 about a modern-day bounty hunter in The Hunter.

McQueen’s broad appeal arose partly from his abilities as an actor but also from his style both on and off the screen. His choice of clothing, shoes, hats, sunglasses, you name it, all took on special significance. Perhaps even greater appeal—and ascendant value—attached to his choices of cars, motorcycles, airplanes and racing machines, all of which is explored by Zimmerman.

Zimmerman sheds light not only on McQueen’s life achievements and his status as the “king of cool” but on his deeper character; his generosity and willingness to help total strangers, his sense of humor, his personal courage and his faith, as well as the people in his life who helped along the way.

Steve McQueen died of mesothelioma in 1980, but his appeal and his legacy continue to this day. In The Life: Steve McQueen, Dwight Jon Zimmerman has created a way to know McQueen as much more than the media stereotypical king of cool, whose image is used to sell everything from clothing lines to motorcycles and watches. He reveals a tough kid from a hardscrabble background who worked hard to get where he wanted to go, played hard and took us along for the ride and never lost sight of his own humanity and that of those around him.

For more great reading about Steve McQueen from Motorbooks, see our review: Rider’s Library—McQueen’s Motorcycles-Racing and Riding with the King of Cool.

Book Data:

  • Title: The Life: Steve McQueen
  • Author: Dwight Jon Zimmerman
  • Published: 2017 hardcover, 240 9.0” x 6.5” pages, color and black & white images.
  • Publisher: Motorbooks, Quarto Publishing Group, 400 First Ave. North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA
  • ISBN: 978-0-7603-5811-5
  • MSRP: U.S. $30.00 U.K. £19.99 $38.99 CAN