On this day in 1980, the actor Steve McQueen, one of Hollywood’s leading men of the 1960s and 1970s and the star of such action thrillers as Bullitt and The Towering Inferno, dies at the age of 50 in Mexico, where he was undergoing an experimental treatment for cancer. In 1979, McQueen had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer often related to asbestos exposure. It was later believed that the ruggedly handsome actor, who had an affinity for fast cars and motorcycles, might have been exposed to asbestos by wearing racing suits.
Terrence Steven McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana. After a troubled youth that included time in reform school, McQueen served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1940s. He then studied acting and began competing in motorcycle races. He made his big-screen debut with a tiny role in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman. McQueen went on to appear in the camp classic The Blob (1958) and gained fame playing a bounty hunter in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, which originally aired on CBS from 1958 to 1961.
During the 1960s, McQueen built a reputation for playing cool, loner heroes in a list of films that included the Western The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was directed by John Sturges and also featured Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson; The Great Escape (1963), in which McQueen played a U.S. solider in World War II who makes a daring motorcycle escape from a German prison camp; and The Sand Pebbles (1966), a war epic for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. McQueen played a detective in one of his most popular movies, 1968’s Bullitt, which featured a spectacular car chase through the streets of San Francisco. That same year, the actor portrayed an elegant thief in The Thomas Crown Affair.
In the 1970s, McQueen was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors and starred in hit films such as director Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) with Ali MacGraw, to whom McQueen was married from 1973 to 1978; Papillon (1973), with Dustin Hoffman; and The Towering Inferno (1974), with Paul Newman, William Holden and Faye Dunaway.
In the summer of 1980, McQueen traveled to Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where he underwent an unorthodox cancer treatment that involved, among other things, coffee enemas and a therapy derived from apricot pits. On November 6, 1980, he had surgery to remove cancerous masses from his body; he died the following day. His final films were Tom Horn and The Hunter, both of which were released in 1980.