Calling film legend Steve McQueen “complicated” would qualify as a major understatement. As a child, McQueen faced so much abuse, poverty, and general turmoil that the wounds never quite healed. Norman Jewison, who directed McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), came to take McQueen’s foibles in stride.
In brief, Jewison knew the rewards of a strong McQueen performance were worth the pains of getting it on-screen. And there were a good number of pains. During the course of a shoot, McQueen would constantly hit up Jewison and his crew for gas money. But Jewison was more bothered by McQueen’s “cheapskate” behavior around his co-stars.
Norman Jewison thought Steve McQueen lacked generosity toward his fellow actors
In Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life (2021), Ira Wells explains why McQueen frustrated the director during the making of those memorable pictures. Simply put, McQueen didn’t help out his fellow actors much on the set, which made Jewison’s job harder.
“He wasn’t what you’d call a giving man,” Jewison said in an interview Wells quotes. “Frankly, he was a cheapskate. McQueen had this habit of looking down at the floor between setups, so no one could take their cue from him. Then, promptly on ‘Action,’ he’d come [alive].”
After replacing Sam Peckinpah on The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison already had his hands full. But he established a strong rapport with McQueen early on in the shoot. Later, Jewison described the star as “the most alone” actor he’d ever known.
As for the stories about McQueen never carrying cash on him, Wells recounts a great one from Jewison. “When Steve left the set at night he’d always hit up me or one of the crew for five bucks’ worth of ‘gas money,’ which we never saw again,” Jewison said.
A ‘Magnificent Seven’ co-star recalled a frightening tale of McQueen’s cash-free lifestyle
McQueen didn’t start his cash-free lifestyle when he became a huge star in the mid-’60s. According to Magnificent Seven (1960) co-star Robert Vaughn, McQueen was living that way at the start of the decade. After a day of shooting the classic war film, McQueen tried to pay off a Mexican brothel tab with a credit card.
The adventure began with some old-fashioned Hollywood excess. “They asked, ‘How many girls would you like?’ Steve said, ‘Seven. We are The Magnificent Seven and we want seven girls,’” Vaughn recalled in a 2015 Daily Record interview. According to Vaughn, things went south when McQueen pulled out a Diners Club card to pay. (They fled the scene.)
The moral of the story, obviously, is, If you were hanging out with McQueen, you’d better be at a place that takes credit cards. And if you were directing him in a major Hollywood film, you dealt with his issues so you could capture the magic when the cameras rolled. But “gas money” for a guy making a fortune? Sometimes, you gotta say no.