McQueen, MacGraw, The Getaway

THE GETAWAY, Ali MacGraw, Steve McQueen, 1972, kiss

“I’m with one woman at a time, and she’s my lady and that’s it until the ball game’s over and we decide to walk in different directions.”

Steve McQueen, the world’s biggest movie star, wanted Ali MacGraw to play his wife in The Getaway. But MacGraw, the top female box office draw in 1971, was afraid. The attraction she felt for McQueen while watching Bullitt three years earlier had been so strong, she claimed to have left the theater with “knees knocking.” She feared that working opposite him in The Getaway would mean “serious trouble” and later used the words scary, visceral and electrified to describe looking into his famous blue eyes for the first time. For his part, McQueen was more direct, remarking that MacGraw “had the nicest ass I’ve ever seen on a woman.”

THE GETAWAY, Steve McQueen, 1972McQueen, who would have celebrated his 86th birthday today, once told TV Life, “I came from a world of brute force.” A child of alcoholics, he never knew his father and had been abandoned by his mother. He created his iconic King of Cool image in such films as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, receiving his only Oscar nomination for best actor in The Sand Pebbles, but in 1971, McQueen wasn’t doing so well. Now in his 40s, he had suffered a rare critical and box office failure with his pet project, the race car movie Le Mans, and his wife, Neile, had filed for divorce, ending their almost 16-year marriage. He rented a house, where, as biographer Marc Eliot writes in Steve McQueen, he “enjoyed getting up late, popping open a couple of cold ones and spending his afternoons alone watching soap operas and game shows.” Still paranoid after the murder of his friend Jay Sebring by the Manson family, in 1969, the actor packed a pistol and withdrew from Hollywood life.

David Foster, McQueen’s publicist-turned-producer, hand-delivered the Getaway script to the now reclusive star. Based on a novel by noir icon Jim Thompson, The Getaway is a pulp fiction tale about the last score of husband-and-wife bank robbers. McQueen loved his character, Carter “Doc” McCoy, the type of antihero played to perfection by his idols, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. With a touch of irony, he told columnist Joyce Haber that, “being the Peter Perfect man that I am,” playing Doc would be “difficult for me.”

One fateful afternoon, McQueen, Foster and Getaway director Sam Peckinpah met with McGraw and her husband, Robert Evans, head of production at Paramount Pictures, to convince her to sign on for the film. According to Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, by Marshall Terrill, “When McQueen left the house, [MacGraw] dialed her old boss and mentor, fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky, in panicked desperation. ‘Mr. Melvin, I’m in trouble,’ MacGraw whispered into the receiver.”

The trysting between McQueen and MacGraw began immediately upon her arrival at the Huntsville, Texas, shooting location. She later said, “I was obsessed with Steve from the moment he stepped into my world.” The lovers made no attempt to hide their relationship, and soon their gorgeous faces were splashed across every tabloid in the country. They were the hottest adulterous couple since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As Foster remembered, “Every day there were helicopters filled with paparazzi flying above us.” Evans, meanwhile, was obsessed with completing The Godfather and caught on too late to what the whole world already knew: “My wife was fucking another guy, and I had no idea.” MacGraw filed for divorce in August 1972, but the poster for The Getaway told audiences all they needed to know: “McQueen/MacGraw…The Getaway.” The movie was a box office smash, and Steve McQueen was back on top.

THE GETAWAY, Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw relaxing on set, 1972Despite telling a reporter, “I sometimes hate to go back to work…. I’m at an age where I’m not as ambitious as I used to be,” McQueen wasted no time in capitalizing on his regained clout and soon signed to star opposite Dustin Hoffman in the prison drama Papillon. But MacGraw’s career was another story. McQueen called Ali his “old lady,” and, as Vanity Fair later recounted, she put “meat and potatoes in front of him every night at six. He didn’t want her to work, so she didn’t.” After MacGraw agreed to sign a prenup, waiving her claim to McQueen’s massive fortune, the two were married, on July 12, 1973, in a ceremony attended by Steve’s son, Chad; his daughter, Terry; and Ali’s little son, Josh.

McQueen followed Papillon with The Towering Inferno, which became the biggest hit of his career, while MacGraw was off-screen for four years. When she did return to acting, in Convoy, opposite Kris Kristofferson, McQueen began an affair with model Barbara Minty (whom he later married). McQueen and MacGraw separated in 1978, a month after Convoy opened. Panicked that she had made a mistake, MacGraw called McQueen, looking to reconcile. He replied, “I am not in love with you anymore. I love you, but I am not in love.” MacGraw hung up the phone, called her agent, Sue Mengers, and instructed her to find a new movie project.

After McQueen lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 50, on November 7, 1980, all three of his wives attended his memorial service. As his biographer Eliot wrote, Neile McQueen “summed up Steve’s life with humor, brevity and insight. ‘Steve liked to fuck blondes,’ she said, ‘but he married brunettes.’ After a moment’s awkward silence, everyone threw back their heads and roared with laughter.”

Photos courtesy of Everett Collection