To try to follow in Steve McQueen’s footsteps is not the easiest of things. If my father were still alive, I think Chad probably wouldn’t have become an actor, at least not for a while.
Terry McQueen, 24
George Orwell once remarked that, at 50, every man has the face he deserves. When McQueen died at 50 in 1980, he had a face that everyone knew: His crooked grin and steely blue eyes had given virile energy to movies ranging from Bullitt to The Magnificent Seven. Today the McQueen squint is back on screen—but this time on the face of his only son, Chad. “He is so much like Steve,” notes his mother, dancer-actress Neile McQueen Toffel, Steve’s first wife. “He has my coloring, but he has all of Steve’s mannerisms.” And, at 22, he has decided to try to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Shaken by Steve’s death (and the controversy surrounding his decision to undergo laetrile treatment in Mexico after U.S. doctors gave him no chance to recover from cancer), Chad has plunged into the passions of his father’s life: acting and car racing. In the past year he has emerged as a comer on the Formula Ford racing circuit and starred with another Hollywood heir, Griffin O’Neal, in Hadley’s Rebellion (scheduled for test release this month).
No one could know better than McQueen’s children the length of their father’s shadow. “Few men walked taller or set a stronger example, which makes following him into the same profession real tough,” Chad says. His older sister, Terry, a UCLA political science major (and the “very good friend” of Fall Guy star Lee Majors), worries that Steve’s death has thrust his son too soon into acting. “For a while Chad went through a real identity crisis when he decided he wanted to be an actor.” Ali MacGraw notes of her former stepson, “He is bent on living out a dream. I am waiting for him to do something so special that people will say ‘Chad McQueen,’ without adding, ‘son of the late Steve McQueen.’ ”
Certainly Chad remains very much aware of his father. His rented bungalow in Trancas, North Malibu is but a half mile from the house he shared with his father (and with two successive stepmothers, MacGraw and model Barbara Minty) after his parents’ 1971 breakup and is crammed with mementos and photographs of the late star. In the garage sit several vintage motorcycles and two Porsches, including a gleaming black 1958 speedster often raced by McQueen at California’s Willow Springs racetrack.
A quarter of a century later another McQueen hurtles around that track at 140 mph. Encouraged by his father’s friend and fellow racer Paul Newman, Chad boasts of several finishes among the top five after his first full season driving a Formula Ford.
Chad was introduced to dirt bikes at 6 by his father and went on to win his class at the World Mini Grand Prix at 12. He also accompanied Steve to France for the filming of Le Mans, which was about the grueling 24-hour race. “I was standing watching when he pulled up next to me in the Porsche 917 he was driving in the film. He put me on his lap, then roared off down the track. The G force from the acceleration was so great that he had to ease off because I was forcing the seat belt to dig into him. We were going about 200 mph. I’ll never forget it.”
Chad’s decision to try acting came while his father shot his last film, 1980’s The Hunter. Working as a gofer, Chad joined Steve on location in Southern California. “I told him what I wanted to do and he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know why you’d want to do it.’ ” Then he told me to read the script of his first Broadway play, A Hatful of Rain, and we’d work on it. Then he told me to get my butt in school.”
Choosing to study with the late Lee Strasberg and his third wife, Anna, Chad auditioned for Hadley’s Rebellion and landed the role of the bully who is humiliated by Griffin O’Neal’s Hadley. In auditions, Chad finds his name often proves a lure for the merely curious. “When I first started going up for acting jobs, I found it could be a disadvantage because people were calling me just to see what I looked like. It has made me determined to be twice as good as the next guy to live up to the name.”
This drive to excel failed to reach the classroom, however. “I didn’t like school,” admits Chad. One legacy both his parents unwittingly bestowed upon him was the hereditary learning disorder dyslexia. (McQueen himself only made it to the ninth grade.) Chad’s mother, Neile, explains: “In the end, I taught Chad to read by giving him motorcycle and car books.”
Bad school experiences aside, Chad recalls a loving childhood and chuckles about his father’s old-fashioned discipline. “He had a belt that was about four inches thick, and if I got really out of line, he’d spank me with it.” About some matters, however, Steve (who confessed to having lost his virginity at 13) relaxed the role of Dad: “He told me it was OK for girls to stay over if I wanted them to. He was always real good about that.”
Chad describes the 15 years of his parents’ marriage as idyllic, and he notes wistfully, “I don’t think my father was ever as happy as during the time he was married to my mother.” But he calls Ali MacGraw, McQueen’s second wife, “a fine lady,” and witnessed their 1973 marriage in Cheyenne, Wyo. He also chose to live with Steve and Ali, while his sister, Terry, stayed with Neile, who eventually remarried but retains McQueen as a professional name.
Invited to speak of the present instead of the past, Chad sits silent for a moment, then, apparently giving up the attempt, once again invokes his late father: “I just wish he were here to see what I am doing.”