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Remembering Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen is dead at 50. The actor, one of a handful of Hollywood's undisputed superstars, died Friday morning after undergoing surgery in a Juarez, Mexico, clinic.

Although Mr. McQueen had been fighting a highly publicized and controversial battle with cancer for months, the official cause of death was a heart attack after surgery.

Dr. Cesar Santos, who removed a five pound tumor from Mr. McQueen's abdomen, said the actor "was in extreme pain" before the operation and "the possibility of his surviving the operation was extremely poor."

The following events led up to Mr. McQueen's death: After doctors diagnosed his illness more than a year ago as mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer considered incurable, he checked into a Tijuana, Mexico, clinic in August for an unorthodox treatment program including use of the drug Laetrile, intramuscular injections of animal cells, an organic diet, megavitamins, fasting, massages and coffee enemas. The clinic reported Mr. McQueen's cancer was "retreating," and the actor dictated a message asking his fans to "keep your fingers crossed."

Last week, Mr. McQueen checked out of the clinic and returned to his Santa Paula, Calif., ranch for what was described as a vacation. Clinic spokesmen said the vacation reflected improvement in his condition, and Warren Cowan, Mr. McQueen's publicist, said that when he last saw the actor three weeks ago, "He was very positive. He was up. He was talking about his plans for Christmas." Cowan, said, however, that Mr. McQueen was very aware of his condition and prepared, if necessary, to die."

On Thursday, Mr. McQueen and his wife of 10 months, Barbara Minty, returned to Mexico for previously planned surgery at the clinic in Juarez.

Dr. Santos said, "McQueen and his wife came and asked for the operation because of the pain. He was under constant sedation because of the pain.

"The possibility of his surviving the operation was extremely poor. He had cancer all the way to his diaphragm, and cancer from the right lung was pushing into the left lung."

Santos said the operation had reduced but not eliminated the pain and added that Mr. McQueen might have lived two or three more months without the operation.

Santos' wife, Rosa Maria, administrator of the one-story, 20-bed, brick Clinica de Santa Rosa, said, "After the operation, he was improving, he was even talking. He seemed in good spirits." "But suddenly," she said, "he had a heart attack and died" about 1 a.m., Chicago time, Friday.

A spokeswoman for the Juarez clinic said the actor's wife had claimed the body and was returning it to California. No funeral plans had been made.

Mr. McQueen first began to suspect his condition in the summer of 1979, while he was shooting scenes for his last film "The Hunter" (1980), on location in Chicago. He felt unusually tired and lacked stamina and after returning to Los Angeles, underwent a series of tests. It was then that doctors diagnosed mesothelioma, a usually fatal form of lung cancer sometimes associated with the inhalation of asbestos, a carcinogen. Mr. McQueen's friends immediately blamed the asbestos face masks and protective clothing he often wore while engaging in his favorite sports, motorcycle and sports-car racing.

Mr. McQueen kept his condition secret for several months, revealing only weeks ago that he had checked into the Mexico clinic. "Hopefully, the cheap scandal sheets and curiosity seekers will not try to seek me out, so I can continue my treatment," he said. He explained that he had denied early reports of his illness because "I wanted to retain my sense of dignity as, for sure, I thought I was going to die." When Los Angeles doctors told him his cancer had spread throughout his upper body and probably was terminal, he turned to the Tijuana clinic of William D. Kelley, a former Texas orthodontist who was prohibited in the 1970s by a Texas court from practicing medicine without a license. Kelley is an advocate of an unorthodox cancer treatment aimed at building up the health of a cancer victim to encourage the body to heal itself.

Mr. McQueen's death came after a recent slump in his box-office career, which for several years ranked him among the three or four top movie stars in the world. At his peak, only Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds were his peers in box-office drawing power.

After "The Towering Inferno" in 1974, he made only three films - although that included personally producing and starring in one very ambitious picture, a 1976 version of Henrik Ibsen's play "An Enemy of the People," which was shelved for four years before being sold recently to pay-TV. His two last films, "Tom Horn" (1979) and "The Hunter" were unsuccessful with critics and at the box office.

Although he won a scholarship to the prestigious Actors' Studio, Mr. McQueen once said: "I'm not a great actor - let's face it. I don't have a great deal of scope. There are certain things I can do, but when I'm bad, I stink. There's something about my shaggy dog eyes that makes people think I'm good. I'm not all that good."

Still, in the right role, there was no one else quite like him, and for Mr. McQueen the right role often meant a man of action involved in exciting chases in cars, on motorcycles or, on horseback.

His best-known and most successful movies are probably "The Great Escape" (1962), in which he won the admiration of stunt men by doing his own dangerous motorcycle stunts; "Bullitt" (1968), which climaxed with Mr. McQueen at the wheel in a classic auto chase sequence up and down the hills of San Francisco, and "The Getaway" (1972), a Sam Peckinpah film with Mr. McQueen as a desperate escaped convict and bank robber.

He made 27 films altogether, starting with a bit part in "Somebody up There Likes Me" (1956) and including an inauspicious debut in a leading role in "The Blob" (1958), battling a slimy invader from space. He first became a star on television, with the 1958-61 CBS series "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and was one of the few early '60s TV stars (Eastwood was another) able successfully to make the transfer to motion pictures. Mr. McQueen was almost a recluse in private life.

He rarely gave interviews, avoided parties, wore blue jeans whenever possible and said he liked racing motorcycles because he could lose himself in the excitement and be an equal with the other competitors. He was married three times. His first wife was Neile Adams, an actress and dancer who was the mother of his two children. In 1971, he divorced her and married actress Ali MacGraw, his costar in "The Getaway." In January 1980, he married Minty, a 25-year-old model. His third wife and his two children, Chad, 21, and Teri, 20, were at his side when he died. MacGraw visited with him during his stay in the Mexico clinic. Mr. McQueen was born in Indianapolis in 1930. His father abandoned his mother soon afterward, and she moved to California. Mr. McQueen led a troubled youth, spent time as a teenager in Boys Republic, a California home for problem children, and, like many actors, compiled a colorful employment record - he listed jobs as a merchant sailor, oilfield laborer, carnival barker, lumberjack, errand boy for a brothel and a stint as a marine who served time in the brig for being AWOL - before getting into acting.

He moved to New York in 1952, worked as a bartender, did amateur theater and got $40 for his first professional job, a one-liner in Yiddish. After winning a scholarship to the Actors' Studio, he worked in summer stock and in small TV roles.

His checkered past was still fresh in his memory in 1963 when Mr. McQueen wrote: "When I did 'The Great Escape,' I kept thinking, if they were making a movie of my life, that's what they'd call it - the great escape."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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