Steve McQueen, who was dubbed “The King of Cool,” was the highest paid actor in the world in 1974. The star of high profile films such as The Sand Pebbles, The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Towering Inferno was a household name that also famously struggled with substance abuse and behind-the-scenes drama.
Greg Laurie, popular Christian speaker and author as well as fan of the actor, heard a story about McQueen coming to faith in Christ in his final days and decided to do further research. Laurie’s discoveries are unveiled in the new book, Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon with co-author Marshall Terrill (American Icon Press), which released this month, as well as a full-length documentary directed by John Erwin releasing in September through Fathom Events. Laurie recently discussed the projects with Reel Faith’s DeWayne Hamby:
When did you first think about this as a project? Most people did not know about Steve McQueen’s conversion.
I think this project started when I was watching this documentary film about Steve McQueen. It told his familiar story of a very difficult childhood and his descent to fame where he became the number one movie star in the world. Then his accomplishments from being a racecar driver to motor cross rider and all of the rest of it and then it came to the point of it where he walked away from Hollywood. He got cancer and he died. And that was the movie. I thought, ‘Wait a second.’ I’d heard that Steve had become a Christian toward the end of his life but I’d never heard any firsthand reports. It was just something I was aware of.
So I did a little Google search, I just typed into Google ‘Steve McQueen, conversion to Christianity.’ I didn’t find a lot of articles but I found a few. And one name kept bubbling up and that was the name Leonard DeWitt. He was the pastor of the church that Steve attended. I tracked him down. He’s in his 80s now, sharp as a tack. I asked him to tell me the story and as it unfolded, I thought that this is an amazing story. I don’t think most people know what happened to Steve and how dramatic his transformation was.
For instance, I had Mel Gibson out at our crusade last year and I was interviewing him about his film Hacksaw Ridge. I began to tell him backstage the story of Steve McQueen’s conversion. Mel’s understanding was it happened on his deathbed. I said, ‘Mel, it didn’t and this is what makes it so incredible to me. When Steve was the number one movie star in the world, he literally walked away from Hollywood.’ They were offering him roles in all the top films of the 70s, like Apocalypse Now, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was asking for $50,000 to even read a script and think of how much money it was back then. It’s a lot today. He just didn’t want to be in Hollywood anymore. That’s really when his search began or when it went into overdrive, if you will.
That led him to a little community called Santa Paula, California. He was an expert race car driver, an incredible motorcross rider, an outstanding actor, the top actor of his generation. The one thing Steve never learned how to do was fly. So he bought a stearman biplane, which was like a World War II training plane. It was bright yellow and there was only one guy he could find to teach him how to fly that plane and that name was Sammy Mason. Sammy had the answers that Steve had been looking for.
Steve initially approached Sammy and asked him for flying lessons and Sammy said no to him. Steve wasn’t used to people saying no to him. He was a movie star. He was used to people fawning over him. Sammy said to his son, ‘Some guy named Steve McQueen called me today and wants to take flying lessons.’ The son said to him, ‘Dad, are you crazy? That’s Steve McQueen the actor. We’ve watched his movie The Great Escape a million times together. Why don’t you give him flying lessons?’ Sammy reluctantly agreed, because he didn’t want to take on a new student. So he was the perfect guy to reach Steve McQueen, because Sammy, like Steve, was a man’s man. He was mechanical, he was gutsy. He was a stunt pilot. He was pretty fearless, like Steve was. As they spent hours in the cockpit together, Steve noticed something in Sammy that he thought was unique and Sammy had this inner peace. Steve asked him, ‘Sammy, what is it about you? What’s your secret?’ Sammy said, ‘Steve, it’s my relationship with Jesus Christ.’
Steve was intrigued and actually asked Sammy if he could attend church with him. So Sammy agreed and so Steve McQueen is showing up at the Venturan Missionary Church. In Santa Paula, people knew he had moved there. It was a small town, still is. And they kind of left him alone. They were friendly to him but it wasn’t like Hollywood. He loved that small town he was living in. The pastor of the church, Leonard DeWitt, he wasn’t aware at first that Steve was in his church attending. He was sitting up in the balcony with Sammy and his family. Leonard just said to people in his congregation ‘Just leave him alone. Don’t bother him.’ And they did. After a number of weeks had gone by, Leonard told me someone tapped on his shoulder. He turned around and there stood Steve McQueen. He said, ‘Pastor, I’d like to meet with you and ask some questions.’ So Leonard agreed and they got together and met for about two hours. I asked Leonard ‘What kind of questions did Steve ask you?’ He said, ‘He wanted to know if the Bible could be trusted. He wanted to know if his sins could be forgiven. He wanted to know what it looked like to become a Christian.’ He was probably trying to wrap his mind around it. Leonard answered all of Steve’s questions. And when they were done, Steve smiled and said, ‘Well you answered all my questions, Pastor, thank you.’ Then Pastor DeWitt said, ‘Steve, I have a question for you.’ Steve said, ‘Yes, you want to know if I would become a born again Christian.’ And Pastor DeWitt said, ‘Yeah. I do want to know that.’ Steve said, ‘Yes, I did. I became a Christian a number of weeks ago when you gave that opportunity for people to believe in Jesus.’
After that, Steve and Sammy would meet for an hour every week and have intense Bible study and DeWitt told me that Steve was growing spiritually. He was changing. He was becoming a different man altogether. Then about six to eight months after that, Steve wasn’t feeling well on the set of one of his films, the Hunter, and went in for some medical tests and he heard the bad news that he had cancer.
What other surprises did you learn about his life in doing this research?
Here’s a few factoids about McQueen’s life that I found interesting, that I wasn’t aware of:
- First, Steve McQueen was born to an alcoholic mother and a father he never knew. His mom was married and divorced many times and had a lot of husbands and Steve had a lot of stepfathers, some of who were abusive, one even beating him.
- Factoid number two, when Steve was a little boy, he literally ran away from home and joined the circus for a time. Who does that? Steve McQueen.
- Factoid number three, when Steve McQueen was older, he got arrested and actually served some time on a prison chain gang.
- Then Steve was once a towel boy at a brothel.
- Steve was invited over to the house of Sharon Tate by his close friend and hairdresser Jay Sebring. Steve agreed to come. As he was on his way over, he met a girl and ran off with her instead. That was the night the Manson family struck and killed everybody at the party. Then Steve found out he was on Charles Manson’s hit list by name.
- Then Steve also came to Christ later in his life, that’s another unknown thing.
As I began to do the research on this book, I was amazed to find that our lives paralleled almost exactly for the first 15-16 years. I too was born of an alcoholic mother. I never knew my biological father. I had a lot of stepfathers, one in particular, maybe two, who were abusive. Thirdly, I was sent to a military school. Steve was sent to a reform school. So as I learned more about his life, I felt that I could write with a certain degree of compassion and empathy about his story, because I sort of understood who he was, not to justify things he said and did after but at least to try and explain in some way.
I saw where Mel Gibson is featured in the documentary. What is his involvement?
Mel gave us a 45-minute interview that is nothing short of brilliant. Not only does he address McQueen as an actor, kind of explain what Steve did, what his techniques were, why he was so effective, but he also addressed McQueen as a person. When we told Mel that Steve basically walked away from Hollywood at the peak of his career, Mel totally understood that and even gave us some context as to why an actor would do that. I thought, ‘Who could address that better than Mel Gibson, the guy who has also been the number one actor in the world?’ We have some amazing insights from Mel Gibson and in the film that is to come as well as the book, I interview Barbie McQueen, Steve’s widow. Stan Barrett, a stuntman that knew Steve well and shared the gospel with him earlier in his career. Also, others that knew him from that time, a girl he was with in a film. I think what we have is a pretty open and shut case that Steve McQueen really did come to faith and his life was radically changed.
Listen to Laurie speak to DeWayne about Steve McQueen’s conversion on The DeWayne Hamby Podcast.