Christian Living


Why Pastor Greg Laurie Made a Movie about Steve McQueen

Wanted Dead or Alive.
The Magnificent Seven.
The Great Escape.

The Towering Inferno.

Steve McQueen was a worldwide phenomenon. He was the King of Cool and owned Hollywood in the '60s and '70s. What you might not know about the idolized movie star is that he came to faith in Jesus Christ before his death at the age of 50.

A longtime fan of McQueen's, Pastor Greg Laurie wanted to see what was true and what was myth. His findings come to us via his new book and upcoming documentary, Steve McQueen: American Icon.

Recently, Laurie spoke with CBN.com to share about the project (showing one-night only in theaters nationwide on Sept. 28th). Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Hannah Goodwyn: Some are going to look at this and say, 'Why is a pastor doing a story about Steve McQueen?' What's your response?

Pastor Greg Laurie: Yeah, well that's a valid question. Why would I do it? It started with telling the story of Steve's conversion in a sermon last year at the SoCal Harvest at Angel's Stadium. Mel Gibson was with me that night. I interviewed Mel about his then-new film Hacksaw Ridge. I told Mel the story in the backroom. We're talking about McQueen. I told him I'm working on a book and a film and Mel was very interested. He said, 'Finish the story about Steve McQueen.' He wanted to know the story. So I thought, 'Wow, this resonates.'

As I did my research, I realized that there were a lot of parallels between my life and Steve's and our childhood. Both of us had alcoholic mothers. Both of us had a lot of stepdads, abusive stepdads. Both of us never knew our biological father and went searching for him. Steve lived with his grandparents. I lived with my grandparents.

I think I was able to write with a certain degree of empathy about him. I understood what made him tick. I can explain why a guy like that would have a shell around him. I can explain why a guy like that would not have good relationships with women or with men, and sort of had a chip on his shoulder and a rebellion against anyone he perceived as an authority, telling him what to do, because I had that shame chip on my shoulder and I was very similar to that as well.

Steve got into drugs and drinking, a lot of drugs, as did I. Then we both came to Christ, him later than me. I came to faith at 17 and he did at pretty much 49. But I had not known those parallels until I started writing the story. But hey, any guy who goes up and buys a replica of a Bullitt car obviously likes Steve McQueen, so I guess it started there.

Goodwyn: What truly surprised you as you searched for the truth of Steve McQueen's life?

Laurie: Good question. Well, here's some factoids on McQueen I did not know previously. I mentioned some of these already. But number one, he had an alcoholic mother and never knew his biological father. Number two, as a young man he literally ran away from home and joined the circus. Who does that in real life? Steve McQueen does.

Later on, he was arrested and actually was on a chain gang. That's like something that you see in a film. It was really his life. He was invited to go to the home of Sharon Tate on the night of the Manson murders. But at the last minute, Steve decided to not go. He ran off with some girl. He found out later he was on Manson's hit list.

He became the No. 1 movie star in all the world and just walked away from Hollywood. I wasn't fully aware of what happened there. He was at the peak of his success and he just was fed up with it. He didn't want it anymore and so he walked away. He actually said, 'I won't even read a script for under $50,000. You have to give me $50,000 to read your script.' He thought that would make the scripts go away; and more scripts than ever came his way. It actually made him more appealing.

He turned down the lead in a lot of iconic films of the 70s, like the role of The Sundance Kid, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the lead role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, that won an Oscar for Jack Nicholson, also a lead role in Apocalypse Now and other films. He said no to them. Steve was at this point in his life I think really on a search. I don't think he fully understood how much of a search he was on.

He grew his hair out long and his beard out and he wanted to learn how to fly. He had conquered racecar driving, motocross, film, TV, but one thing he had never learned how to do was fly. So he bought an antique Stearman biplane. There was only one man qualified to teach him how to fly it. His name was Sammy Mason, a former stunt pilot. Sammy was a strong Christian. He was probably the first guy to really get through to Steve like no one had ever gotten through to him before.

Goodwyn: What do you think made him love cars, planes, and motocross so much?

Laurie: Who can say? I'm not a psychologist, but here's my guess: he loved to take broken things and put them back together. He collected antique toys. I think in a way he was trying to…he never really had a proper childhood. His mother was out and about browsing around, getting drunk. He lived with his uncle. He lived with his grandparents. He was sent to a reform school, the boys home in Chino. So he didn't have a normal and proper childhood. I think in a way, maybe, he was trying to recapture that a little bit. I think he just loved to fix things.

Maybe it was just the simplicity. It was just an object that could be taken apart and put together and could be fixed, and it would work for you. Because in relationships it didn't work out that well for him. He had tension with people, you know. He was a hard guy to get to know and even his friends would say he could be a very difficult person to have as a friend. He could turn on you and then come back and be the nicest guy ever. He was full of contradictions, but it's not surprising when you think about the way he was raised. It was a very hard childhood. He could have very easily become [or stayed] a criminal or something else. The fact that he became the No. 1 movie star in the world is pretty amazing. The path that got him there was not an orthodox path, that's for sure.

Goodwyn: Is that fair to say this has been a whirlwind experience, especially since it's only been a year since you first began researching?

Laurie: Yeah it is. It's sort of like riding in the Bullitt car, it was fast and furious, and we just took off. That's why I asked Marshall Terrill to write this book with me. Also, he's advised us on the film because he just knows everything about Steve McQueen and we wanted it very accurate. I don't want anything exaggerated. I wanted to chase the story down, and if it didn't turn out the way I'd thought it turned out, fine, I just want the actual story.

I didn't come with a bias, like I want it to be this way. I just said, 'Well, is this even true? If so what happened?' One story that's been told is that Steve died holding Billy Graham's Bible and it was opened to John 3:16. I thought, that sounds too good to be true, that sounds like a Christian urban myth to me. So as I researched it, I couldn't verify that the Bible was opened to John 3:16. But the truth is, from multiple sources, he was holding on to the Bible Billy Graham gave him when he died. That part was true.

So I wanted this thing accurate, not exaggerated, not spun, just told as it happened, because it's a very real story and I think when people read it they're going to be surprised. McQueen was a man's man, the 'king of cool,' as they say. And I think showing he was a man's man and thought for himself, that he made a commitment to Christ … that to me takes courage, especially in this culture.

Goodwyn: What can we all learn from Steve McQueen's life?

Laurie: From the angle of those who reached him, that no one is beyond the reach of God. There are three principle characters we can identify in the story of his conversion. Number one, it would have been Stan Barrett, a stunt man that knew Steve well and worked with him. He was a stunt man for Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds, and others of that day. Stan maybe was one of the first people who really aggressively shared the Gospel with Steve. He was not all that open, but he had extended conversations with Stan. Stan came with some Christian books, including Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. So I think Stan planted the seed, the first real seed.

Sammy Mason, the stunt pilot who taught Steve how to fly, watered that seed and really moved this whole thing forward dramatically. Then Leonard Dewitt, the pastor, he reaped where others sowed and watered. So I guess the message to Christians is think of a person you could never imagine becoming a believer and realize no one's beyond the reach of God. You see that in the story of Steve McQueen.

And then coming from kind of the perspective of Steve himself, no matter who you are or what you've done, or how much fame you have, you still need Jesus. Steve came to that realization on his own, not on his deathbed – not that there's anything wrong with coming to Christ on your deathbed because God will forgive any person who comes to him wherever they are – but the fact is Steve came to Christ when he was the No. 1 movie star, not when he was dying. He found out he had cancer six months later. I think that's a very important detail. And I think sooner or later, every thinking person gets around to realizing they need Jesus Christ in their life.

Goodwyn: When you meet Steve McQueen in Heaven, what are you going to say to him?

Laurie: That's a great question. Well, just assuming that in Heaven we would think about things like this on earth ... and you know, we don't know all of those things. But if that were the case, I would just say, 'Steve, you know, you once said, 'My only regret in life is that I was not able to tell others about what Jesus did for me.' Well, I helped to take care of that for you. People did hear your story and it touched a lot of people.' Something like that.

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