The case for Steve McQueen
Born a year before Dean, McQueen also rode the same anti-establishment phenomena of the 1960s and it ultimately immortalised his moniker as “The King of Cool”. His theatrical chops are just exalted as his rival in this ring with credits including Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Great Escape. He wasn’t the highest paid star of the 1960s for no reason after all.
Well-dressed and transcending archetypal styles – he was able to rock a suit as well as he did double denim or a simple white t-shirt – his wardrobe however, was not the only quality he had that made him an icon in the eyes of men everywhere. He blended rough masculinity with an edge of sensitivity, he once publicly threatened to break producer Howard Hughes’ nose if he didn’t stop harassing Mamie Van Doren, a women they had both had an affair with. Hughes never bothered her again.
He was a car and bike enthusiast, in fact he did all of his character’s driving in Bullitt. His personal collection of cars, at one time or another, included a 1962 Cobra, a Ford GT40 and the Porsche 917, Porsche 908, and Ferrari 512 race cars from the Le Mans film. McQueen was previously a motorcycle mechanic and even, coincidentally, worked on James Dean’s bike when he bought it in for repairs. He once appeared, helmeted and uncredited, as a motorcyclist in the 1976 B-movie Dixie Dynamite just because he wanted to. Nobody at the production was aware it was him until they wrapped and he kept a low profile throughout, picking up a day’s payment of $120 before he was recognised.
McQueen died aged 50, his illness believed to have been primarily caused from his time in the marines as well as the asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets.
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A close call but for us, Steve McQueen edges the contest. McQueen was cool in his twenties and maintained it throughout his life. James Dean’s tragic early death cemented his prominence as a cultural icon but there’s no telling how he would have been later on in life. For longevity alone and the fact you don’t get the nickname “The King of Cool” without earning it, McQueen takes the belt – just.