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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Monday, December 17, 2012

Steve McQueen: Rare Photos of the King of Cool ~ by Photographer John Dominis

In the spring of 1963, Steve McQueen was on the brink of superstardom, already popular from his big-screen breakout as one of The Magnificent Seven and just a couple months away from entering the Badass Hall of Fame with the release of The Great Escape. Intrigued by his dramatic backstory and his off-screen exploits — McQueen was a reformed delinquent who got his thrills racing cars and motorcycles — LIFE sent the great photographer John Dominis to California to hang out with the 33-year-old actor and, in effect, see what he could get. Three weeks and more than 40 rolls of film later, Dominis had captured some astonishingly intimate and now-iconic images — photos impossible to imagine in today’s utterly restricted-access celebrity universe. Only a handful of those photos were ever published. Here is a series of previously unpublished gems from what Dominis would look back on as one of his favorite assignments, along with insights about the time he spent with the man who would soon don the mantle, “the King of Cool.”  [LIFE]
 ©John Dominis
"He liked camping, he liked rugged things, he liked firing a gun," says Dominis, who captured this photo of McQueen during a trip the star took with his buddies in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He also very much liked his cigarettes: Like many Hollywood stars of the time, McQueen was an unapologetically heavy smoker, and did not break the habit until he became sick in the late '70s.

At his home in Palm Springs, McQueen practices his aim before heading out for a shooting session in the desert.  ©John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images


 ©John Dominis
Trailing Steve McQueen was Dominis' first Hollywood gig. "I liked the movies, but I didn't know who the stars were; I was not a movie buff," Dominis, now 90, told LIFE. But he got the assignment because he and McQueen shared one vital passion point. "When I was living in Hong Kong I had a sports car and I raced it," Dominis says. "And I knew that Steve McQueen had a racing car. I rented one anticipating that we might do something with them. He was in a motorcycle race out in the desert, so I went out there in my car and met him, and I say, 'You wanna try my car?'" Later the two of them would zip around Los Angeles, including Sunset Boulevard (pictured). "We went pretty fast — I mean, as fast as you can safely go without getting arrested -- and we'd ride and then stop and trade cars. He liked that, and I knew he liked it. I guess that was the first thing that softened him."


 ©John Dominis
From early morning until late at night, Dominis followed McQueen through his action-packed days: camping with his buddies, racing his various vehicles, playing with his family, tooling around Hollywood. Even back then, Dominis says, he had to be mindful that his constant presence did not become irritating. "Movie stars, they weren't used to giving up a lot of time," he says. "But I sort of relaxed in the beginning and didn't bother them every time they turned around, and they began to get used to me being there. If they were doing something, they would definitely just not notice me anymore." Pictured: McQueen and Neile Adams, his first wife, target-practice with their pistols in the Palm Springs desert.
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 ©John Dominis
"I was very surprised" when Steve and Neile divorced in 1972, says Dominis. "But I lived in New York, and I never saw them once [after the shoot]. We weren't real friends, but we were friendly. They liked me, and they had a silver mug made: 'To John Dominis, for work beyond the call of duty.' And I've still got it."


 ©John Dominis
Neile and Steve lounge on the patio by the pool at their Palm Springs bungalow. "With strangers, I can't breathe.... But I dig my old lady," he told LIFE.

 ©John Dominis
 McQueen works out at the gym at Paramount Pictures, for whom he was making the movie Love With the Proper Stranger opposite Natalie Wood. Perhaps a signal of their confidence that he was the next big thing, Paramount's suits also gave McQueen a plum dressing room on the lot: one that belonged to Gary Cooper.

 ©John Dominis 
  ©John Dominis
At the beginning of the LIFE shoot, McQueen participated in a 500-mile, two-day dirt bike race across the Mojave Desert. "These people are not the wild motorcycle bums who go roaring through town a la Brando [in The Wild One]," wrote Dominis in his notes. "Rather they comprise doctors, lawyers, businessmen, mechanics, and others who enjoy the competition and the open country." Pictured: McQueen takes a lunch break during the race with Bud Ekins, his friend and stuntman for "The Great Escape."

 ©John Dominis
"His hands were a mess -- he was bleeding," says Dominis, recalling the nasty blisters McQueen developed on the first day of the race. With no doctors around, the actor made a stop at a grocery store in Pearblossom, Calif., where the owner did his best to fix him up.

 ©John Dominis
"We're sitting around the swimming pool up on the deck," remembers Dominis, "and Steve goes away and he comes back without any clothes on! He just enjoyed being out in the desert, looking at the sun.... He was just so natural about everything. There was no time to feel embarrassed, so I shot all the pictures that I needed to shoot. I shot some pictures specially of his backside so we could use them in the magazine, because in most of them he was just [full-frontal] nude. He wasn't hiding anything."

 ©John Dominis 
 ©John Dominis
McQueen takes a call in the living room of his eclectic home in Hollywood. "Man, if I didn't make my own scene, I could have wound up a hood instead of an actor," he told LIFE at the time, reflecting on a rough-and-tumble past that included a stint in a school for problem kids and 41 days in the brig for going AWOL while in the Marines.

  ©John Dominis


With his dog, a Malamute named Mike, by his side, McQueen perches on a rock and takes in the gorgeous scene around him. Seventeen years later, the iconic actor was dead at just 50 years old, having suffered a heart attack following a risky operation to remove the cancerous tumors laying waste to his body. Though Dominis never saw or spoke with McQueen after 1963, he continued to follow his movies, and cherished those three weeks they got to know each other. "He was very open and playful," says Dominis, "and just doing the things that he loved to do."


The actor smiles in his sleeping bag. "This is it, man," he told LIFE. "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth."

  ©John Dominis
Steve McQueen working his lats, 1963.

 ©John Dominis
"Steve is a jazz lover -- he takes his portable stereo with him wherever he goes," Dominis wrote in his notes. Pictured: At the Palm Springs bungalow, McQueen puts on a record, with LPs by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Frank Sinatra and Count Basie scattered at his feet.

 ©John Dominis
After laying down their firearms, the couple take a stroll. At this point the McQueens had been married for seven years and had two young children, but the spark between them was still very much alive. "They were always necking!" says Dominis, who also remarked upon their childlike way with each other in notes he filed for LIFE's editors back in '63: "They chase each other around," he wrote, "as though it were going out of style."




1963, Steve McQueen driving his Jaguar






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