From Ocean's Eleven to Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Top Five Movies Steve McQueen Didn't Make

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Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 24 2011 5:09 PM

The Top Five Movies Steve McQueen Didn't Make

Slide Show: Steve McQueen With His Wife, Guns and Cars

More often than we might imagine, the actor or actress first envisioned in a role is not the one who winds up with it. This creates some interesting what-ifs when that role becomes iconic. When it appeared Marlon Brando would not play Terry Maloy in Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, for instance, Kazan agreed to use Frank Sinatra, who had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity. Brando decided to take the part after all—and Sinatra never forgave Kazan for what he saw as a straight-up betrayal. Today, of course, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Brando in the role.

Steve McQueen passed or missed out on an unusually large number of iconic roles. Here are five that could have been his, but which, for one reason or another, he didn’t play in his relatively brief but storied career.

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After appearing in one Frank Sinatra vehicle—John Sturges’s Never So Few, in which he replaced Sammy Davis, Jr. (Frank and Sammy had had a falling out)—McQueen was offered a role in Sinatra’s next vehicle, a “Rat Pack” picture about a gang of casino thieves. But Steve chose to bow out: Being one of the Rat Pack was not, he decided, what he wanted for his career. The role of Tony Bergdof went instead to Richard Conte.

McQueen was director Blake Edwards’s first choice to play Paul Varjak in the screen adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella. He wanted to do it, but CBS and the producers of his hit series Wanted: Dead or Alive would not allow him enough time off to make the movie. The part went instead to George Peppard, and made him a star.

McQueen was considered already part of the deal by Twentieth Century-Fox when they acquired William Goldman’s buddy-buddy script set in the Old West, which heavily romanticized the lives of the two folk heroes. However, McQueen insisted on first position (i.e., top billing), and Paul Newman would not acquiesce. After months of negotiations, McQueen walked out of a meeting set up to settle the impasse; his role went instead to then-unknown actor Robert Redford.

McQueen had a tiny role in Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me: He played a juvenile delinquent who appears in the first ten minutes of the film. He always felt competitive with Newman, and he vowed that one day he would receive billing over him. Years later, in 1975’s The Towering Inferno, the billing of the two stars was divided according to market, with each actor sharing the first position on a country-by-country basis. McQueen also insisted that he and Newman have the exact same number of words to say in the film, and that he get the movie’s last line. (He did.)

Dirty Harry (1971)

McQueen turned down this Don Siegel film because he felt it was too close to Peter Yates’s Bullitt, in which he had starred; he didn’t want to be typecast. The part went instead to Clint Eastwood. Without a doubt, there would not be a Dirty Harry—at least not in the form we know it—without Bullitt: Both are set in San Francisco and star soft-spoken tough guys who carry big guns and show no mercy to the bad guys.

Ditto, even more so: Bullitt practically invented the modern car-chase sequence that is at the heart of William Friedkin’s policier. This time, the role went to Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for his performance as Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle.

Why did everyone in Hollywood want to cast Steve McQueen? Take a look at the photos LIFE shared with Slate in the slideshow above; they may give you some idea.

Marc Eliot’s new book, Steve McQueen: A Biography, is out tomorrow.