Steve McQueen: King of Cool in 1963
At his bungalow in Palm Springs, Steve McQueen practices his aim before heading out for a shooting session in the desert, 1963.
In the spring of 1963, 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, Steve McQueen was on the brink of superstardom.
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 told LIFE.com. But he got the assignment because he and McQueen shared one vital passion: car racing.
“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 ask him, ‘You wanna try my car?’”
Later the two of them would zip around Los Angeles together. “We went pretty fast — 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.”
In 1963 McQueen had been married to Neile Adams for seven years (they 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.”
“With strangers, I can’t breathe,” McQueen told LIFE. “But I dig my old lady.”
“I was very surprised” when Steve and Neile divorced in 1972, Dominis says. “But I lived in New York, and I never saw them [after the shoot was over]. 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.’ I’ve still got it today.”
At the beginning of the 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.”
Not only was he one of the few competitors to complete the race, but he also led his amateur class for most of the way, until his bike broke down three miles from the finish.
“He liked camping, he liked rugged things, he liked firing a gun,” says Dominis. 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.
Seventeen years after Dominis made these photos, the actor was dead at just 50 years old, suffering 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.”
Steve McQueen, Palm Springs, 1963.
At his Palm Springs bungalow, Steve McQueen puts on a record, with LPs by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Frank Sinatra scattered at his feet, 1963.
LIFE WITH STEVE MCQUEEN: PHOTOS OF THE KING OF COOL IN 1963. Steve McQueen and Neile Adams, his first wife, in the California desert, 1963.
McQueen takes a call in the living room of his eclectic home in Hollywood, 1963.
Steve McQueen and his wife Neile Adams lounge on the patio by the pool at their Palm Springs bungalow, 1963.
Steve McQueen dances with his wife, Neile, 1963.
Steve McQueen takes a lunch break during a motorcycle race with Bud Ekins, his friend and stuntman for The Great Escape, 1963.
Steve McQueen in his sleeping bag on a camping trip, 1963. "This is it, man," he told LIFE. "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth."
Steve McQueen, 1963.
With his dog, a Malamute named Mike, by his side, Steve McQueen takes in the scenery, California, 1963.
On a wimpy French Velosolex
On a Triumph Bonneville