Steve McQueen in his Jaguar

My proudest moment as a parent came the day my son told me his favorite actor was Steve McQueen. Under the watchful eye of The King Of Cool, my boy would be a man in no time. Elijah was only eight years old and I’d already won.

It had been such a simple thing. One Friday night, Turner Classic Movies was showing a McQueen marathon. I pressed “Record” on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape and left Elijah a note saying, “I taped some movies that you might want to check out.” The boy woke up early on Saturday. I slept late. By the time I emerged from my tomb, Steve McQueen had been caught, and was back in his bunker, bouncing a ball, giving the other prisoners hope. Over breakfast, my boy and I watched McQueen and Yul Brynner ride shotgun on a hearse. By the time the Seven reached their final shootout with Eli Wallach, Elijah was saying, “that guy is the most awesome guy who ever lived.”

He wanted more. We went online. Life magazine had recently released a series of casuals of McQueen at his height. There he was, lounging and reading magazines, in glorious black and white, working on his motorcycle, standing poolside in Palm Springs, butt-naked, gazing off at the desert, a man of the world and in the world.

“I want to be him,” Elijah said. Who could blame the boy? Who wouldn’t want to be Steve McQueen, circa 1966?

What I like about Steve McQueen isn’t the cars or the wry smirk, although those are, admittedly, awesome. I’m more drawn to his tragic side.

But the next phase in my son’s McQueen education proved tough. We tried watching The Cincinnati Kid, which held Elijah’s interest for a little while in the early poker scenes, but, as he said, there was “too much talking.” He’d liked The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, I realized, partly because they’re two of the greatest action movies ever made, full of guns and intrigue and James Coburn and people dying. Playing hold ’em against Edward G. Robinson may be my fantasy, but it’s not my son’s.

As I reviewed the list of other McQueen movies, they proved equally problematic. Bullitt had the car-chase scene, but was otherwise alternately too bloody and too boring for a gradeschooler. Le Mans was almost all cars, and my kid didn’t like cars. The Getaway was too romantic, The Towering Inferno unspeakable. The Thomas Crown Affair would only have appealed to Elijah if it had featured Pikachu. It left us with, essentially, nothing.

My attempts to influence my son made me rethink what I like about Steve McQueen. It’s not the cars or the wry smirk, although all those things are, admittedly, awesome. I’m more drawn to McQueen’s tragic side, which you can really see in his brilliant performance as the pathetically doomed sailor in The Sand Pebbles. There was a sadness in those steel-blue eyes, which saw a lot of trouble before stardom swept through. McQueen had the saddest macho gaze Hollywood ever offered this side of Humphrey Bogart. The King Of Cool was a pose, a defense, and eventually that defense broke down.

The motorcycle scene in The Great Escape

“Whatever happened to Steve McQueen, daddy?” my son asked me one day.

“To be honest,” I said, “he started drinking a lot and then he grew a really long beard. He made a strange movie out of an obscure Norwegian play. And then he got sick and died. He was younger than I am now when it happened.”

“That’s really sad,” Elijah said.

“Life is sad sometimes, son,” I said.

“Well, he’s still my favorite,” said my son.

This, to me, is what Steve McQueen has to teach us, and our sons, about being a man: Despite all our accomplishments, despite all our great works, we’re still going to die soon, and not all of us are going to be able to do it with dignity. You can be the world’s biggest movie star and still get weird and make a failed adaptation of An Enemy Of The People and finish out lonely in Malibu. Life has many facets. It’s not all striking cigarette poses on motorcycles and robbing banks with Ali McGraw.

I love Steve McQueen because he faced the void honestly, with genuine fear and panic, not full of ego or some trumped-up notion that Hollywood stardom granted him eternal life. His pathetic end was his coolest feat of all.

And now I have to figure out how to teach my son about Burt Lancaster.

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