A still-in-the-early-stages-of-his-career Steve McQueen was hell bent on making the jump from day player as bounty hunter Josh Randal on the cowboy show WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. He’d turned 30 in the mid of its three season run and was looking to keep his neck loose from the noose awaiting actors his age still toiling in television.
Sound familiar? It’s because while Quentin Tarantino was writing his screenplay for ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, he mirrored McQueen’s quest for silver screen stardom behind Rick Dalton’s desperation to make it the movies and keep from only being known as Jake Cahill from the script’s fictional TV show Bounty Law.
McQueen saw his role in The Magnificent Seven as his ticket to leave toiling in TV behind and secure his spot in the big league of movie making. He shamelessly took every opportunity he could to steal the scenes he shared with his top billed co-star, Yul Brynner. No slouch himself, the Broadway based Brynner had recently won the Best Actor Oscar for THE KING AND I.
It was a case of the rebel prince versus the king as cameras rolled on the John Sturges directed Western. During the movie’s shoot on location down in old Mexico, the friction kicked into such high gear between the actors that word reached back across the border to the Hollywood press. Studio suits found themselves forced to go into the mode of damage control, getting Brynner to agree on issuing a statement to the papers denying the dudes were in a feud.
Meanwhile, McQueen was pulling out the stops using all the props at his disposal to steal scenes he shared with Brynner. Time spent as a young man in the military made McQueen especially adept for firearm moments. From running his revolver’s cylinder along his leg to shaking shotgun shells before a double-barrel’s load, McQueen made use of his abilities to pull focus away from Brynner under the guise of gunplay.
And in scenes when McQueen was required to keep his heaters holstered?
The future “King Of Cool” was no fool. He knew how to screw with Brynner using more than six shooters. McQueen’s scene stealing doesn’t get more obvious than when handing his cowboy hat for more cracks at doing “stage business.” With these antics pissing him off to no end, it must’ve really boiled Brynner’s bald dome how he’d urged Sturges as director to cast the actor in the role.
Upon release, The Magnificent Seven went the way of box office boot hill. Yet as testament to his efforts, the movie minted McQueen as an actor for the big screen. Yul Brynner saw his fame wane in the decade to follow while Steve McQueen, at the peak of his powers, went on to become the biggest box office star on the planet. He would later also phone Brynner to apologize for his behavior. As testament to the class act he was, Yul Brynner forgave him.
Don’t you just love happy endings?