WARNING: Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood includes an unexpected Steve McQueen cameo, but what’s the real-life backstory to the gag? Set in 1969 Los Angeles, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) attempt to stay one step ahead of their younger peers. Just next door, Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have blossoming Hollywood careers. Tarantino’s characters converge on Cielo Drive, the site of the infamous Manson Family murders where Tate and Sebring were murdered at Polanski’s Cielo Drive home on August 9, 1969. During an early party sequence at the Playboy mansion, McQueen explains Tate’s relationships with Polanski and mutual friend Jay Sebring, a celebrity hairstylist.
Steve McQueen was a major Hollywood star in 1969, but did he actually pursue a relationship with Tate? And what of The Great Escape's repurposed footage? Here's the backstory for Tarantino’s version of Steve McQueen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Damian Lewis Plays Steve McQueen In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
English actor Damian Lewis portrays McQueen in Tarantino’s film. It’s a spot-on casting choice, as the facial resemblance is uncanny. Lewis is best known as Bobby Axelrod in the Showtime series Billions and U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody in Showtime’s Homeland. He also delivered a Golden Globe-nominated performance as U.S. Army Major Richard Winters in HBO’s Band of Brothers.
In real life, McQueen was 39 years old in 1969, whereas Lewis is currently 48. For narrative context, McQueen had just starred in the 1968 action classics Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair when he appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's storyline. At the time, he was indeed an A-list Hollywood celebrity... a married Hollywood celebrity.
Did Steve McQueen Really Want To Marry Sharon Tate?
Steve McQueen married Filipino-American actress Neile Adams in 1956. By 1969, Adams was reportedly aware of McQueen’s wandering eye, which means that Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood depiction is indeed accurate. Also true is McQueen's explanation of Tate's relationships with Sebring and Polanski, with her marrying the latter but maintaining a close friendship with the former after returning to Hollywood.
On the night of Tate and Sebring’s murders, McQueen was reportedly supposed to have dinner at Polanski’s home. However, the actor was friends with Sebring, so it’s unlikely that he was trying to make a move on Tate, though it’s certainly plausible. According to a 2017 interview with The National Post, McQueen’s ex-wife, Adams, stated that he “ran into a chickie and decided to go off with her instead.”
Who Almost Starred In The Great Escape Instead Of Steve McQueen
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton lands a role on the TV series Lancer. During a conversation with lead actor James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), a flashback sequence reveals that Dalton filmed scenes for The Great Escape (1963) as Captain Virgil Hilts, a role that McQueen made famous. Through seamless visual effects, Tarantino replaces McQueen with DiCaprio, further emphasizing Dalton’s inner turmoil as the character struggles to land roles while dealing with personal insecurities. Whether anybody else tried out for The Great Escape in place of McQueen isn't known: the point here is contrasting Dalton to a real star.
During the ‘50s, McQueen was James Dean’s Hollywood mechanic. By 1969, he was a Hollywood star who gave the eulogy at Sebring’s funeral. Three years later, McQueen was divorced, and then served as a pallbearer at Bruce Lee’s funeral the following year (Lee trained the aforementioned Tate and Sebring, and also appears in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). Sadly, McQueen passed away in 1980 at 50 years old.