Steve McQueen Film, PSA Brings Awareness to Mesothelioma

Steve McQueen

During the 90-minute feature documentary “Steve McQueen: American Icon,” audiences will reflect on the career of the “King of Cool” and discover the untold true story of the star’s late-in-life spiritual quest.

They will also learn about mesothelioma — the rare cancer that killed McQueen at age 50 — and the dangers of asbestos.

A public service announcement featuring Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) president and co-founder Linda Reinstein and Barbara McQueen, Steve’s widow, will air before encore screenings of the documentary on Oct. 10 and Oct. 19.

Tickets and participating theaters for the encore showings are available at SteveMcQueenMovie.com.

The PSA and documentary premiered Sept. 28 in nearly 800 theaters nationwide to an estimated 100,000 viewers. In the PSA, Reinstein and Barbara McQueen share educational resources, including facts that asbestos remains legal in the U.S. and kills more than 15,000 people each year.

“Piggybacking an asbestos PSA onto a major film event gave us a huge platform for raising awareness, bringing our message to audiences in more than 800 theaters across the U.S.,” Reinstein told Asbestos.com. “And I think Steve’s powerful story will really drive home for folks just how real and tragic asbestos disease is.”

Overwhelming interest in the film led the way to the encore showings, which will bring ADAO’s important message to thousands more.

Film Explores McQueen’s Faith Late in Life

“Steve McQueen: American Icon” starts as most documentaries about movie stars do, chronicling McQueen’s rise to fame and his iconic tough guy roles.

It explores his troubled childhood with an absent father and an alcoholic mother. It shows how the actor struggled with drug addiction and alcohol abuse during the height of his career, when he was one of Hollywood’s most popular — and highest paid — stars.

But the heart of the film chronicles McQueen’s relationship with God late in life. It’s a side of the rough-around-the-edges actor many fans may not know. Presented by pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Ministries, the documentary shows how the fame, addiction and sense of hopelessness led McQueen to completely disconnect with Hollywood.

He moved to a secluded area of California, where he took flying lessons from Sammy Mason. The two became close friends and McQueen started attending Mason’s church. After about three months of listening to sermons by pastor Leonard DeWitt, McQueen became a born-again Christian.

The life-changing event was shortly changed by another: A mesothelioma diagnosis.

McQueen believed his cancer was a result of working around asbestos as a U.S. Marine in the late 1940s. In the documentary, Barbara McQueen recalls her late husband telling her how he once scrapped asbestos off the pipes of a ship as punishment.

She now works as the ADAO’s celebrity board co-chair, helping raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and push for a complete ban of the toxic mineral. Last year, more than 700 tons of raw asbestos was imported into the U.S.

“To this day, Barbara’s love for Steve runs so deep, and she works so hard to raise awareness about asbestos disease in his honor,” Reinstein said. “As the PSA explains, asbestos-caused diseases are 100 percent preventable, but as long as asbestos remains legal and lethal, we must take lifesaving prevention into our own hands.”

McQueen Sought Holistic Treatment in Mexico

McQueen’s cancer diagnosis isn’t mentioned until about an hour into the film. Friends interviewed in the documentary recall McQueen being short of breath and coughing regularly — common symptoms of pleural mesothelioma.

“He had the worst cough I ever heard in my life,” actor Mel Novak recalls in the film. “It was like the deepest, horrible…I got chills. That thing would last for minutes.”

At the time of his diagnosis in 1979, not much was known about mesothelioma. Archived news clips in the film refer to the disease as a “rare form of lung cancer,” when it fact, the two cancers differ in physical characteristics and nonasbestos risk factors.

The tumors that originated on McQueen’s pleura (the lining of the lungs) quickly spread to his abdomen, kidneys and pelvis. Doctors in the U.S. couldn’t offer the actor treatment or hope, giving him just six months to live. Surgery, chemotherapy or radiation wasn’t an option for most mesothelioma patients at the time.

McQueen the actor

Known for tough guy roles in “Bullitt” and “The Great Escape,” McQueen became the highest-paid movie star in the world in 1974.

McQueen turned to alternative cancer treatment at Plaza Santa Maria, a Mexican health spa with a controversial medical reputation.

“Mexico is showing the world this new way of fighting cancer through nonspecific metabolic therapies, and thank you for saving my life. God bless you all,” McQueen told the media in the first taped interview regarding the actor’s illness.

Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez supervised McQueen’s treatment, which included 0.50 grams of codeine a day as well as laetrile, a cancer drug extracted from apricot pits the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned. McQueen’s regimen also included daily chiropractic manipulation and massages, exercise, a strict diet and holistic medicines.

The film touches on how McQueen and those closest to him kept his cancer diagnosis hidden from the media and public eye for months. He regularly traveled to and from Mexico under the aliases “Don Schoonover” and “Sam Shepard.”

McQueen died of cardiac arrest on Nov. 7, 1980, during a surgery in Juarez, Mexico, that aimed to remove a five-pound tumor from his abdomen. Doctors in the U.S. reportedly warned McQueen that his tumor was inoperable and his heart could not withstand surgery.

Shortly before his death, McQueen met Christian evangelist Billy Graham. For the first time, the documentary tells the story of their meeting and how McQueen reportedly died clutching Graham’s personal Bible.

“I want to change some people’s lives somehow, to tell people that I know the Lord. What I have to offer. What’s happened to me,” McQueen said in a never-before-released audio interview recorded two weeks before his death. “I know now I’ve changed a lot. I used to be more macho, and now my body’s gone. [It] is broken. But my spirit isn’t broken.”


Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website.

  1. American Icon Films LLC. Erwin, J. and Erwin, A. (2017, September 28). Steve McQueen: American Icon. United States: Fathom Events
  2. Mackay, K. (1980, October 20). Steve McQueen, Stricken with Cancer, Seeks a Cure at a Controversial Mexican Clinic. Retrieved from http://people.com/archive/steve-mcqueen-stricken-with-cancer-seeks-a-cure-at-a-controversial-mexican-clinic-vol-14-no-16/

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