How Steve McQueen's wandering eye saved him from being murdered by the Mansons

Neile Adams with her husband, Steve McQueen in 1965
Neile Adams with her first husband, Steve McQueen in 1965 Credit: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

When Neile Adams takes to the stage in an intimate jazz club on London’s King’s Road to perform her one-woman cabaret show, The Lives of Me, next week, there will be one life in particular with which the audience will be fascinated.

Though she grew up in the Philippines, where she and her mother were held for three years in a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, and later achieved success on Broadway, in Kismet and The Pyjama Game, it is her 16-year marriage to the inimitable Steve McQueen that continues to captivate.

During that time, the couple negotiated the considerable highs and lows of his meteoric Hollywood rise, narrow escape from the Manson murders and numerous infidelities. Not to mention her own sole indiscretion, which ended with him holding a gun to her head.

Adams was already a Broadway star when she met McQueen Credit: Ray Anthony/Alamy

It’s small surprise, therefore, that even some 37 years after his death, Adams admits: “I still think about him every day. He always pops into my dreams. Sometimes they’re happy dreams, sometimes not.”

Now 84, yet still possessing the svelte dancer’s physique that first charmed McQueen, Adams has “very happy memories of England,” she says. “Steve was there shooting a movie called The War Lover [in 1961] and we were staying at Lord and Lady Russell’s house in Belgravia. Aside from the weather, those were great days.” 

When the pair first met in New York in 1956 it was Adams, then 24, who was much the bigger star, while McQueen was still a struggling actor. “It really was love at first sight,” she says. “He was just so damn gorgeous of course, but it was almost like we knew each other before we actually did.” 

Steve McQueen and Neile Adams at "The Sand Pebbles" premiere 1966 Credit:  LFI/Photoshot

Neither had known their fathers and had distant relationships with their mothers. “So we became each other’s home,” says Adams. But whereas she had dealt with her past, McQueen, who was sent to reform school at 14 for his unruly behaviour - partly the result of a physically abusive stepfather - never got over his feelings of abandonment.

The pair were married within four months and while Adams effectively gave up her own career once she had children - their daughter Terry, was born in 1959, and son Chad, a year later - she was instrumental in guiding McQueen’s. 

It was she who advised him to shorten his stage name from Steven to Steve (“nobody called him Steven except his mother”) and encouraged him to make the low-budget 1958 horror film The Blob to keep himself in work (it went on to become a cult classic). Likewise, it was she who suggested that he remove his shirt in every film. “He had a great body,” she smiles, “so I said: ‘Just give people a glimpse of it somewhere in the movie’.”

McQueen in The Great Escape, 1963 Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection / Rex Features

Soon that body and McQueen’s undeniable screen presence were causing a stir in Hollywood and hits such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Bullitt (1968) ensued. 

Almost as extraordinary are the hits he turned down, including the Oscar-winning Grand Prix, which eventually went to James Garner (“they were friendly enemies - when they were living next to each other, Steve would pee in Jim’s backyard”); Dirty Harry, which went to Clint Eastwood; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “I told Steve he’d single-handedly made Robert [Redford] a big star.”

Adams on set with McQueen in 1968 Credit: Rex Features

Career misses notwithstanding, McQueen was on fire and when Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon visited LA in 1965, he and Adams, along with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were top of the guest list of Hollywood royalty at a party thrown in their honour.

“I was fixing my hair in the bathroom when Princess Margaret walked in,” says Adams, “and because she carried on talking for such a long time I thought she really liked me. No one told me that I was supposed to leave when she walked in! She didn’t speak to me the rest of the night, but she did talk to Steve.” 

Neile Adams is performing in London next week Credit: Andrew Crowley/Daily Telegraph

Did the princess hold a torch for him? “I don’t know - probably,” laughs Adams. “Everybody else did.”

Certainly, within months of getting married, McQueen had already embarked on an affair with his Never Love a Stranger co-star Lita Milan; he boasted he slept with nearly every leading lady, thereafter. There were even rumours that he and James Dean had been lovers. “James Dean wasn’t Steve’s lover - he was mine,” laughs Adams. “But that was before I met Steve. His affairs hurt, absolutely.”

Adding to their problems was McQueen’s escalating drug use. Indeed, it was during the counterculture period of the late Sixties that McQueen had his most unnerving near miss. Preparing to head for dinner with his friend, hairdresser Jay Sebring, at the home of actress Sharon Tate (wife of director Roman Polanski), McQueen “ran into a chickie and decided to go off with her instead,” says Adams.

McQueen was meant to be dining at Sharon Tate's, the night she was murdered by Charles Manson's followers Credit: AP

That night in 1969 was to become one of the most notorious in recent American history: Tate and Sebring along with two of their friends were brutally murdered by the followers of Charles Manson. “Going off with that girl saved his life. After that, he became more paranoid and wouldn’t let me go anywhere without a gun.”

By now, the problems in the couple’s marriage had intensified and by 1970, when McQueen was filming his pet project, the racing drama Le Mans in France, the beginning of the end was nigh.

Having already informed Adams that women would be “coming from all over the world to visit me this summer”, McQueen asked if she had ever been unfaithful herself. When she finally confessed to a brief, long-ago fling, McQueen fetched an unloaded gun and held it to her head, forcing her to name her lover: the handsome Swiss actor Maximilian Schell.

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It never occurred to McQueen that his own affairs might have prompted his wife’s indiscretion. “He had trusted me as much as he could trust anyone and put me on such a high pedestal, that when I fell, I fell with a big thud.”

Adams filed for divorce in 1971: “as soon as he got the divorce papers, we didn’t talk for about a year. He couldn’t take being abandoned and that’s what he felt I was doing.” 

McQueen married twice more - in an ironic reversal, Adams became his mistress during the first to Ali McGraw, his co-star in The Getaway. “It was a little strange being the other woman,” she admits, “but it also felt comfortable.”

In 1980, he married model Barbara Minty while Adams married former fighter pilot, Alvin Toffel. “Steve was so competitive. He married Barbara a week before I got married because he didn’t want people saying he was only getting married because of me.”

McQueen with the Ford Mustang Bullitt, 1968 Credit: Snap Stills/REX

McQueen died in 1980 aged 50 - his once startling good looks ravaged by asbestos-related mesothelioma, a form of cancer. The one blessing of his early demise was that he wasn’t around to witness the death of his daughter Terry in 1998, who passed away from complications after a liver transplant at the age of 38. 

“He was absolutely crazy about her and seeing our daughter die would have destroyed him,” says Adams. “It almost destroyed me. He loved being with the kids, probably because he was such a kid himself.”

Toffel died of an aneurysm in March 2005 and while Adams is currently seeing two younger men - “it’s great because there’s no jealousy of any kind and we just meet and have a good time” - she has no desire to marry again. “I don’t want to take care of a guy at my age. Just my children and grandchildren. I took care of Steve a lot.”

Neile Adams with Steve McQueen in 1959 Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

There are plans to turn Adams’s 1986 memoir, My Husband, My Friend, into a movie. “I’d love to see Ryan Gosling playing Steve. He definitely has his screen presence and I loved him in La La Land. He’d have to take his shirt off too though.”

March 24, the night of Adams’s penultimate London performance, would have been McQueen’s 87th birthday. “I usually go to church and light a candle for him,” she says. Is she surprised at his enduring popularity? 

“Not really,” she replies. “He was a one-off for sure. Now, of course, everyone is cool - but Steve was the real deal.”   

An Evening with Neile Adams: All The Lives of Me, The Pheasantry, London, Thursday 23 to Saturday 25 March.

Tickets, £20, available from Pizzaexpresslive.com or 020 7439 4962