Action Rewind: The Best Action Film Roles Steve McQueen Turned Down or Almost Starred In

By: Anthony Francis

Rightfully branded “The King of Cool”, Steve McQueen walked it like he talked it. He was not a manufactured Hollywood pseudo-tough guy like we see today. McQueen was the real deal. His characters were hard bred and in his personal life, he lived equally as hard.

With natural talent, piercing blue eyes, and enough natural born cool for twenty actors, Steve McQueen earned his place as one of the legendary movie stars and a true Action Film icon thanks to balls-out films such as “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, “Bullitt”, and “The Getaway”. Each one of these films were massive hits and instant classics.

But there were other Action films that were to star Steve McQueen that either landed in development limbo or that he simply turned down.

What follows are some of the Action films McQueen was briefly involved with. In each film, I think the actor would have brought something special but quite different to the role and it is exciting to imagine what he could have done with each one.

1. George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

Already iconic and one of the most beloved films of its era, the film almost paired Newman with Steve McQueen as The Sundance Kid.

There are too many rumors as to why the actor left the project but one of them that imagines McQueen wanting his name first in the title probably is not far off, as his ego was as big as his Hollywood status.

Whatever the reason, ol’ Steve would have been great as the stoic gunslinger. My only fear would have been the comedic aspects of the film.

I never felt the actor had a handle on comedy and always seemed to “goof it up” too broadly when having to do anything comedic. For proof, see his embarrassingly awful turn in the otherwise good film “Soldier in the Rain” from 1963.

That aside, McQueen would have been fine as Sundance, especially as the character has a reputation for his deadly skills with a pistol. Although Robert Redford is perfect, Steve McQueen would have probably nailed the role, giving it his own signature style of cool.

2. William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971)

Another iconic and groundbreaking film that could have started the legend.

It is said that McQueen did not want to do the film, as it was too close to the style of character and film he played in “Bullitt” just a few years before.

While he could not have been more wrong in his assessment, McQueen might have fit nicely into the role of Popeye Doyle. The character’s tough and no-bullshit style of acting mirrors Doyle’s hard edged policing tactics.

I wonder how McQueen would have handled the racism in Doyle and quetion if he would have worked it into his performance or tried to have them write it out, as Steve was always the hero (of sorts).

3. William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (1977)

For me, this film is one of the great works of the 1970s. Truly one of the great Ambient cinematic masterpieces and one of the best remakes (of Henri-Georges Cluzot’s 1953 “The Wages of Fear”) of them all.

McQueen was Friedkin’s first choice for the lead and, while the actor loved the screenplay, he showed no interest in leaving his wife (Ali MacGraw) or the comforts of the United States.

Roy Scheider works splendidly in the lead role, but Steve McQueen would have brought a rugged and world-weary depth to the part of a criminal hiding out in South America who takes on a dangerous job that would become his own purgatory and, eventually, his doom.

I believe the film holds one of Scheider’s best performances, but this role was made for Steve McQueen, especially at that stage of his career.

Tough, rugged, and full of dangerous machismo, the film and the part are (or should have been) pure McQueen.

4. Walter Hill’s “The Driver” (1978)

Hill wrote this existential tale of a getaway driver with McQueen in mind. 

As was Sam Peckinpah’s film from Hill’s screenplay “The Getaway”, this one would have been a perfect fit for the actor, but McQueen turned it down due to the fact that he felt he had done enough “car films” already.

The ice cool demeanor of the title character IS Steve McQueen in every moment. Ryan O’ Neal got the role and did great work, but the ghost of Steve McQueen cannot be ignored when watching the film. With every tough line, gun blast, and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, this would have been another iconic McQueen performance and perhaps it would have helped Hill’s film reach a wider audience at the time.

5. Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood” (1982)

For the adaptation of David Morrell’s novel, Steve McQueen was considered (amongst many other actors such as Dustin Hoffman, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood) for the part of John Rambo. While never officially offered the role, McQueen was one of the names being tossed around to star in the film that would become another feather in the cap of Sylvester Stallone’s career. The character of John Rambo would become one of the most recognizable and popular characters in Action film history. 

McQueen as Rambo (in the first film at least) would have been a much different portrayal but great, nonetheless.

The role called for a quiet, rugged, and tough survivalist pushing back against crooked authority. Could McQueenhave been any more perfect?

Another take, McQueen would have worked equally as well as the sheriff. I doubt if the actor’s personal beliefs would have let him play a crooked character such as the one Brian Dennehey portrayed so brilliantly, but during the mid-70s McQueen was continually challenging himself. Perhaps he would have taken on the antagonistic role this time and furthered his range as an actor.

Perchance to dream.

6. “The Bodyguard” (originally scheduled for 1975 or 1977)

This was to be a big budget Action Thriller full of music and was set to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay (which would be his ticket to the film business) while he was still working as a copywriter. The script got him an agent but languished in development hell.

McQueen was eager but grew tired of waiting and left the project. He was briefly replaced by Ryan O’Neal (yet again!). However, when Diana Ross dropped out, the project was dead until it is resurrection in Mick Jackson’s 1992 box office smash.

This would have been a perfect role for Steve McQueen, his intense and commanding presence serving the titular character extremely well. To think of the actor as the demanding bodyguard who falls for the woman he is to protect makes me sad that the opportunity never came to fruition.

Everything that made McQueen the “King of Cool” could have been on full display in that role. His swagger, his intensity, his seductiveness, and his full-on macho would have lifted the character to greater levels.

While I liked Costner in the part, I am sure he would agree that the legend that is Steve McQueen would have made it iconic.

About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at

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