Five-O Foto Motel
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steve mcqueen
Why Actors Are Suddenly Ice Cold
But Men Of Action Are Hotter Than Lightning

The miraculous return to active duty of 63-year old daredevil Evel Knievel creates a flash revival of one of the 20th Century's most popular adventure serials. It also rewrites the rules on what it means to be a hero in America.

The most important new distinction can be summed up directly. There are actors, then there are men of action. The former group had a free ride for decades, as they were liberally rewarded for pretending to be the latter. But right now nothing less than genuine men of action - soldiers, cops, firefighters, daredevils - will satisfy the American heroic ideal.

Though he is a master showman and spends lots of time inside an RV, Evel is much closer to a circus performer than a movie star. Like an aerialist working without a net, Evel's gambits without a doubt risk his life even as they test his skill.

Actors enjoy a challenge, they enjoy playing someone operating under extreme conditions, having a drug OD onscreen or typing really fast into a computer to prevent an A-bomb attack; they enjoy "being in the moment" and "finding their character," but as for literally looking Death in the eye and telling him to take his best shot? It's not part of the program.

And there's the rub. An actor is always trumped by a man of action. Which is why Evel Knievel's resurrection is unprecedented. From limbo - completely off the radar screen of celebrity pop culture save for a tiny pilot light within the national memory - he is staging a comeback that shows the potential to launch him over the heads of many Hollywood Untouchables, his contemporaries in the suddenly ice-cold field of acting. Jack, Warren, Dennis, no offense, but you are actors. This is an action hero. In fact, when Evel walks into the Academy Awards next year as Five-O urges him to do, every A-list actor in the room except Jackie Chan better press his forehead into the red carpet before the Evel One.

This distinction explains why actors love to play soldiers - or gladiators. Because they were the original men of action. Except on certain sensitive missions, that is, where soldiers are required to blend in with civilians, thereby practicing the art of acting as Plato described it: deceipt. And so it comes to pass in The Great Escape (1963), you have actors playing soldiers who are play-acting, that is you have a movie about escaping U.S. POWs as they attempt to impersonate German civilians.

Among the cast, and exempt from the suddenly ice cold designation of mere actor, you find Steve McQueen, who, like Tom Mix and Jackie Chan, was a daredevil stuntman as well as a movie star. McQueen's specialty for the picture? Cycle-jumping. And seldom in a heroic adventure, not even in Ben-Hur, has a stunt sequence been so spell-bindingly integrated into a crowd-rousing plot climax. Here you have McQueen, a solitary American with movie star good looks, a veteran rebel called "The Cooler King," a flyer, a fighter, an escape artist. Here you have McQueen rolling the throttle on a stolen military motorcycle as SS troops with machine guns and dogs give chase through the long corridors carved into the meadow's rolling hills by quarter-mile long stands of barbed wire.

McQueen jumps the cycle over the wire nests by banking fast over the hilltops, no ramps and no stunt doubles provided. I defy anyone with a pulse to watch this sequence without feeling it racing, sparking real emotional electricity hoping the amazing McQueen leaves the villainous Nazis in his dust and makes it back to Allied territory to resume the good fight.

It was here, in 1963, as Steve McQueen flew over the Nazi barbed wire, that the modern myth Evel Knievel embodies was born.

steve mcqueen

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