Why Paul Newman and Steve McQueen Feuded on the Set of Classic Film

The leading men battled over 1974's The Towering Inferno.

Sharing sandy hair, piercing blue eyes and a love of fast cars, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were two of the most iconic actors of the '60s and '70s, as well as natural rivals. Despite being known as "The King of Cool," McQueen reportedly resented Newman for his acclaim as a dramatic heavyweight. Newman meanwhile, allegedly called McQueen a "chicken [expletive]" over their petty squabbles on set of the classic 1974 film, The Towering Inferno. Read on for the details behind the famous feud that came to a head during the filming of the wildly successful disaster flick.

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McQueen nabbed the more pivotal role.

Steve McQueen in 1973
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Following the success of the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, producer Irwin Allen announced he would mount another catastrophe-themed drama, this time about a skyscraper engulfed in an electrical fire on the night of its dedication.

According to 2017's The Life Steve McQueen by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, McQueen was originally offered the role of The Towering Inferno's architect Doug Roberts. However, sensing more dramatic potential in the fearless fire chief Mike O'Halloran, the actor lobbied for and won the pivotal role. This in turn opened the door for Newman, who had been McQueen's yardstick for success since his bit part in the 1956 Newman vehicle Somebody Up There Likes Me, to play the architect—drawing in massive audiences and allowing a long-simmering rivalry between the two actors to come to a boil.

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He wasn't happy that Newman had more lines than him.

Paul Newman in 1974
PL Gould/Images/Getty Images

Both actors were paid the same salary: $1 million, plus a percentage of the gross. But this didn't prevent McQueen from feeling one-upped by his co-star. According to Zimmerman, McQueen went through the script to count how many lines each of them had. Discovering that Newman had 12 more than him, he then tracked down screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who was away on a yacht vacation, and demanded he add that exact amount of lines to his character's dialogue. To top it off, McQueen also got the last line of the film ("So long, architect.").

The other actor's friend, A. E. Hotchner, wrote in the 2011 memoir Paul and Me that he had visited the Towering Inferno set to find a downtrodden Newman, who angrily recounted the line-counting stunt and called his co-star a "chicken [expletive]" for his antics. "Every day here is like going to the dentist," he reportedly complained.

The poster had to be creatively edited.

Towering Inferno poster
20th Century Fox

To add to the drama, Newman, McQueen, and co-star William Holden all wanted top billing. This put producers in an awkward position, especially since McQueen had previously walked away from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid over Newman being billed first, according to Daily Express.

Although McQueen had allowed the then lesser-known Robert Redford to take his place in that film, the solution producers had devised to appease him then was put to use on The Towering Inferno. Producers gave both stars top billing by creatively editing the credits and poster so that Newman's name was higher up, but McQueen's name was listed first when read left to right (Holden was listed third as he wasn't as bankable of a star). This practice of diagonal or staggered (but equal) billing soon became a well-worn way of dealing with the competing egos of co-leads.

RELATED: Ali MacGraw "Knew" She'd Have Affair With Co-Star Steve McQueen: "I Was Obsessed."

Both stars were injured doing their own stunts.

Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ali MacGraw, and Steve McQueen in 1974
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

While McQueen may have felt overshadowed by Newman's acting chops, the actor who once evaded the Manson Family outshined his co-star when it came to his daredevil reputation. Determined to immerse himself in firefighting, McQueen once donned full equipment during filming to accompany actual firefighters as they hosed down a burning building, leading him to be named an "honorary Los Angeles firefighter" in an official 1974 ceremony, according to Zimmerman's book.

Aiming to do as many of his own stunts as possible, he also went against Allen's wishes to perform a scene jumping from a helicopter onto a burning building, per Daily Express. Newman did his best to keep up by doing his stunts as well, and, according to The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, this resulted in both sustaining injuries during filming. Newman suffered a moderately serious burn, and McQueen sprained his ankle badly enough to need to film scenes from a seated position for several days.

The experience led Newman to make a major career change.

Paul Newman in 1995
Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

The Towering Inferno ultimately received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, took home three, and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1974, earning $116 million in its first year, according to Zimmerman. The percentage of the gross that the rival actors received left them set for life.

Hotchner wrote that Newman took home $12 million (the equivalent of about $77 million today), but even that failed to make him feel better about the miserable shoot, leading him to swear off taking roles just for "the big contract."

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Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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