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The "King of Cool" apparently found a measure of peace in Santa Paula, Calif., where he could stash his collection of cars, planes, and motorcycles, and the locals didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal that a legendary movie star was living in their midst.
Steve McQueen had largely turned away from Hollywood when he settled in the town, about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles, in 1979. Drawn there, according to biographers, by the town’s reputation as the vintage-plane capital of America, the tough-boy icon purchased a nearby 15.5-acre ranch (see slide show below) with an 1892 cottage and a 4,500-square-foot hangar that he stuffed with dirt bikes, Indian motorcycles and rare sports cars.
McQueen, who became one of the world’s highest-paid actors in the 1960s, honed an image of toughness in such noted films as "Bullitt," "The Great Escape," and "The Cincinnati Kid."
But he started turning down most roles in the 1970s, focusing instead on auto and motorcycle racing and traveling the back roads of the West. He purchased two vintage Stearman biplanes and persuaded a Santa Paula local to become his flight instructor.
"He married his third wife, Barbara Minty, in the living room of the house at the ranch," said David Kean, the Los Angeles real estate agent who’s currently marketing the property for sale. McQueen and the former model wed in January 1980, not long after the couple moved into the house.
McQueen’s time at the ranch was to be brief. Diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer related to exposure to asbestos, shortly before they were married, he spent his last months there and in Mexico seeking medical treatment.
He died of complications from surgery in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in November 1980, at 50.
A memorial service for the actor was held at a pond on the Santa Paula property, Kean said.
"He loved to ride his dune buggy around the ranch," Kean said. "The airplane hangar on the property was full of his cars and motorcycles."
They’re gone now, having been auctioned in Las Vegas in 1984. But other McQueen touches remain, Kean said.
Although a subsequent owner installed a kitchen/family room addition and planted a vineyard, "everything else is as McQueen left it," Kean said.
"He collected old pull-chain toilets from old bus stations, and had them installed in the house," Kean said. "He tried to make everything of the period that the house was built."
The property declined, turning into "kind of a mud pit" in the years after McQueen died, Kean said. The current owners bought the place about seven years ago, spruced it up, and established a now-flourishing vineyard that produces 5,000 to 7,000 bottles a year, he said.
"My idea would be to make a deal with the McQueen estate, and buy the property and work in the McQueen rights," he said. "They could produce wine and export it to Asia — McQueen is a folk hero in Asia."
The McQueen name apparently has retained its luster: In 2007 Forbes magazine listed him as No. 10 among 13 "top-earning dead celebrities," with the licensing of his name having earned $6 million in the prior year.
The magazine said at the time that McQueen’s image of hard driving and fast living, which earned him the nickname "King of Cool," had found appeal with a new generation, 40 years after the release of "Bullitt," arguably his best-known film.
Actor Ashton Kutcher and David Beckham, among others, have said they regard McQueen as a personal style icon.
Indeed, Keen said, it’s been mostly Hollywood-types who have visited the Santa Paula ranch as a candidate for a second home, drawn by the McQueen connection and the isolation of the property.
"McQueen liked the town because people left him alone," and that attitude appears unchanged, Kean said. "I’ve had celebrities (who came to see the ranch) go into the town, have lunch, and nobody bothers them."
But no sale so far, Kean said.
Even for a Beverly Hills buyer, the $1.095 million asking price for the three-bedroom home (down from the original $1.95 million, and now listed as a short sale) gives pause.
"In this economy, even my wealthiest clients are tightening their wallets," he said. "One client said his net worth had dropped from $1 billion to $600 million and he’s nervous about it. They see the loss, they don’t see what they have."
Still, he said, some actors "who I think may want that McQueen image" have been interested in the place.
"They want the fantasy of the ranch, but they get overwhelmed" by the idea of maintaining its acreage and horse facilities, he said. "It’s a fun fantasy, but not everyone wants the reality."