Before Steve McQueen’s 18th birthday, he had worked on a farm, joined a circus, sold pens at a traveling carnival, hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country, worked as a lumberjack in Canada, labored on a chain gang in the Deep South (punishment for the crime of vagrancy), served a short (and illegal — he was underage) stint in the Merchant Marines, and joined the Marine Corps for a three-year enlistment. After getting out of the service, the newly-minted veteran moved to New York City, where, as reported in Steve McQueen: In His Own Words, “He handcrafted sandals, lugged radiators out of condemned buildings, loaded bags in a post office, ran errands for a local bookie, recapped tires in a garage, sold encyclopedias door-to-door, made artificial flowers in a musty basement, sold pottery in a large department store, and repaired television sets.” Before he finally found success as an actor, McQueen would also drive and repair taxi cabs, sling drinks as a bartender, and try his hand at laying tile.
While the sheer breadth and adventurousness of Steve McQueen’s resume was unique, having an interesting and varied background was actually quite common amongst actors of his generation.
Before making it in movies, Sean Connery served in the Royal Navy from ages 16 to 19 (voluntarily; this was after World War II), and worked as a milkman, lifeguard, truck driver, laborer, and artist’s model. He competed in bodybuilding competitions and once used his strength to take on a group of cutthroat gang members who had been harassing him; though it was a six-to-one fight, Connery so held his own (at one point putting two of the thugs down by clunking their heads together), that he earned the gang’s respect as a “hard man” and was subsequently left alone. As a 16-year-old, James Garner did a stint as a merchant mariner at the end of WWII, then joined the Army National Guard; he served 14 months in Korea as a rifleman and earned two Purple Hearts for being twice wounded. Even Paul Newman, who was a little prettier than his contemporaries, served as a turret gunner in a torpedo bomber during the Second World War.
Writers of the early to mid twentieth century had similarly compelling backgrounds.
By the age of 22, Jack London had worked in a cannery, electrical plant, and laundry facility, taught himself to sail, evaded the law as an oyster pirate, tramped around the country by rail (which earned him, like McQueen, a conviction for vagrancy and a month-long stint in jail), traveled the Pacific aboard a seal-hunting schooner, and ventured into the Klondike in search of gold.
Before Ralph Ellison turned 25, he had attempted to become a professional trumpet player, lived at a YMCA in New York City (where he met Langston Hughes), and worked as a shoeshine boy, waiter, short-order cook, drugstore clerk, paperboy, janitor, baker, receptionist for a renowned psychiatrist, dentist’s assistant (though only 12 at the time, “he learned,” a biography reports, “how to cast inlays, pour plaster-of-Paris models, and make crowns and some of the simpler bridges”), tailor’s assistant, sculptor’s assistant, and laboratory assistant at a paint company. When he was accepted to the Tuskegee Institute, he couldn’t afford the train ticket to get there, so he hoboed his way over on a freight line, ever on the lookout for the guards who searched for trespassers and often did violence to those they found.
During WWII, J.D. Salinger earned the rank of Staff Sergeant in the Army while participating in five campaigns, including ones which took him through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, and into a concentration camp. After the war, he re-upped to serve “Denazification” duty in Germany as part of the Counterintelligence Corps.
Ernest Hemingway learned fishing, hunting, and bushcraft skills as a toddler; worked on a farm at 15, took a weeks-long backpacking trip at 16 (subsisting on fish he caught himself), and served as an ambulance driver in WWI at age 18. As an aid worker, he earned the Italian Silver Medal for Valor for carrying a wounded soldier to safety, while being hit with gun and mortar fire twice himself.
Many of these men not only undertook adventurous exploits in their youth, but continued pursuing diverse, risk-taking explorations and hobbies after they found breakthrough