Steve James was born and raised in New York City. His father was trumpet player Hubie James. His uncle was James Wall, who played Mr. Baxter on the children's television series Captain Kangaroo. His godfather was Joe Seneca who, among many roles, played Danny Glover's father in Silverado. Joe Seneca was instrumental in Steve becoming interested in action films as he took him to movies on 42nd Street when he was a child. He graduated from Power Memorial Academy in 1970, then attended C.W. Post College as an Arts and Film major. Upon graduating, he became involved in stage work and TV commercials. James started his film career off as a stunt performer for such New York based film productions as The Wiz, The Warriors, and The Wanderers. He also practiced martial arts and was an expert in Fu Jow Pai, a system in Tiger Claw Kung Fu.
Steve was married to Christine Pan James in Hawaii. During their honeymoon, he was cast for a role on Raven which was being shot in Hawaii on the old Magnum, P.I. studio lot.
On December 18, 1993, James died of pancreatic cancer in his home in Burbank, California at age 41. He is survived by his wife, Christine Pan James, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Debi James. His widow is a writer and actor, his daughter a model and singer.