Sal Mineo: A Look Into Sal Mineo’s Tragic Life

Actor: Sal MineoThe title of a new biography by Michael Gregg Michaud is simple enough: Sal Mineo. So it comes as no surprise that the book covers the career and life trajectory of its subject, the late two-time Oscar-nominated actor who made a big splash early in his career with Rebel Without a Cause, and faded into obscurity by the time he was 30.

But the book, like Mineo’s life, is anything but simple. Over the course of 432 pages, Michaud, a writer, artist and photographer, touches on such subjects as the  price of early fame, the sexual habits of the famous (bit not always rich) in Hollywood, family dysfunction, and lots more.

 

Michaud’s expertly-researched tome delves into all aspects of his subject’s life, opening up the studio doors and bedroom doors of Hollywood. The son of a Sicilian immigrant casketmaker and a housewife obsessed with her son’s public persona, Mineo was born and raised in the Bronx. He first gained attention in the New York theater world as a child actor, co-starring in The Rose Tattoo and as a young teen opposite soon-to-be-mentor Yul Brynner in The King and I. At the age of 16, after stints in such films as Six Bridges to Cross with Tony Curtis and The Private War of Major Benson with Charlton Heston, Mineo got the plum role as doomed juvenile delinquent John “Plato” Crawford in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. During the production, Mineo befriended stars James Dean and Natalie Wood, and when Dean died in a car crash weeks before Rebel Without a Cause theatrical debut (while Giant, in which Mineo co-starred, was being edited), it made a lasting impact on him. The ties between Mineo and Dean continued when Giant finally was released in theaters the following year, and the two actors are inextricably linked forever by moviegoers.

Because of Rebel’s success, we learn that Mineo—nicknamed “The Switchblade Kid”—quickly became aware of typecasting; although he attempted to avoid taking roles in which he played troubled youths, the teenage actor with the muscular body and streetwise good looks often couldn’t avoid it. These movie choices, in turn, helped fan “Mineo Mania,” which often saw hundreds of teenage girls appearing wherever Sal arrived for a personal appearance or on a movie set. Meanwhile, Momma Mineo ran the publicity machine, making sure Sal answered all autograph requests. Brother Mike, an aspiring actor, was usually put on the payrolls of Sal’s projects, serving as his sibling’s frequent double and bodyguard.

According to author Michaud, the young Mineo was gung ho heterosexual all the way, carrying on an affair at 15 with 21-year-old actress Jill Haworth. The liaison was off and on for years, carrying through as the couple shared the screen in Otto Preminger’s Exodus, for which Mineo received another Oscar nomination. Other Mineo screen memories include playing the title role as the drumming idol in the critically lambasted The Gene Krupa Story, supporting parts in the WWII epic The Longest Day and John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, and appearances on live TV dramas such as Studio One and The Alcoa Hour. Even Edward R. Murrow came to call with an interview in the Mineos’ Bronx homestead.

But fame was fleeting, and by the mid-1960s, just ten years since Rebel, Mineo was scrambling for guest starring spots on episodic TV and roles in small theater companies. As Michaud writes, at the same time, Mineo grew out his mustache and hair, and began experimenting sexually in and around Hollywood.  Young performers such as Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, Jay North and Don Johnson came into contact with Mineo for different reasons. Meanwhile, Mineo struggled to publically express his sexuality through his work, directing and starring in the homosexual-themed prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes in New York, Los Angeles and other cities, and, later, trying to make a hit out of the gay-themed play “P.S., Your Cat is Dead.”  Once offered a seven-picture deal at Universal, Mineo was by his late twenties in terrible debt, living hand to mouth, the target of several lawsuits, and reduced to appearing in community and college theater productions. Screen opportunities, when they did arrive, consisted of taking parts for cash in big budget disasters like Krakatoa, East of Java, playing an ape at the behest of pal Roddy McDowall in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, or in exploitation films like the notoriously sleazy Who Killed Teddy Bear?

According to the book, despite his flagging career, Mineo remained optimistic that a comeback was just around the corner. Michaud, who did impressive research for the book and interviewed many of Sal’s closest friends, including his last lover, actor Courtney Burr , pulls out several fascinating facts about projects Mineo was involved in that never came to be—at least with him—including  film versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Last Picture Show.

For years, Mineo’s West Hollywood stabbing death in 1976 at the age of 37 was the stuff of show-business urban legend. It was often linked to his far-out lifestyle and sexual peccadilloes. Here, Michaud lays all the rumors to rest with an in-depth examination of the events that led to the actor’s demise, a sad example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Lost was the legacy of a star burned out way before his time, the good son whose family refused to acknowledge his homosexuality.

A few months ago, it was announced that Hollywood Renaissance man James Franco had optioned this book with plans to produce a biopic of Sal Mineo. Other details are sketchy right now, but rumor has it that Franco will adapt the book and direct. There seems to be a renewed interest in Mineo, the man and the myth, if not the legend.

For more information on Sal Mineo by Michael Gregg Michaud please go to:

http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780307718686.html

  • John Primavera

    I was raised in the Bronx and was a contemporary
    of Sal whom I never knew, but was another street-wise kid who got lucky enough to meet some of his
    street buddies. They told me that Sal was really
    bi-sexual and experimented with homosexuality as
    young as 14-years-old. This was just two years
    before he made his debut as a juvenile delinquent
    opposite pin-up idol Tony Curtis in “Six Bridges
    to Cross.” Sal worshipped Curtis and wanted to
    get close to him, but was told by actor and co-star George Nader(a confirmed homosexual) to cool
    it. Tony repulsed any gay advances that threatened
    to harm his relationship with Tony’s teenage
    female fans. Universal was teeming with switch-
    hitting bisexuals at this time, led by Universal’s
    top star, Rock Hudson.

    Sal Mineo never married and preferred men to women. He chose Gay-themed stories to act in or
    direct. Had his life not been tragically cut short
    by a drug deal gone awry…he’d be known today
    as one who pioneered the image of the formerly
    hidden screen world of Gays, both on and off the screen.

  • Gord Jackson

    I just recently bought Michaud’s “Sal Mineo” but have yet to read it because I am re-reading H. Paul Jeffers earlier tome, “Sal Mineo – His Life, Murder and Mystery.” I was always a huge fan of the man and have often wished he had been able to secure parts he wanted/was up for, such as Ratzo in “Midnight Cowboy.” Mineo was born 11 months before I was and, since I was ushering in a neighbourhood moviehouse that showed “Six Bridges to Cross” and “The Private War of Major Benson”, I quickly became acquainted with him on screen. However, because I also liked him and was almost his age, I followed his career very closely growing up, in a way with him. When I initially entered theatre management fulltime in 1957, we played “Rebel Without a Cause” (in a WB reissue package with “East of Eden” that year) and one of my personal favourites, “Dino” which, regretfully, is still unavailable on DVD. I’ll be interested, after reading both books to see what differences there are in them, but I am curious as to why the Jeffers book was not shown in the bibliography of Michaud’s new bio or even referenced in any reviews I have so far read.

    Finally, good luck to James Franco in getting his Sal Mineo project off the ground. And yes, I am still a huge Sal Mineo fan.

  • Lila Johnson

    I read the book as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Having been born in ’51 I was too young to appreciate Rebel until I was a little older but I have strong momories of having a crush on the beautiful “Indian” boy in “Tonka.” You got the ages reversed on the affair with the young Jill Haworth. It was she who was only 15.
    I’ve been enjoying seeing some of his films and TV shows from Netflix. I’ve since begun reading a Tab Hunter autobiography. Interesting overlaps in their circles.

  • christina

    loved this actor.

  • ronald

    Whatever may or may not be known about Sal Mineo’s sexuality, his sensitive and fine work stands as the ultimate testimony of his tremendous ability as an actor. If you see his work, you remember his talent.

  • Gayle Bourns

    When I was 16 Sal Mineo was starring in the film Tonka in Central Oregon. My family ate dinner with Sal, his brother Mike, Slim Pickens and character actor Jack Carey. The crew was staying at Sonny’s in Madras, Oregon. Sal was on crutches because he fell off a horse (I think that is how he got his injury). What a star studded night for me. I remember everyone being down to earth and very fun. What happened to that film?

  • randy

    Sal was a great actor, one of my favorites. I thought he was great in Dino and Gene Krupa Story. I was always sad when/if Sal’s character died in the film. I also thought sal did a good job in Crime In The Streets. Would love to see Tonka, Six Bridges To Cross, The Young Don’t Cry, Who Killed Teddy Bear?, but haven’t yet. Sal was great at showing the pain on his face when he was playing a troubled youth. Such a good actor!!

  • BREN

    Sal was about three or four years older than I am and I had a dead-on crush on him when I was a teen. I’m with you on this one, Christina! He really was a powerful actor and, as Randy wrote, his emotions and passions were right there on his face (especially expressions of anguish through his eyes and eyebrows) and his voice and body movements reinforced those feelings. When watching Sal, one was not reminded that this was a role for him . . . he always appeared to be “for real”. Sad to know he had a difficult life after he’d provided so much pleasure for those of us who remember him and his works.

  • Derek Anthony

    I just read Michaud’s book and it is awesome and well written. It does not sensationalize any of the surprising trysts Sal had. Bobby Sherman I never liked, I thought he was a poser and a “square” trying to be hip. The fact he slept with Sal trying to further his career is no surprise. The Jay North story I expected as Jay was pretty messed up after “Dennis the Menace” and was into drugs and experimenting due I’m sure to his abusive childhood. I remember his on air meltdown on a Talk show in the late 80’s or early 90’s.

    Sal’s murder was a robbery by a punk criminal and nothing more, not a drug deal gone bad. He was a career criminal who was looking to rob someone and panicked when Sal yelled for help. Sad story but this book is amazing and will make a great movie.