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.

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