Actor, musician, director, and prominent bisexual, 1939-1976
Taking after his father's namesake, Salvatore Mineo Jr. was born on January 10, 1939. Salvatore Mineo Sr., a carpenter, had emigrated with his wife Josephine Alvisi from Sicily to the United States to found a coffin-crafting business. Shortly after Sal was born, the family had saved enough money to buy an old house in Bronx, New York City. Sal soon picked up the area's distinctive accent. He initially had difficulty making friends, shunned as an outsider by the local gang of boys because of his father's somewhat morbid line of work. In an attempt to endear himself to them, Sal once hinted that the unfinished coffins in his father's workshop were filled with candy. The boys took the bait. When they tried to open one of the coffins, Sal leapt out and sent them running. This prank unfortunately had the effect of further cementing Sal's outsider status. To add insult to injury, the boy was forced to distribute candy he had bought to the offended parties once his father caught wind of the plot. Unwilling to give up, Sal eventually integrated himself among the neighborhood gang by taking a dare to smoke an entire cigar. The dumbfounded boys elevated him immediately to the position vice president.
Like other Italian boys in the area, Sal attended a Dominican Catholic school generically named St. Marys. He was considered a trouble-maker, but not without virtues. While casting for a play about the life of Jesus Christ, the nuns decided to choose Sal for the role of the Savior. The boy took to the part eagerly, researching the character, practicing diligently, and even improvising his own props when he felt the ones supplied were inadequate. This humble introduction to the world of theatre set Sal's sights firmly on a career as an actor.
Despite having played the Lamb of God, Sal took more after the Wolf. He frequently got into fights, engaged in mischief, and snubbed the furious nuns. They finally kicked him out of the school. Left with more time to idle away on the streets, Sal rose to the highest position of his prepuberdescent gang and led a daring heist that was busted almost immediately. At about this time, Josephine was propositioned by a man advertising a dance school that would eventually bring its students to the attention of television producers. She was wary of offer, knowing that there was little chance the school had any actual contacts at all, but afraid that her son was about to sink from petty theft to more serious offenses, she asked him if he wished to enroll. Sal was ecstatic about the offer. He began classes immediately. Josephine's intuition proved correct: the connection between the dance school and television roles was nonexistent, but Sal not only enjoyed the classes, he showed great talent. His mother switched him to a more reputable school, where his younger sister Sarina also joined him. When he was eleven years old, a Broadway producer waltzed into the studio. After observing him for a few minutes, she asked him to recite the line, "The goat is in the yard." He complied. She had him repeat it a few more times, then offered him a job playing a small part in Tennessee Williams' latest play, The Rose Tattoo. The salary was $65 dollars a week. Sal eagerly accepted.
After traveling to Chicago for initial staging, Sal returned to New York for rehearsals. Each day he would arise at 6:30AM to catch the subway down to Times Square. On the way he was often waylaid by gangs patrolling the train cars, their 'turf'. "I felt like a hunted animal," he later remarked. Sal ran when he could, fought back when he had to, and sometimes arrived to the theater bloodied and bruised. To add to his travel difficulties, the boy was approached by older men hoping to fuck him. His angelic, attractive, and exotic appearance caused these offers to be made often, sometimes forcefully. Sal became so exasperated that he bought a toy gun replica to ward off the lechers on his way to work. The ploy was successful. After a year, the play closed, but Sal was unwilling to surrender the sweetness of an actor's life once he'd had a taste. He quickly found a role in a small play called The Little Screwball, then auditioned for the Crown Prince of Siam in the musical, The King and I. It would soon prove to be the defining experience that led to his early position as a professional actor.
Sal was given the role of understudy, a great accomplishment for a mostly untested actor. He learned his lines and trained his voice for the Crown Prince's solo. While he accomplished these tasks easily, the mere thought of having to work with the bombastic King, played by renowned actor Yul Brynner, terrified the boy. He had gone completely unnoticed as understudy, but after a few weeks of running, the lead boy took a vacation and Sal was required to fill in. He needed help with applying his make-up. Told to seek out Brynner, Sal had to overcome his timidness.
I was so shy of him, so completely awed, that I never dared approach him, though I very much wanted to. But now that I was to play opposite him, I was more afraid of the man than ever... An important actor like Mr. Brynner wouldn't want to be bothered with such trifles as telling a thirteen year-old kid how to put on greasepaint.
Sal was mistaken. The actor proved very congenial
, not only willing to show Sal how to apply his make-up, but eventually taking the boy under his wing. As the lead boy departed, Sal took his place permanently. Under Brynner's instruction, Sal's acting markedly improved. The two got along so well that Brynner invited Sal to his mansion on weekends to lean how to waterski. An amateur carpenter, Brynner and Sal's father hit it off easily, trading woodworking tips. Sal and Brynner developed not only a professional relationship, but a personal friendship that would last for many years.
After The King and I wound to a close, Sal had a weighty enough résumé to gain parts on television dramas. He played small roles in a medical drama, Janet Dean, Registered Nurse, and a biographical production of William Saroyan's life titled Omnibus (among other shows). While the boy was furthering his career, his older brother Michael had developed aspirations to be an actor as well. For his first audition, he read lines for the film Six Bridges to Cross, a movie about the mastermind of a perfectly executed three million dollar robbery in 1950. Someone was needed to play the criminal as a street kid in Boston. While Sal only came along with his brother for moral support, he was asked to read for the role himself. A last minute switch from Jeff Chandler to Tony Curtis as the movie's star required someone who looked like Curtis as a kid and had the skill to pull off the part. Sal was perfectly suited.
Because the movie had been shot on location in Boston, some of the audio bits came out sketchily. Sal was asked to travel to Hollywood to redo missed dialogue. While there, he managed to get signed up for another role in The Private War of Major Benson, a family film about a rough-edged commander inexplicably assigned to coach football at a boys' military academy. Asked how he got the part, Sal merely replied, "I talked my way into it." The extra time spent making the movie gave him the opportunity to seek a much more important role, one that would rocket him to fame.
When he heard that Rebel Without a Cause, a drama about juvenile delinquency aimed toward the new, lucrative movie audience of teenagers, he was desperate for the roll of Plato, adoring friend of the lead character Jim Stark. His distinctive, 'pretty' looks made him stand out from the crowd of other boys seeking the role. He was asked to do an improvised scene with one of the gang toughs, then called back to read with James Dean, who would have the lead role.
I thought I dressed pretty sharp for those days in pegged pants, skinny tie, jacket--until Jimmy Dean walked in with his tee shirt and blue jeans. We went through a scene and nothing happened between us. Nick Ray finally walked over and suggested we sit and talk for a while. When Jimmy found out I was from the Bronx, we started gabbing about New York and the progressed to cars, and befor we knew it, we were buddies. Then we went back to the script, and this time if went off like clockwork.
Director Nick Ray sent Sal home. He had misgivings about casting the boy. While possessive of an impressive résumé, Mineo was not at all what Ray had envisioned. When he called the boy back, however, his decision was made. "Every once in a while a director has to gamble. I'm going to take a chance. You're Plato."
Rebel Without a Cause captured the zeitgeist of the age. Children of the baby boom were just emerging from childhood into adolescence, and the awkward, erratic nature of teenagers was magnified as never before in United States history. Parents grew fearful at tales of juvenile delinquency plagues sweeping the nation. Teenagers began to identify themselves not as children or adults, but their own demographic with distinct wants and needs. They embraced rock and roll, lusted after celebrity idols, and chased new, rebellious fashions uniquely their own. From this turmoil, a representative emerged in the form of James Dean. He had their looks, with blue jeans, red jacket, and duck butt's haircut. More importantly, he had their problems. He was cocky, but unsure of himself. A tough guy, but vulnerable. Disrespectful to authority, but desperate for guidance through the confusing whirlwind of growing up. And opposite him, they found Sal Mineo, an expression of their neurosises taken to a disturbing extreme.
Beyond these probes into the workings of the teenage mind, there were also deeper, more controversial themes at work. The relationship between the three main characters, Jim Stark, Judy Phillips, and Plato, had clear parental parallels. Jim and Judy acted as Plato's father and mother, each indulging in their fantasy of the ideal family. But while the romance between Jim and Judy was made clear, homoerotic undertones between Jim and Plato were hard to deny. This was not unintentional. An original working copy of the script had included a scene in which Jim and Plato kissed. While such an unacceptable display of 'deviant' sexual behavior was nixed immediately by Hollywood censors, the director Nick Ray still encouraged Sal to play up his desire for Dean while they acted. Sal had some trouble getting it down, so Dean offered his advice. "You know how I am with Natalie. Well, why don't you pretend I'm her and you're me? Pretend you want to touch my hair, but you're shy. I'm not shy like you. I love you. I'll touch your hair." Nick Ray commented that, "Sal was transcendent, the feeling coming out of him. I tiptoed away. The next scene, Sal broke the sound barrier." For the time in which it was produced, the homosexual romance between Sal and Dean that was slipped under the radar was astounding.
While the movie industry maintained a veneer of typical romance for its stars, behind the scenes things were much different. Producers cared little about who was shacking up with whom as long as it stayed out of the public eye. Thus the complexities of romance off Rebel's sound stage were hardly surprising. The highest profile rumors maintained that Sal and Dean had extended their relationship further. Dean was well known as a bisexual, unabashed in his use of sex with men or women to further his career (and often just for pleasure). A relationship with Dean may have marked Sal's own realization of his true sexual orientation, one that he would embrace more fully as the years progressed. He consistently denied, however, having ever been involved with Dean during the making of Rebel. They were other possibilities floated, including a relationship with Nick Ray or Natalie Wood. The conflicting reports make it difficult to know what really happened behind the scenes. In the wake of the film's success, it didn't really matter.
Warner Brothers received an incredible return on its investment. American teens flocked to witness the story of their generation told in one night. As would be expected, James Dean became the heartthrob of girls everywhere. But Sal was surprised to learn that he'd earned a place among their affections as well. Magazines clamored for interviews and letters streamed in. The business of Sal's career always having been a family concern, his little sister Sarina took over the task of answering fan mail, and hired several other neighborhood girls to help her. While his portrait was being taped to the insides of lockers and corners of mirrors across the nation, he also caught the eye of the Motion Picture Academy. He was nominated for an Oscar for supporting actor. Aware that he was unlikely to win in favor of Jack Lemmon's performance in Mr. Roberts (he was correct), Sal did not set his hopes too greatly on the golden trophy. The honor of being nominated was enough at the time.
After the success of Rebel in 1955, Sal was signed to many other movies. He was prime material, a sure way of getting butts in the seats. He played a small role without lines in Giant once again opposite James Dean, and a more significant one in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Continuing to attract attention, he costarred in his own movie, Crime in the Streets, which rode both the juvenile delinquency and teen idol waves with a blitz of marketing. In the ads, Sal's character Baby Giola was described as, "16 and seething with all the pent-up fury of today's adolescents, hungry for 'kicks' and read to go, Go, GO all the way." Sounds rather campy these days, but at the time this was the epitome of cool. His performance as the hardened teenage criminal earned him the nickname "The Switchblade Kid."
By 1956, the seventeen year-old young man had seven movies under his belt. Hoping to capitalize on his popularity, Epic Records proposed a new venture: music. Having had singing lessons for his performances on Broadway, this seemed feasible for Sal, and he released his first single, "Start Movin'." Fans of his acting loyally trooped into record stores and bought more than 1,200,000 copies, elevating him to ninth place in the Top 40. He remained there for thirteen weeks. Based on this success, he came out with a full-length album of twelve songs simply named Sal. While the record and its spinoff singles were lucrative, Sal recognized that he wasn't really a musician. "Nobody is going to mistake me for Pat Boone," he commented honestly. He ceased producing music in 1959.
The young man's career continued to ascend. He faced a minor setback when an infection in his right eye forced him to undergo surgery, however he quickly recovered and went right back to movie-making. His next major project was The Gene Krupa Story, for which he starred as the famous jazz drummer. The role required him to time his own drumming movements with Gene Krupa's own on previous recordings, a difficult task that Sal managed to pull off without previous training. His performance gained the blessing of Krupa himself. The Gene Krupa Story marked a transition in Sal's career away from his reputation as a pretty-boy actor. He sought after more emotionally mature parts that thoroughly tested his abilities. Another mold-breaking role came in the form of Dov Landau, a survivor of the Holocaust in The Exodus come to Israel to form a new nation. Landau's love interest, played by Jill Haworth, became Sal's love interest. The two lived together briefly in his mansion in Los Angeles, and continued a warm friendship even after she left his home. For his emotional, dynamic performance, Sal was again nominated for an Oscar. And again, Sal lost, the award instead going to Peter Ustinov for his role in Spartacus. This time, Sal was crushed.
Following his loss to Ustinov, Sal's career went into a tailspin. By 1965 he was no longer a hot commodity. Studios were looking for new faces to attract teenagers, their fickle tastes seldom fancying any one actor for long. While Sal had proved himself with two Oscar nominations, he could not find jobs based on his acting ability alone. Prone to living a typical Hollywood lifestyle, throwing raucous parties for the biggest names in tinsel town and indulging in expensive hobbies, he soon exhausted his financial resources. He was forced to lower his standards, playing in increasingly obscure movies and television dramas. There were, however, advantages to his newfound unimportance. Being out of the public eye allowed Sal to become more fully aware of his sexual identity. He was able to travel the gay haunts of Sunset Strip without fear of repercussions from movie industry minders. Sal took advantage of his new freedom, engaging in multiple relationships with other young men, though none long term.
While the freedom of obscurity allowed Sal to satisfy his sexual desires, it also gave him room to pursue new interests. He sought a chance to be a director, though he was unsure what production he wished to lead. This qualm was eliminated when he found the play Fortune and Men's Eyes in 1969. Written by the Canadian playwright John Herbert and inspired by his experiences with juvenile justice, it told the story of an essentially non-criminal young man sent to prison and transformed into a callous cynic by his treatment there. The defining catalyst of his metamorphosis was a homosexual rape that was intended to occur off-stage. Sal worked up the money for the play's fee by gambling at a chemin de fer table in Las Vegas, then began preparations. He made a significant change to the script, moving the rape from behind the scenes to spotlight, center-stage. While this was given hesitant approval by Herbert, he later regretted allowing Sal to make the change. The play was a success in L.A. and later in New York (aided by enthusiastic gay attendance), but many critics balked at Sal's readjustment of an off-stage, vague event that may or may not have been a rape to a climactic "gladiator battle in the shower." Clive Barnes, the critic for The New York Times, took disapproval a step further. He devoted three sentences to the actors, and the rest of his article to insulting their director. Sal quipped that, "he was reviewing Sal Mineo, not the play." Despite hostility, the performance continued to run successfully until its closing in 1970.
Following Fortune and Men's Eyes, Sal attempted to get other director positions, especially in film. His insistence on not starring in the films and plays he wished to direct hampered his efforts. He'd proved himself as an actor, but it was a little late to change careers. Desperate for money, he took roles in small B-flicks and television productions, generally disgusted with them all. Roles of any greater caliber seemed impossible to come by. One bitter disappointment was his rejection for The Godfather, for which he felt that he was a perfect match. While Francis Ford Coppola gave the standard reason that, "Mineo's been around and everybody knows him," the director later admitted that Sal had been denied only because another major member of the cast objected to "acting opposite a faggot." The cast member was never named. Though he was blacklisted as a homosexual, Sal never considered himself one. "I don't like being told I can love only a woman or only a guy."
It wasn't until 1974 that Sal began to resurface from his slump. He gained a starring role in the popular comedy P.S. Your Cat is Dead as a bisexual burglar caught in the act and held prisoner by the man he intended to rob. Critics were pleased with his performance. He slowly returned to public recognition as magazines staged, "Where is He Now?" interviews. He was feeling better about himself and about his future prospects. His debts were mostly settled, his love life was stabilizing, he had a close group of friends, and he seemed happy. Coincidence turned this optimistic picture into a tragedy. As he was returning from rehearsal to his apartment complex around 9:30 PM, an assailant accosted him. Residents heard him scream, "Oh no! Oh my God, no! Help me, please..." When they rushed out, they found Sal laying in a fetal position on the ground, bleeding heavily from his left side. By the time the ambulance arrived, Sal was dead.
There were several theories about Sal's death. The most likely explanation, a mugging gone wrong, didn't seem to fit. His money, jewelry, and car keys were still in his possession when he died. An autopsy uncovered several puncture marks along his buttocks and other places. While hormone treatments to restore sexual vigor explained some of them, others were almost certainly due to drug use. This led investigators to speculate whether the murder might be drug related. Details of Sal's personal life also helped the theory that the murder was a 'fag killing' (perhaps by a spiteful lover) to gain credence. Investigators eventually ruled out robbery and drugs in favor of this angle, intensifying their search among homosexuals and bisexuals in the entertainment industry. They turned up no leads, and the case was eventually shelved. Many among Sal's friends and the gay community at large accused the department of hastily ruling out other options in favor of the 'fag killing' theory because of prejudice. Some even speculated that investigators had purposely pursued a dead end. The Los Angeles Police Department vehemently and angrily denied these accusations, but still it seemed Sal's death would remain a mystery.
The investigation suddenly heated up again when a woman named Theresa Williams stepped forward, claiming that her husband had killed Sal. Lionel Williams was in jail on charges of check fraud. While he testified that he'd overhead a gang talking about an arranged killing, other prisoners countered that he himself had repeatedly bragged about killing Sal. Witness testimony combined with some physical evidence allowed prosecutors to bring a charge of first degree murder against Lionel. Their case was shaky. Several witnesses at the apartment complex had stated that they had seen a white man with blonde or brown hair fleeing the scene, not a black man. While the charges were being filed, Theresa Williams had committed suicide, eliminating a key witness. The knife which matched the physical wound found during autopsy was not an original, but a duplicate created from Theresa's testimony. Despite these doubts, the jury reached a verdict of guilty, though only of second degree murder. Lionel Williams was sentenced to fifty-one years.
Many have expressed doubt that Williams was the killer. They speculate that the Los Angeles Police Department simply picked up the most convenient lead and played on the sympathies of the jury to close the case once and for all. Because of his previous criminal record, it wasn't difficult to label Williams as the killer. Whether or not he was the killer, the crime committed cut off the life of a man who seemed to finally be regaining his stride. He had gone from poor immigrant child to heartthrob of the nation to nobody. His living circumstances had spanned the range from extravagant to squalid. He had acted in some of the greatest and corniest movies of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Fearing and hating men who sought sex from other men as a child, by adulthood he was among the most prominent of openly queer cultural figures in the country. In every aspect of his life, Sal Mineo swung between extremes. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
Seger, John and Hardcastle, Karen. Home Page of Sal Mineo. Online, Internet, <http://www.salmineo.com>.
Bell, Rachel. "All about Sal Mineo," Court TV's Crime Library. Online, Internet, <http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/celebrity/sal_mineo/>.
Jeffers, Paul H. Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder, and Mystery. New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Thanks to panamaus for encouraging me into researching this.