Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Born Today In 1939, Film and Theater Actor Sal Mineo


Sal Mineo was born today, January 10, in 1939. He was an American film and theatre actor, known for his performance as John "Plato" Crawford opposite James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for his roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus (1960).

Mineo was born in the Bronx. His mother enrolled him in dancing and acting school at an early age. He had his first stage appearance in Tennessee Williams' play The Rose Tattoo (1951). He also played the young prince opposite Yul Brynner in the stage musical The King and I. Brynner took the opportunity to help Mineo better himself as an actor.

As a teenager, Mineo appeared on ABC's musical quiz program Jukebox Jury, which aired in the 1953-1954 season. Mineo made several television appearances before making his screen debut in the film Six Bridges to Cross (1955). He beat out Clint Eastwood for the role. Mineo had also successfully auditioned for a part in The Private War of Major Benson (1955), as a cadet colonel opposite Charlton Heston.

His breakthrough as an actor came in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he played John "Plato" Crawford, the sensitive teenager smitten with Jim Stark (played by James Dean). His performance resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and his popularity quickly developed. Mineo's biographer, Paul Jeffers, recounted that Mineo received thousands of letters from young female fans, was mobbed by them at public appearances, and further wrote: "He dated the most beautiful women in Hollywood and New York City."

In Giant (1956), Mineo played Angel Obregon II, a Mexican boy killed in World War II, but many of his subsequent roles were variations of his role in Rebel Without a Cause, and he was typecast as a troubled teen. In the Disney adventure Tonka (1958), for instance, Mineo starred as a young Sioux named White Bull who traps and domesticates a clear-eyed, spirited wild horse named Tonka that becomes the famous Comanche, the lone survivor of Custer's Last Stand.

In Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment (2006), Douglas Brode states that the casting of Mineo as White Bull again "ensured a homosexual subtext." By the late 1950s, the actor was a major celebrity, sometimes referred to as the "Switchblade Kid"—a nickname he earned from his role as a criminal in the movie Crime in the Streets (1956). In 1957, Mineo made a brief foray into pop music by recording a handful of songs and an album. Two of his singles reached the Top 40 in the United States' Billboard Hot 100. 


By the early 1960s, he was becoming too old to play the type of role that had made him famous, and his rumoured homosexuality led to his being considered inappropriate for leading roles. For example, he auditioned for David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but was not hired. He also appeared in The Longest Day (1962), wherein he played a private who is killed by a German after the landing in Sainte-Mère-Église. Mineo was baffled by his sudden loss of popularity, later saying, "One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle; the next, no one wanted me." 

The high point of this period was his portrayal of Uriah in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). There are stories he attempted to revive his career by camping out on the front lawn of Francis Ford Coppola's home, for a chance to win the role of Fredo Corleone in The Godfather (1972), but the role went to John Cazale.

In 1969, Mineo returned to the stage to direct a Los Angeles production of the LGBT-themed play Fortune and Men's Eyes (1967), featuring then-unknown Don Johnson as Smitty and himself as Rocky. The production received positive reviews, although its expanded prison rape scene was criticized as excessive and gratuitous.

Mineo met actress Jill Haworth at the set of the film Exodus, where they played young lovers. Mineo and Haworth were together on-and-off for many years, even getting engaged to be married at one point, though she canceled the engagement when she became aware of an affair Sal was having with Bobby Sherman. They did remain very close friends until Mineo's death.

In a 1972 interview with Boze Hadleigh, Mineo discussed his bisexuality. At the time of his death, he was in a six-year relationship and was living with male actor Courtney Burr III.

Michael G. Michaud wrote a biography of Mineo with the majority of information coming from Haworth and Burr. In his book, Michaud claimed that Mineo had sexual relations with then teen idol Bobby Sherman. He claimed Mineo never had any sexual relations with either James Dean or Don Johnson. Johnson and Mineo had been roommates for a time and became friends. Mineo was also close friends with David Cassidy, another teen idol.

Mineo has become a gay icon posthumously. Some people, mostly within the LGBT community, label him "homosexual" (even though Mineo himself has said he was "bisexual") and say that Haworth was nothing but a close friend and "his beard". Michaud denies this, describing Mineo and Haworth's relationship as a normal heterosexual relationship, and stating that Mineo fell in love with Haworth and regarded her as one of the most important people in his life.

By 1976, Mineo's career had begun to turn around. While playing the role of a bisexual burglar in a series of stage performances of the comedy P.S. Your Cat Is Dead in San Francisco, Mineo received substantial publicity from many positive reviews and he moved to Los Angeles along with the play.

Mineo was arriving home after a rehearsal on February 12, 1976, when he was stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment building near the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California. Mineo was stabbed just once, not repeatedly as first reported, but the knife blade struck his heart, leading to immediate and fatal internal bleeding.

In March 1979, pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams was sentenced to 57 years in prison for killing Mineo and for 10 robberies in the same area. Although considerable confusion existed as to what witnesses had seen in the darkness the night Mineo was murdered, Williams claimed to have had no idea who Mineo was. Corrections officers later said they had overheard Williams admitting to the stabbing.

Sal Mineo was the model for Harold Stevenson's painting The New Adam (1963). The painting currently is part of the Guggenheim Museum's permanent collection, and is considered "one of the great American nudes."

2 comments:

Raybeard said...

I remember this name more as a teenage 'heart-throb' (officially to girls only, of course) when he had just the one moderate chart hit here in '57 ('Start Movin'), while I was hardly aware at all of his film appearances, they being far overshadowed, even now, by the Dean legend. Reading of his death it doesn't ring any bells, a reflection of how far he had by that time fallen away from the consciousness of the general public, though doubtlessly well remembered by theatre aficionados.

Bob Slatten said...

Bobby Sherman? i had no idea he was bisexual. Now my old crush feels kinda legit.