Too short: the life of Sal Mineo

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday January 11, 2011
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Many teenage movie actors flame brightly, then fade away, unlamented. Some are talented but can't convince producers to give them adult roles. Additional complications arise if the youth is gay or bisexual. These issues run through Michael Gregg Michaud's Sal Mineo: A Biography (Crown Archetype, $25.99).

Mineo (1939-76) was born into a working-class Italian-American family in the Bronx. To keep him out of trouble, his protective, controlling mother Josephine enrolled him in dancing and acting classes. He had a bit part in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo (1951), and understudied – then played – the Crown Prince in The King and I (1952-54), starring Yul Brynner. He appeared on television and minor films before Nicholas Ray cast him as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause (55), opposite James Dean and Natalie Wood. This hugely popular and influential movie vividly portrayed teenage angst. Mineo's performance as the sensitive, lonely rich boy with an unspoken crush on Dean was superb, earning him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. 

Despite knowing nothing about the business, Josephine insisted on managing his career, taking 15% of his earnings and using much of what was left to lavishly support the family. He got excellent reviews in Somebody Up There Likes Me (56), starring Paul Newman. He had a small role in Giant (56), a smash, and leads in films aimed at teenagers, resulting in a successful if brief recording career. Josephine, however, didn't want him playing "juvenile delinquents," yet prevented him from getting competent professional management. He scored in The Gene Krupa Story (59), then earned another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as a Jewish teenager used "like a woman" by the Nazis in Otto Preminger's Exodus (60), another hit. No one realized it, but his career had peaked.

Fifteen-year-old Jill Haworth (later the original stage Sally Bowles in Cabaret) was his romantic interest in Exodus. They began an intense affair. Late in 1962, she introduced Mineo to 19-year-old pop singer Bobby Sherman. Two years later, she found them in bed. Mineo would claim that before Sherman, he didn't know what two men did together sexually, and asked his gay hairdresser for details. The hairdresser showed him. Devastated, Haworth ended their relationship, although eventually they became friends. Mineo insisted he was bisexual. Most of his relationships, however, were with younger males.

He was among many stars playing cameos in The Longest Day (62), a success, but along with Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Ricardo Montalban, and Dolores Del Rio, was trapped in John Ford's ghastly Cheyenne Autumn (64). He had another cameo in George Stevens' all-star life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told (65). His baby face, dark, curly hair, big brown eyes, and 5'8" frame made him look younger than he was. Trying to change his image, he played a voyeur in the terrible Who Killed Teddy Bear? (65), revealing a well-muscled torso. He worked on television and lived fairly openly, frequenting gay bars in New York and Los Angeles.

In 1969, he directed and starred in the Los Angeles production of the controversial Fortune and Men's Eyes, set in prison, featuring openly gay characters and depicting a homosexual rape. Although not very good, the play was a landmark, and Mineo got excellent notices as the rapist. A young Don Johnson played the violated prisoner. The straight Johnson insisted there was no physical relationship between them. Another actor, Courtney Burr, would also work with Mineo in the play, and they became lovers. Their tempestuous, open relationship – sometimes involving threeways – was the most significant of Mineo's life. Born into a prestigious family, Burr was educated and cultured, which impressed Mineo, who felt insecure about his own background.

Television provided some employment, although Mineo was usually broke, and no longer supported his family. Gay former child star Roddy McDowell, who had made the transition to adult character parts, got him a role in Return to the Planet of the Apes (71), but Mineo found it humiliating. McDowell, whose sexual orientation was known but who was rarely seen in bars, cautioned Mineo to be discreet, and disapproved of Burr and his other friends.

Mineo tried to interest producers in several projects, often involving homoerotic themes, without success. In 1974-75, he directed and starred in James Kirkwood's P.S. Your Cat Is Dead in San Francisco. The play, which featured homosexual characters, was a hit. Mineo was preparing to star opposite Keir Dullea in a Los Angeles production in 1976, but was stabbed to death outside his apartment building by a would-be thief. He was 37 years old.

Michaud's biography is obsessively detailed, yet often misses the big picture. For example, the reader is almost as shocked as Haworth was to discover Mineo in bed with Sherman. It strains credibility that Mineo was unaware of his attraction to men until meeting the teenager. (Sherman isn't among the sources Michaud cites.)

Michaud touches on important themes – how homophobia, the failure to get competent management, and refusing to be typecast, all contributed to Mineo's later disappointments – but doesn't fully develop them. Mineo was ambitious, impulsive, often undisciplined (although not professionally), and naive about practical issues. He was charming, charismatic, intelligent but uneducated. The result is a flawed but fascinating story of unrealized potential.

Mineo died in debt. His family denied his homosexuality, but claimed as much of his estate as they could. A judge ruled that Josephine wasn't entitled to "excessive" expenses incurred in burying him. Ironically, his senseless killing and his family's response to it were reminiscent of Plato's death in Rebel.