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The Tragically Short Life of Sal Mineo, Hollywood’s Mediterranean Teen Demigod

by Rob Blauwhuis in Films & Books , 25 december 2016

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Those who want to relax with a film in which gay experiences are key can find a variety of productions in a variety of genres online and on Blue-ray or DVD. Since Ang Lee’s blockbuster “Brokeback Mountain,” homosexuality is not a problem anymore, even in Hollywood. However, one critic wrote in 2007 that the film is for “heterosexuals who are comfortable with a narrow notion of what constitutes a homosexual life, namely a sad, lonely man who must die.”

James Dean & Sal Mineo For many decades even this “narrow notion” was extremely difficult in Hollywood. Ever since the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930 and its strict observance since 1934, any reference to “sex perversion,” which certainly included homosexuality, was forbidden, regardless of the way it was done.

Despite this keeping quiet about their daily experiences, which to a greater or lesser extent also characterized international film productions because it was all about making these productions as widely available as possible, some cinemas were popular leisure activities for gay men, especially in large cities. It was easy to make contact there - “with the knee, that was the easiest way,” as Scott McKinnon narrates in his recently published “Gay Men at the Movies: Cinema, Memory and the History of a Gay Male Community” - and sometimes even to have sex.

Moreover, perceptive spectators were able to discover references to homosexuality on the silver screen that were hidden and could also be interpreted differently, using their imagination. In some movies, effeminate but otherwise sexless men who referred to the then widespread cliché of the flamboyant queen were portrayed. On the other hand, some intimate male friendships certainly were ambiguous in the eyes of viewers who wanted to discover erotic undertones.

Although the Motion Picture Production Code remained in force until 1968, in previous years its influence had continued to diminish. Back in the 1950s, for instance, all films in which rebellious youth were key were a source of irritation and anxiety. “Stars like [James] Dean and [Montgomery] Clift and [Marlon] Brando were sexy in ways, provocative and seductive, that had been more or less reserved for women up to then,” a film historian once summarized. The fact that these young men seemed emotionally sensitive and sexually available caused a moral panic among many older people, who were concerned about the impact this characterization could have on the daily life of youngsters.

James Dean & Sal Mineo Another factor was that someone like James Dean had a very ambiguous appearance sexually, which was further strengthened by, for instance, his relationship as Jim in “Rebel without a Cause” (1955) with the young Plato (Sal Mineo), an unpopular and lonely boy who immediately feels drawn to the new kid in school, Jim.

The attraction is mutual, but can be interpreted in different ways, as Scott McKinnon explains: “Plato’s doe-eyed looks of love towards Jim can be read as signalling a boy in search of a father; a boy in search of a lover; or some Freudian mixture of the two. Jim’s loving and gentle response to Plato is equally complex. By film’s end, Plato is dead and Jim is left in the safely heterosexual arms of his girlfriend.”

How the then seventeen-year-old Sal Mineo at that time interpreted his role as Plato will forever remain shrouded in mystery. Later in life, he did come out of the closet. The tragedy lies in the fact that his life in a way seems to have been taken from a Hollywood film script, because he also was murdered - like Plato, who was shot to death by the police, and, many decades later, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) in “Brokeback Mountain,” who is killed by gay bashers.

On February 13, 1976 the US Daily News reported: “Sal Mineo Knifed to Death in Hollywood,” while The New York Times used the headline “Seek a Blond Man in Mineo Slaying” for the article covering the death of the movie star. At the time, Sal Mineo was thirty-seven.

Street Kid

When Mineo was shooting “Rebel Without a Cause” he already had a distinguished career. Sal Mineo was born on January 10th, 1939 as the third son of Italian immigrants. He was named after his father, who made a living as a coffin maker. The Mineos lived in East Harlem in New York City, a multicultural neighborhood dominated by Italians and Puerto Ricans. In 1948, the Mineos could finally afford their own house on East 217th Street in The Bronx. The neighborhood would define Mineo’s character, as H. Paul Jeffers states in his biography “Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder, and Mystery” (2000): “Hollywood had taken the boy from the Bronx years ago, but it was impossible to take the Bronx out of Sal Mineo.”

As many children who moved to a new neighborhood, Sal initially found it difficult to connect with the Bronx born and bred boys. That all changed when it became clear that he could smoke an entire cigar without couching or vomiting, unlike the other boys. Sal joined a group of street urchins, which eventually led to his expulsion from the convent school. He got into fights, one of which resulted in a broken nose, and participated in petty theft. The loot was hidden in the coffins Mineo’s father made.

Before being expelled, Sal had already become acquainted with what would become his vocation for the rest of his life: acting. The nuns had cast him as Jesus for a school play, a role he played with gusto. “Years later he said that it had been a holy moment of revelation, that he was born to be an actor, and more than that, a star,” Jeffers writes with the appropriate imagery.

Before derailing completely, as did many of his comrades, Sal was “saved” by a dance teacher. With beautiful stories about the significant sums of money that could be made in the theater and on the then new medium television, it was this dance teacher that convinced Sal’s mother - after Sal also tried to convince her - that he should attend dance classes. Sal enjoyed them and it turned out he was talented. However, it soon became clear that the teacher didn’t have any connections in the world of theater and television. Now Sal had proved he was taking his lessons serious, his mother then registered him at a school that was known for having its students appear on television. Soon, Sal was one of them. As expected, this made his former friends envious and resentful, soon calling him a “sissy.”
Broadway Debut

In 1950, Sal was discovered by a Broadway producer who was working on bringing Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” to the stage. By uttering the line “The goat is in the yard” the career of the then eleven-year-old Mineo started, earning him sixty-five dollars a week. However, this also meant that for the first time in his life he was going to have to travel by himself, as the try-outs took place in Chicago. The departure from New York was so emotional that he burst out in tears. Tennessee Williams, who was not averse to Italian men, although they had to be somewhat older than the young Sal, acted as comforting angel and took the little boy on his lap.

By the time “The Rose Tattoo” was running on Broadway, Sal had to travel from the Bronx to Times Square on a daily basis. This ride was not without risks. He often arrived with torn clothes and a bloody nose. “I felt like a hunted animal,” he told a reporter of the Saturday Evening Post in 1959, who added: “With his delicate features and sensual lips and a make-up kit clutched in his had, Sal was a natural fall guy for the Bronx gangs.” As Sal had recently escaped the gang life, he knew how to handle them. It was much harder to deal with the men who were pursuing him with different motives. Finding out that there were men who were seeking sex with boys came as a shock. By purchasing a highly realistic toy gun he managed to keep these lust seekers at bay.

These events did not prevent him from trying his luck in the theater again after the curtain fell for “The Rose Tattoo.” He soon landed a new part, and was the standby for the role of the crown prince in “The King and I,” with which Yul Brynner triumphed. After a year the moment came for Sal to be actually called on stage for this role. When in 1954 “The King and I” discontinued after 1246 performances, Mineo had played the part of the crown prince almost nine hundred times. The path to something bigger was now open.

At first, it was television shows. He appeared on TV for the first time in the play “A Woman for the Ages” on May 5, 1952. Only eighteen months later, he again appeared, in “The Capital of the World,” directed by Yul Brynner. He plays alongside Anne Bancroft and then young Naked Gun actor Leslie Nielsen. In “The Capital of the World,” Mineo plays a young matador. To prepare for his role, he not only had to learn how to fight a bull, but also had to get used to the tight-fitting bullfighter outfit, and moving gracefully in it.

To Hollywood

This performance and following TV appearances did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. In 1954 Tinseltown approached him to audition for a role in “Six Bridges to Cross,” in which a spectacular raid that had taken place in Boston in 1950 would be taken to the silver screen. Tony Curtis played the lead, but someone had to play Curtis’ criminal character in his youth. Mineo got the part. The filming took place in Boston, but he had to travel to Hollywood to solve some problems with the voice tape. After arriving in California, he was not in a rush to go back to the Bronx, especially not after he heard that they needed a boy to play a leading role next to Charlton Heston in “The Private War of Major Benson.” The fifteen-year-old actor was chosen to play cadet Sylvester Dusik.

After the filming, Mineo planned to return to New York. However, he received word that Warner Bros. Studios was looking for a youthful actor in a film about youth crime, a theme that became more popular in the 1950s, partly because of the rise of rock ’n’ roll. Sal auditioned for the role of Plato, which would bring him lasting fame. The movie’s hero, Jim Stark, would be played by James Dean. The director of what would become “Rebel Without a Cause” was Nicholas Ray, who with some doubts selected Mineo.

Mineo and Dean got along splendidly, leading to one of the continuing Hollywood gossip legends. Soon, the grapevine was buzzing with rumors about a Mineo-Dean affair. In a 1973 interview by Jeffers, Mineo told him: “If at the time I had understood that a guy could fall in love with another guy, it certainly would have happened. But I only realized that years later, too late for Jimmy and me.” The desire that can be seen in Mineo’s legendary beautiful brown eyes when he looks at Dean speaks volumes.

“Rebel Without a Cause” premiere four days after Dean’s tragic death at the tender age of twenty-four. With three movies in one year, his arrival certainly could not have been overlooked by Hollywood. This strong introduction in the world of cinema was reinforced when he was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role in the spring of 1956. Jack Lemmon won the Oscar, but just being nominated was a great boost for Mineo’s career; he saw his name appear in large on posters for movies in which he had only played a minor role.

Between 1954 and the autumn of 1956 Mineo appeared in a staggering seven films, but slowly but surely he was getting too old to play a teenager, and by the mid-1960s Mineo had become old news. However, in 1964 he was approached by Joseph Cates, who was making a low-budget movie about disco life in the swinging sixties in New York called “Who Killed Teddy Bear?” In this production, Mineo was given every opportunity to show his attractive physique and thus he became the first movie star to appear on screen in tight briefs (up to that moment men wore boxers in movies). The unbridled eroticism Mineo radiated in “Who Killed Teddy Bear?” did his career no good. Four years would pass before he would perform in another movie. As Hollywood did not call, Mineo returned to TV and theater.

Jail Sex on Stage

In 1969 he acquired the performing rights for the play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” which is set in a youth prison and is about the (sexual) violence in this kind of institutions. The play was partly based on the experiences of its author John Herbert, who in 1947 spent several months in a youth reformatory after he was arrested on the street in drag. Mineo initially only wanted to be involved as director, but was persuaded by the producers to play in it as well. The leading part was played by a very young Don Johnson.

After seeing the play, Christopher Isherwood wrote in his diary on January 24, 1969: “It is terribly silly and woolly and well-intentioned. A cute blond boy of nineteen (Don Johnson) gets fucked by a prison bully (Sal Mineo) up against some bars, facing the audience. His jockey shorts are dragged down and the bully pretends to go up him from behind. He grimaces and yells. I suppose this is a milestone on the road to freedom. But how wonderful when we really have explored fucks and can get on to the moments of postorgasm.”

Even though he thought the play “hysterically silly,” Isherwood saw the play again four months later because he was curious to see changes in the staging. On this new staging, he wrote in his diary: “In the rape scene, Sal Mineo takes all of his clothes off before going into the shower room and shows his cock; and then in the shower-room he pulls Don Johnson’s shorts off and you see his cock too.” Although Isherwood still thought the play “hysterically silly,” he also concluded that “Sal Mineo still looks pretty good with his clothes off.”

The reviews of Mineo’s directorial debut were moderately positive in Los Angeles, but when the play opened in New York, it received a devastating review in The New York Times. Nevertheless “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” was reasonably successful in New York. After this play, Mineo’s career continued modestly on television and in the theater. In 1976 he accepted the role of Vito in the play “P.S. Your Cat is Dead.” Vito is a bisexual burglar who is caught red-handed by Jimmy who regularly fell victim to Vito’s criminal escapades. The tables are then turned in a kind of sadomasochist vengeance. Vito is half undressed and tied to the kitchen sink, forced to tell Jimmy his life story. The play was a big success with the critics and the public, and Mineo said in an interview that his “gypsy days” were now over.

Stabbed to Death

Just before Mineo would go on stage with “P.S. Your Cat is Dead” in Los Angeles, he was killed with a knife in an alley next to his house in the evening of February 12, 1976. Rumors that had haunted Mineo throughout his life now surfaced in full force. The observation of injection holes begged the question whether he perhaps went further than the recreational use of marijuana and LSD, and perhaps had been addicted to cocaine or heroin. The investigation of a possible drug connexion did not lead to anything. The police also focussed on the possibility of a “fag murder.” The pictures of naked men on the bedroom wall, the porn magazines, and closets full of black leather clothes were clear indications of his sexual preference.

The press had a field day, as eight years earlier, the star of the silent movie, Ramon Novarro, had been murdered by rent boys. Novarro’s career showed certain similarities with that of Mineo. The fact that the police particularly focused on the gay aspects and less on more ordinary possibilities, such as a robbery gone bad, perhaps slowed down the case considerably. In 1978 Lionel Williams was condemned for the crime, but forty years later, many still have serious doubts as to whether he really was the culprit, although other suspects never surfaced.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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