Vintage Hunk: Sal Mineo

By: Mike McCrann

"One minute I had more movie offers than I could handle, the next, no one wanted me."
Sal Mineo

Sal Mineo had a brief life (37 years) and a brief career (5 years, from 1955-1960). Bookended by two Academy Award-nominated performances, Mineo was known for his fine acting, as an incredibly beautiful man, and as someone who wasn't particularly quiet about his sexuality. Sadly, Mineo's career was basically over except for some promising stage work when he was murdered in 1976.

Salvatore Mineo, Jr. was born in 1939 in the Bronx, New York, the son of Sicilian immigrants. His mother was a bit like Mama Rose in Gypsy, pushing her child in dancing and acting schools. Mineo's first good Broadway role was playing the young prince in the musical The King and I. In a junior All About Eve scenario, Mineo filled in for the regular kid who was on vacation and was so good he took over the role.

After several TV appearances, Mineo made his film debut in Six Bridges to Cross, and then played one of the cadets in the Charlton Heston comedy The Private War of Major Benson. Then came the role of his career, as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause.

Rebel Without a Cause has entered cinematic immortality for so many reasons that it seems like the performances and the actual film itself have become lost in all the hype. Rebel is the most "maudit" film—literally meaning "cursed film"— in Hollywood's long history. Everyone connected with this classic study of upper middle class juvenile delinquency met a pretty hideous end. Stars James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo all died under tragic and mysterious circumstances. Director Nick Ray had a pretty spectacular burn out as a director, and costars Nick Adams and Dennis Hopper had rocky roads leading to their untimely deaths.

In Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo plays the shy, confused, probably gay teenager who quite obviously has a crush on the James Dean character. Mineo gives an incredibly touching performance and it not only gained an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nomination but his Plato has been called by many as the first gay teenager in films. The highlight of the film and Mineo's performance is when he, Dean and Wood have taken refuge in the deserted mansion where they improvise at being a family. Here, director Nicolas Ray did a great job of orchestrating all the young stars. Dean gives a truly iconic performance, and Wood (also Oscar-nominated) is lovely as the troubled Judy who loves Dean and acts as a surrogate mother to Mineo. Scraping away all the James Dean hype and tabloid stories from Rebel reveals a really good movie about lonely teenagers trying to cope in mid-century America. It's a seminal film in US cultural history.

Mineo followed this triumph with a few so-so films, including Tonka where he played a young Sioux, and the starring role in The Gene Krupa Story. Mineo's last great role was the concentration camp survivor in Otto Preminger's film version of the great Leon Uris book Exodus. This story about the founding of Israel was by no means a great film. Except for the gorgeous Oscar-winning score and a few wonderful performances, the film is a bloated epic unworthy of the celebrated novel. Mineo played Dov Landau, and his spectacular moment comes when he tries to convince the Zionist leaders that even though he cooperated with his Nazi captors he is worthy of fighting for Israel. During the heated questioning, Dov finally confesses to them that he had been sexually abused by the guards, saying, "They used me like you use a... a woman!" In 1960 you did not hear this kind of confession in movies, especially big Hollywood epics, and audiences actually gasped at this revelation (once they figured out what he meant). Mineo won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for the Oscar. He should have won, but lost to the colossally hammy Peter Ustinov in Spartacus.

Unfortunately, Mineo's career had peeked and there were not many movies left. Suddenly he was too old for juvenile roles and did not seem quite right for mainstream leading man parts. Playing another Indian in John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn, and then a chimp in Escape from the Planet of the Apes was the nadir.

Mineo always said he was bisexual in the later interviews he gave. Apparently he was strictly hetero until the early 1960s when his attraction to men was finally acknowledged and he began numerous affairs with mostly younger men. There were rumors of leather and S/M, further fueled when Mineo not only directed but starred in the gay play Fortune and Men's Eyes, a prison drama that featured a graphic shower rape scene (below). Young star Don Johnson (later of Miami Vice fame) played the victim and Mineo was the aggressor. Fortune was ground breaking and daring, even if it was not really a very good play. Mineo followed this up with directing and starring in another gay-themed play, P.S. Your Cast Is Dead in San Francisco.

It was on February 12, 1976, while Mineo was living in Los Angeles, when tragedy struck. While coming home around 9:30PM, Mineo was stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. The resulting media frenzy over his murder may have tarnished Mineo's reputation forever. As the killer was not caught for 3 years, the media speculated that Mineo was killed by a hustler, a jealous lover, a drug dealer, or an S/M date gone bad— every foul speculation except the eventual truth: A petty criminal had tried to rob a perfect stranger. Mineo was just a random victim.

Sal Mineo was a beautiful young man— beautiful eyes and skin and a nicely muscled 5'8" body. He was also a wonderful actor whose Plato in Rebel Without a Cause will always be among the finest juvenile performances on film.

If alive today, we can only imagine the stories the 72-year-old Mineo would spin. "Yes, I loved James Dean but we never had sex," he might wistfully muse. Then with a sober nod and smile, "Yes, I dated Rock Hudson..." True or not, the stories would undoubtedly have gone on and on. He might have even acknowledged that he was the nude model in the infamous 40-foot-long painting "The New Adam" currently showing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (below). Who knows, perhaps Sal Mineo the actor would have had a second career as a mature man.

Speculation aside, we have a few great Mineo performances to cherish. How sad that he is not here to talk about them.