January 9, 1939– Sal Mineo:
“I’ll never be mistaken for Pat Boone“
I remember seeing Sal Mineo the evening of my 17th birthday in 1971. He was on an episode of the television comedy My Three Sons (it is Season 11- Episode 14, and it is streaming on Disney+). His character tries to convince college-age Robbie Douglas (played by Don Grady) to run away with him to live a life of freedom and adventure. I knew in my heart that Robbie liked boys, not girls, despite his marriage to Katie (Tina Cole), and I understood that Robbie might leave behind a life of being “normal” and give into the wild, passionate love of men for other men. What I didn’t realize was that Mineo was gay in real life, or that Grady knew it and didn’t care.
Born in The Bronx in 1939, Salvatore Mineo, Jr. was just 16 years old when he played Plato, the kid who develops a crush on James Dean‘s Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray‘s classic film Rebel Without A Cause (1955). He appeared in many films, usually playing ethnic and troubled youths, but Mineo’s career was dominated by that one role that eventually achieved mythic status. Mineo’s gayness was a fairly open secret even at the height of his Hollywood success. He had love affairs with Peter Lawford, James Dean, and with Ray while they were making their most famous film.
When James Dean died two weeks before the premiere of Rebel Without ACause in 1955, he became a myth, leaving Mineo all alone to negotiate the tricky terrain of being gay and a teen idol in the 1950s.
Mineo was twice nominated for an Academy Award. He enjoyed success as a stage director and a recording artist, but he is mostly remembered for his performance in a single film and for the brutal murder that ended his life just as he was on the verge of reinventing himself and his career.
Except for his role as the aggressively girl-crazy Angelo Barrato in Rock, Pretty Baby (1957) opposite John Saxon, Mineo covertly chose homoerotic projects: His character mooned over a teen gang leader played by John Cassavetes in Crime In The Streets (1956), and fell head-over-heels for an ex-con played by James Whitmore in The Young Don’t Cry (1957). In the Disney Studio’s Western Tonka (1958), he portrayed a Native American boy who bonded with a horse, but not the girl.
In 1957, he began a musical career, but he didn’t have a hit, even with teen magazine attention. He was a good singer, and especially good-looking in a business where looks counted for a lot. He might have had a hit making career as a musician, except for those pesky gay rumors.
To prove that he was straight, he had to be seen at the Hollywood hot spots with pretty starlets, and he began showing off his gym body in his screen appearances. His characters became more heterosexual, even when the films had a gay element.
In The Gene Krupa Story (1959), Mineo plays real life drummer Gene Krupa who goes to New York City with his best buddy, Eddie, played by teen idol James Darren, hoping to make it big in the Roaring Twenties Jazz scene. He gets a girlfriend, then a wife, but Eddie does not; he is content to be the third wheel, making do with an occasional dreamy look. When Krupa becomes the boy-toy of a sultry jazz club singer, it is the buddy, not the wife, who feels betrayed. As Krupa, Mineo exclaims: “Girls don’t mean anything to me!” Both Eddie and the wife grow weary of Krupa’s self-destructive drinking and partying, and leave, then return for a reconciliation. But, it seems obvious that Krupa has the more passionate relationship with Eddie.
In the 1960s, Mineo put himself out there as a serious dramatic actor in films like Exodus (1960), The Longest Day (1962), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), but those rumors about his gayness kept him from getting the major starring roles, unless he played aggressively heterosexual characters and displayed his hot body in multiple shirtless, underwear, and nude shots, like he did in the demented Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965). His muscles eased the suspicion of audiences who thought that gay men were wispy little things. I am a fan of his career and the notion of Mineo as an early out-of-the-closet actor. I have a soft spot for Who Killed Teddy Bear?, one of the nuttiest films ever.
After the Stonewall Riots and the rise of Gay Pride in the late 1960s, Mineo became increasingly comfortable with his own gayness, and he began to drop his straight façade. He came out of the closet, sort of, and he began looking for romance. He dated civilians and celebrities, before settling down with After Dark magazine model Courtney Burr.
As he got older and matured in his acting, Mineo sought to explore his gayness in his life and his art. Although he appeared in several television productions and films, his last movie was Planet Of The Apes (1968), he found the theater world more supportive of his artistic aspirations and new sensibilities.
In 1969, Mineo directed the Broadway and West Coast productions of Fortune And Men’s Eyes, John Herbert‘s drama about power roles and homosexuality at a prison. This production was controversial for its use of male nudity and simulated sex.
In 1976, he was cast as a bisexual burglar in a Los Angeles production of James Kirkwood‘s charming comedy P. S. Your Cat Is Dead. As he returned to his West Hollywood apartment from a rehearsal on February 12, 1976, he was stabbed to death. The murder remains cloaked in mystery. One suspect who initially confessed later recanted, but was nevertheless convicted. Over the years, Mineo’s friends and relatives have claimed that the authorities, eager to solve a high-profile murder case, charged the wrong man. Mineo was just 37 years old when he was murdered.
I have a very odd connection to Mineo and his demise. In 1976, I sort of knew of the man charged with his murder. This man had been pursuing one of my best friends. I was concerned for my buddy because this mystery man seemed especially troubling to be around. Mineo’s murder was major news in Los Angeles that February morning in 1976. I had the chills when this creepy guy, who had been aggressively working on insinuating himself into the life of my pal, was charged with the young star’s killing.
My friend Michael Michaud is an expert on Mineo and his life and career, and the author of the terrific, highly readable Sal Mineo, A Biography (2010).
“Sal had the look of the angels…”