Sal Mineo Biography

The son of a Sicilian immigrant father and a first generation Italian-American mother, Sal(vatore) Mineo, Jr. (born January 10, 1939, in East Harlem, Bronx, New York) was a star at 16, a has been by thirty, and a murder victim at 37. As a child, Mineo played Christ in a Catholic grade school production prior to being expelled from the institution as a troublemaker. A beautiful, exotic looking youth with dark curly hair and sultry eyes, the youngster enrolled in dance school and appeared on local television on The Ted Steele Show. Mineo's first theatrical break came in 1950 after a Broadway producer chose the 11-year-old to appear as "Salvatore" in the Tennessee Williams play, The Rose Tattoo, starring Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton. The play debuted on Broadway on February 3, 1951, with the 12-year-old Mineo earning $65 a week. In August 1952, the young actor played "Prince Chulalongkorn" opposite Yul Brynner in the smash Broadway musical The King and I. On the strength of his nearly 900 performances in the part during 1952–1953, Mineo landed television work in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of "A Woman for the Ages" (May 5, 1952), Omnibus, Philco Playhouse, and Big Town. In 1955, Mineo appeared in his first film, Six Bridges to Cross. The movie was shot in Boston, and while in Hollywood to do sound looping for the film the 15-year-old was signed by Universal- International to appear opposite Charlton Heston in The Private War of Major Benjamin. That same year, Mineo landed the role that would make him a star while also hopelessly typecasting him as the "troubled youth." Evan Hunter's popular and shocking 1954 novel of juvenile delinquency, The Blackboard Jungle, was optioned by MGM and released to big box office as a Glenn Ford film in March 1955. In addition to being one of the first movies to convincingly portray rebel youth, The Blackboard Jungle also featured an early appear - ance of rock 'n' roll; Bill Haley & His Comets doing the classic "Rock Around the Clock." Anxious to carve out a chunk of the lucrative teen film market, Warner Bros. signed Nicholas Ray to direct James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. As the sexually ambiguous teen "Plato," Mineo's role would later be heralded by critics as the first appearance of a gay teen in American cinema. Dean, 24, died in a car crash four weeks before Rebel opened to huge business in late October 1955. Mineo, a slight 5'5", 120-pound, 16-year-old, received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, but lost the award to Jack Lemmon as "Ensign Pulver" in Mr. Roberts. His acting kudos continued, however, with an Emmy nomination for Best Actor as the title character in "Dino" in a June 2, 1956, installment of Studio One. Mineo again lost the award, but in 1957 appeared in the film version of Dino to good reviews. Earning two acting nominations in two mediums within two years of setting foot in Hollywood, the diminutive, but darkly handsome Mineo was officially a "hot property" based almost exclusively on his convincing portrayals of "troubled youth." Studios, never particularly known for a willingness to take chances, continued to cast the actor in juvenile delinquent roles in films like the 1956 Crime in the Streets in which Mineo earned the lasting nickname, "The Switchblade Kid." After appearing in the 1957 rock 'n' roll opus Rock Pretty Baby for Universal-International, Mineo recorded the single "Start Movin'" for Epic. The record stayed on the Billboard chart for 19 weeks, peaking at Number 9, and selling 1.2 million units. The actor released three other singles on the label through January 1958 with the most successful, "Lasting Love," peaking at Number 27 in late 1957. In the late 1950s, Mineo feared that he was rapidly becoming typecast as the brooding juvenile delinquent. As a change of pace, he appeared as the Indian "White Bull" in the 1959 Disney film Tonka. Oddly enough, in 1964 Mineo would be cast as another Indian over director John Ford's objections in Cheyenne Autumn. In 1959, the actor scored his first adult film role as the title character in The Gene Krupa Story, the screen bio of the big band drummer. It was, however, in 1960 that the 21-year-old star scored his biggest acting triumph as "Dov Landau," the concentration camp survivor, in director Otto Preminger's epic Exodus. Mineo won the Golden Globe for his performance, but yet again lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, this time to Peter Ustinov in Spartacus. Bitterly disappointed by the loss, Mineo was at a critical juncture in his career. Too old to continue playing juvenile roles, the actor was physically changing from a baby-faced heartthrob into a man with the looks of a char - acter actor. Mineo's ill-considered decision to appear as a psychopathic rapist and murderer in the 1965 bomb Who Killed Teddy Bear? ended any chance he had of continuing as a name actor in Hollywood. The film, while a favorite of the gay subculture because of Mineo's muscular physique, succeeded in placing the actor on what he later called "the weirdo list" among Hollywood movie producers. Essentially persona non grata as a lead in motion pictures, the actor turned to television series guest shots from the mid–1960s to late– 1970s. The death of Mineo's movie career, however, did yield an important personal, and later, career benefit. Freed from the need to hide his sexuality from filmgoers, Mineo openly embraced the homosexual lifestyle. Although the actor first experienced clandestine gay sex in 1961 at the age of 22, any indiscreet homosexual liaison then would have spelt career suicide. Romantically linked to Exodus co-star Jill Haworth in the early 1960s, Mineo no longer felt the need to sustain the heterosexual fiction as the doors of Hollywood closed to him in the mid–1960s. A regular at gay nightclubs in West Hollywood, Mineo increasingly turned to casual sex with many partners and increased drug use as the decade drew to a close. The one-time teen star was almost broke and living on a $25 a week allowance doled out by his business manager when he was signed to direct the gay-themed prison drama Fortune and Men's Eyes in an Off-Broadway production in 1969. The play, which features a brutal homosexual rape, was savaged by the New York critics with Clive Barnes unkindly referring to director Mineo as "a minor Hollywood player." Later that year, Fortune was transplanted to Los Angeles where, in addition to directing, Mineo played the character "Rocky" to favorable reviews, especially in the city's burgeoning gay press. Now officially "out of the closet," Mineo tried to revive his film career, but with little success. Actor and friend Roddy McDowell used his influence to get Mineo his last film role in the 1971 science fiction movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The twice Oscar nominated actor played the chimp scientist "Dr. Milo." Seem - ingly barred from "traditional entertainment," Mineo turned to the gay-themed play, The Children's Mass, which quickly appeared then disappeared Off-Broadway in a blizzard of bad reviews. In 1976, however, the actor's long run of bad luck appeared to be ending when he was cast in the San Francisco production of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead at the Montgomery Playhouse in North Beach. Mineo received strong reviews as "Vito," the bisexual hustler-burglar, and at 37 must have felt he was finally on the comeback trail. It was with a renewed sense of career optimism that the actor received the news that the show was moving to the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles. Mineo was renting a $75 a month one-bedroom, two-story apartment at 8563 Holloway Drive just below the Sunset Strip in the heart of gay West Hollywood while rehearsing the play with co-star Keir Dullea. On the evening of February 12, 1976, the actor drove home from a rehearsal at the Westwood Playhouse arriving around 9:30 P.M. Moments later, a neighbor heard someone yell, "Oh, no! Oh, my God. No! Help me, please." The neighbor, looking out the rear window of his apartment, saw a "white man" running away. Sal Mineo was found lying on the pavement in the rear carport area behind his apartment dead from a single knife wound in the chest. An autopsy determined the actor was killed with a hunting knife that perforated the heart causing a massive hemorrhage. Mineo's wallet was found at the scene thereby initially ruling out robbery as a motive to sheriff 's detectives investigating the murder. Once inside the actor's apartment, however, investiga - tors quickly formed another theory of the case. Nude photographs of muscular men adorned the walls and gay pornography was found stacked in piles in the actor's bedroom. Combined with Mineo's reputation for recreational drug use, authorities operated on the dual assumptions that the killing was either a "fag murder" (a lover's quarrel), or, the result of a drug deal gone wrong. Some 250 attendees, including Exodus co-star Jill Haworth, friend Desi Arnaz, Jr., Rebel director Nicholas Ray, and curiosity seekers, joined Mineo's family in mourning the dead actor on February 17, 1976, at a funeral mass at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Mamaroneck, New York. The actor was buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla. The case stagnated for 15 months until May 1977 when the L.A. Sheriff 's Department was contacted by Theresa Williams, the disgruntled wife of Lionel Raymond Williams, a one-time pizza delivery man with a history of violence. The woman told investigators that on the night of Mineo's murder, Williams came home with blood on his shirt explaining that he just stabbed someone. When local television news flashed a photo of the actor, Williams allegedly told his wife, "That's the dude I killed." Theresa Williams also told authorities that her husband used a hunting knife (recently purchased for $5.28) in Mineo's murder and in several other robberies committed in the area. Lionel Raymond Williams, a 21-yearold light-skinned black, was currently serving time in Michigan for passing a bad check. The convict allegedly bragged to a cellmate in the Calhoun County Jail that he had killed Sal Mineo a "while back." Other victims of robberies committed in West Los Angeles around the time of Mineo's murder picked Williams out of a photo array. Tried in Los Angeles during January–February 1979, Williams was found guilty of seconddegree murder, but innocent of the charge of attempted robbery in the Mineo case thus sparing the killer the death penalty. Williams was further convicted on nine counts of first-degree robbery and on one count of second-degree robbery for the holdups committed in the two-month period in 1976 that included the night the actor was killed. On March 15, 1979, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Lee Martin imposed consecutive sentences of five years to life for Mineo's murder and nine of the robberies, recommending, "The defendant should be committed to state prison for as long as the law allows." The sentences totaled 51 years to life, but under California's set-term law Williams made parole in the early 1990s after serving roughly 14 years. He quickly reoffended and ended up back in prison. In August 1991 Carlos Gonzalez commemorated the tragic life of the actor in a one-man show, Sal, at San Francisco's Climate Theatre. Commenting on the one-time star's untapped potential, Gonzalez concluded, "I think Sal Mineo would have been like Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper. These were his peers. As he got older there came a time when he stopped picking his roles. They picked him. He died before the Dustin Hoffmans came along. Now leading men come in all shapes and sizes."

Tags: USA, Actor, 1930-1939

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