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The Rise and Death of Teen Idol Sal Mineo

by Hans Hafkamp in Media & entertainment , 06 november 2001

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

On February 13, 1976 Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in an alley near his home in San Francisco. Some twenty years earlier, Mineo had captured the hearts of many girls and boys by his role as Plato in the classic Rebel Without a Cause. In this film he starred next to James Dean and for the discerning eye it was obvious that the relationship between Dean and Mineo was more than just a "normal" friendship between two guys

When he was cast for Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo had already an impressive career behind him. Sal Mineo was born on January 10, 1939 as the third son of Italian immigrants. When still a kid, his parents moved from East Harlem to the Bronx. This borough of New York City would have an enduring influence on him. His biographer H. Paul Jeffers in Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder, and Mystery, published last year: "Hollywood had taken the boy out of the Bronx years ago, but there'd been no way of taking the Bronx out of Sal Mineo." Initially Mineo seemed destined to become one of those streetwise kids to land in jail sooner or later. Fortunately, he was saved by a dance teacher, who persuaded Mineo's mother to allow her son to take dance classes. Mineo turned out to be a talent. He soon got his first jobs performing in television shows. This made his friends turn their backs on him, calling him a sissy.
In 1950, Sal was discovered by a Broadway producer, giving him a small part in a production of Tennesse Williams' The Rose Tattoo. On his daily subway trips from the Bronx to Times Square, he noticed certain men were looking for sex with boys. He was stunned and bought himself a realistic toy gun to ward off these predators. This didn't interfere with his desire to work in the theatre, though. After The Rose Tattoo he got another part, whereupon he was selected as stand-in for the boy playing the Crown Prince in The King and I. A year later he got the part himself and played it till The King and I closed in 1954. By then he'd trod the boards as the Crown Prince no less than 900 times.
Meanwhile Hollywood had begun to notice his theatre and television performances and in 1954 he was asked to audition for Six Bridges to Cross, starring Tony Curtis. He got the part. Following this movie, he auditioned for The Private War of Major Benson and played cadet-colonel Sylvester Dusik. These experiences prepared him for his role in Rebel Without a Cause.
Much has been said, but little proven regarding James Dean's homosexuality, but it's clear he didn't particularly object to it. And for many Tinsel Towners it was obvious the same went for Sal Mineo. Later, Mineo denied he'd had a sexual affair with Dean, but only because he'd never imagined two guys could fall in love with each other. Seeing Rebel Without a Cause there's no denying the obvious attraction between the two leadplayers, an attraction which the original script sealed with a kiss. But Hollywood censorship stepped in: "It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim", a memo reads. Beyond a doubt Plato is "the lonely, tormented sissy," as Vito Russo stated in his landmark study The Celluloid Closet (1981), and so at the end he has to die. For his role as Plato, Mineo was nominated for an Oscar, but didn't actually get to hold one of Hollywood's golden status symbols in his hands. The same happened in 1960 for his performance as Dov Landau in Exodus, based on Leon Uris' epic novel on the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.

By that time Mineo had settled in San Francisco and it was here he met his first homosexual partner. At the same time he realized he'd better keep his sexual preference a secret. But this was in conflict with his personality. However, his gradual withdrawal from Hollywood's spotlights wasn't an effect of his homosexuality. The big shots in the film business were merely busy with one of their many rapid turn-overs of fresh faces and considered Mineo old news. This allowed him to pursue his own interests, both in low-budget movies and on the stage. He was the first man to appear in 1964 in snug white briefs in the black-and-white movie Who Killed Teddy Bear? In this obscure film he radiates an exciting eroticism. As he did in his stage performance in P.S. Your Cat Is Dead as Vito, a bisexual burglar, who gets caught by one of his victims. In a sadomasochistic turn of events he is forced to relate his life story to his former victim.
P.S. Your Cat Is Dead got favourable reviews and Mineo's career seemed back on track again. In an interview he even said his "gypsy days" were over. Before he had a chance to move to Los Angeles to star in the same role, he was stabbed to death in the parking alley near his house. As might be expected from the town, that once nurtured queen of gossip Hedda Hopper, Hollywood papers licked their chops in wild guesses on possible motives behind the murder. Was the Mineo killing drug related? Or had he invited some aggressive hustlers to his home? And his closets filled with black leather gear, didn't they tell of an appetite for sadomasochistic sex? None of these questions got really answered, when two years later Lionel Williams was brought to trial and sentenced for the murder. It seemed it had merely been an ordinary robbery. But many people don't believe Williams was the real perpetrator and think he only served as a scapegoat to cover up mistakes of the SF police during the investigation.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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