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By Michael Gregg Michaud

(New York: Three Rivers Press/Crown/Random House, 2010)
Pages 448
ISBN: 978-0-307-71667-5

Review by Dr. Kirk Bane,
Central Texas Historical Association
February 1, 2023

"Do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime?"
(Plato Crawford in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955)
Despite the salacious and widespread rumors, Sal Mineo was the victim of a random, botched robbery that occurred near the parking lot of his West Hollywood apartment. The actor's assailant had no idea who Mineo was—in his quest for a quick buck, any victim would suffice. The assault had nothing to do with the former teen idol's lifestyle and his "freewheeling sexuality." Sal was targeted neither by a spurned male lover nor killed over a drug deal. His attacker stabbed Mineo in the chest, piercing his heart; he perished from "a massive hemorrhage." Cut dead just before 9:30 on the night of February 12, 1976, Sal, age thirty-seven, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Over the course of his career, which lasted from 1950 until his untimely demise, Mineo appeared in more than twenty films. Sal also directed, and acted in, numerous plays (most notably in THE KING AND I, FORTUNE AND MEN'S EYES, and P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD) and frequently showed up on television, making guest appearances on such popular programs as JUKE BOX JURY, THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, AMERICAN BANDSTAND, COMBAT!, THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, THE MATCH GAME, HAWAII FIVE-O, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MY THREE SONS, THE DATING GAME, HARRY O, POLICE STORY, S.W.A.T., COLUMBO, and ELLERY QUEEN. Mineo's final television appearance was in an episode of the police show JOE FORRESTER, which aired on NBC just ten days before his death. Furthermore, Sal enjoyed popularity in the late Fifties as a pop singer, earning two Top Forty singles.

Mineo received two Oscar nominations, for his unforgettable performances as doomed youth Plato Crawford in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Holocaust survivor Dov Landau in EXODUS (1960). He won a Golden Globe for the latter motion picture, on which he met his longtime intimate Jill Haworth. The attractive young couple appeared on the December 12, 1960, cover of LIFE magazine, promoting their film.

Sal struggled in making the transition from teen to adult actor. His private life cost him roles as well. Although Mineo's career was characterized by great highs and lengthy lows, he worked for some of cinema's best directors, including Nicholas Ray (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955), Don Siegel (CRIME IN THE STREETS, 1956), Robert Wise (SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, 1956), George Stevens (GIANT, 1956 and 1965's THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), Raoul Walsh (A PRIVATE'S AFFAIR, 1959), Otto Preminger (EXODUS, 1960), Ronald Neame (ESCAPE FROM ZAHRAIN, 1962), and John Ford (CHEYENNE AUTUMN, 1964). He also had a small role in the iconic World War II epic, THE LONGEST DAY (produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, 1962). Moreover, Sal starred with Juliet Prowse in the gritty, dark, and disturbing 1965 movie, WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR?, now considered a cult classic.

In SAL MINEO: A BIOGRAPHY, Michael Gregg Michaud thoughtfully examines the New York City-born actor's fascinating, eventful life. Here are five intriguing insights and observations from this superb and candid study:
  • In REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Mineo's character "represented a teenage boy that homosexual teenagers could recognize and empathize with. Sal's searing and sympathetic portrayal of Plato burned a hole in the movie screen and in the hearts of millions of teenage girls and boys…the character of Plato eventually became known as the first gay teenager in the movies."

  • Mineo coveted many parts that he did not receive. Sal declared, "All of a sudden, my agents told me, 'You're not a hot property anymore.' And they were right, I wasn't. I wasn't getting any offers…The roles I wanted most went to new people." These included Chico in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (played by Horst Buchholz), Perry Smith in IN COLD BLOOD (played by Robert Blake), Ratso Rizzo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (played by Dustin Hoffman), and Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER (played by Al Pacino). And in 1968, he was set to star in a spaghetti western, which never materialized, called THE LAST OF THE GUNFIGHTERS. Sal also bought the film rights for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. "One day," Michaud observes, Mineo "gave the book to Peter Bogdanovich and told him he had tried in vain to produce it but still believed it would make a great film. Sal felt he was too old to play the lead. The director recognized the cinematic potential of the novel, quickly obtained the film rights when Sal's option expired, and eventually directed the film."

  • Mineo backed Bobby Kennedy in his run for the presidency. According to Michaud, Sal "served as honorary Los Angeles chairman of the Young Democrats for Kennedy in 1968 and appeared at several rallies and fund-raisers." Although it was never made, Sal planned to play Sirhan Sirhan in a proposed motion picture. "It was just horrible," he asserted, "when I learned of the assassination. At first, I didn't see how I could ever portray Kennedy's killer. I had always been convinced that Sirhan was the lone gunman who killed Kennedy but now I believe there are grounds for doubt. If the film can influence the courts to reopen the case or force out new facts and answer questions, then it will serve its purpose." Mineo also discounted the official explanation for the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, calling the Warren Commission "bullshit."

  • By the mid-1960s, Mineo's motion picture career slowed considerably. After 1965, he made only three movies, two in 1969 and one in 1971, until his death in 1976. Sal despised his final film, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, in which he played Milo, a chimpanzee. "Sal," Jill Haworth contended, "was trying very hard to be relevant. He was trying to be a member of contemporary, working Hollywood. He wanted to fit in. He wanted a place at the table. But in a way, he was an anachronism. He represented the past, and many people saw him as a leftover or reminder of the Fifties. And he hated that."

  • The NEW YORK TIMES covered the actor's service, held in New York five days after his death. According to the report, "When Plato, the alienated teenager played by Sal Mineo, died at the end of the 1955 film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, he was mourned only by the family housekeeper and two high school friends. At Sal Mineo's funeral today, about 250 people crowded into the church, and dozens more stood outside in a cold rain." Mineo's brother-in-law delivered the eulogy: "Sal was a rare and very special person, a gentle man, whose sensitivity and understanding affected everyone he met. Those who love him knew he loved life and that he lived with courage, abandon, humor, style, and grace. His art, what he created, will always stand."
  • Note: Fans of the Texas epic, GIANT, likely recall Sal in the small but memorable role of Angel Obregon, a young soldier from Reata who lost his life in World War II. Mineo's character, Michaud argues, "had one of the most effective and dramatic moments in the sprawling film. Cutting away from Angel's good-byes at the ranch, the film reveals the Obregon family standing expectantly on a railroad platform, seemingly waiting for his return home from duty. When the train pulls away from the station, though, it reveals Angel's flag-draped coffin."

    Review by Dr. Kirk Bane,
    Central Texas Historical Association

    Book Reviews by Dr. Kirk Bane
    Texas Books

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