Two men met one another on the night of February 12, 1976. The meeting wasn’t planned by one of the participants; plotted out by the other. One of the men was actor Sal Mineo, age 37. The other was Lionel Ray Williams, a 21 year old drug addict and robber, often accosting his victims for money to feed his drug habit. Around 11:30 p.m., Sal Mineo was returning to the apartment he was renting in West Hollywood. He was in Los Angeles rehearsing the play P.S. Your Cat is Dead, ironically, portraying a burglar in the play. The play had been in San Francisco, where Mineo’s skill as an actor had received excellent reviews, and the play was a hit. He had decided to act in the show for it’s LA run. The wonderful reviews in San Francisco were a boost to Mineo’s career;it had started out with promise, an immediate rise to successful roles, award nominations, and then for unknown reasons, a trajectory downward. The success of P.S. Your Cat is Dead was proving to be a career boost for Mineo and the events of the evening of February 12, 1976 make his story all the more poignant. The criminal, Williams, was lurking near the apartment building when Mineo drove up and parked his car in the garage. When Mineo headed for the stairs that would lead to his apartment, Williams attacked the actor, stabbing him in the heart. Entertainment lawyer Marvin Mitchelson’s mother lived at the same apartment building as Mineo, and she and another neighbor heard Mineo’s cries for help. They rushed to the garage and to Mineo’s side. Williams had fled at this point. Mrs. Mitchelson and the neighbor called the police and tried to resuscitate Mineo but it was too late. 5 to 6 minutes after the fatal stabbing, actor Sal Mineo was dead.
Sal Mineo was not a large man. He stood at 5’8″, of Italian descent. His Mediterranean good looks often found him in movie roles playing ethnic parts. His father, Salvatore, was born in Sicily and immigrated to the United States. He was a coffin maker by trade, and did start his own business, the Universal Casket Company, in his new, adopted country. The elder Mineo met, fell in love with, and married Josephine, herself of Italian descent, her parents hailing from Naples, she having been born in the United States. The marriage produced four children: Michael, Victor, Salvatore Jr., and Sarina. The family lived near the Bronx area of New York City. Salvatore Jr. was born on January 10th, 1939.
In researching Sal Mineo’s life for this blogathon, I found an interesting article, written by his older brother Victor. It was written in the late 1950’s, when Sal’s television and film career was on the rise. The article gave a picture of a tough kid brother, who followed his two older brothers all over the Bronx, playing ball in empty lots and back alleys. A tough boy who wasn’t afraid to take on bullies in the schoolyard. A story about two parents who weren’t rich, but worked hard at their business, making sure their kids didn’t want, giving identical gifts to their three sons at Christmas, each child receiving an allowance. One day, Victor explained, Sal Jr. and little sister Sarina were out in front of the family home, trimming bushes, when a talent scout came strolling by. The scout was looking for children to enroll in a dancing and singing academy based in Manhattan. He asked to speak to their mother, who did come out and spoke with this scout. “If you enroll them, we can train them to be on tv”, the scout promised. The two children were signed up and two times a week, with their mom in tow, Sal Jr. and Sarina would ride the subway from The Bronx to Manhattan to take classes at this academy. Sal Jr. was 10 and Sarina was 7. The family could immediately see that Sal Jr. loved the classes and he would practice every night the dance movements without prompting, even trying to teach his older brothers how to dance. The two child performers’ big break happened on a Saturday afternoon television music show. This led to more parts on televison shows, including a 1954 part on NBC Opera Theatre’s production of Strauss’s Salome. Mineo played the Page, lip synching to the voice of Mezzo-Soprano Carol Jones. Theatre work also came young Sal’s way, he appeared in Tennessee William’s play The Rose Tattoo, which starred Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, and Sal also portrayed the young Prince in The King and I, in it’s original run with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. This account written by Victor, added that his little brother loved acting, worked very hard at this craft, and also worked very hard when looking for agents, and at understanding the business side of the entertainment industry. The article by big brother Victor didn’t mention young Sal’s run ins with the law and his subsequent arrest for a burglary in 1949 at the age of 10! Another article on Sal Mineo’s life mentioned this, and the judge told the parents to offer their wayward son two choices for reformation: a spell in Juvenile Detention, or classes at the dancing and singing academy.
Sal Mineo’s first movie role was in 1955. The movie was Six Bridges to Cross, which starred Tony Curtis. Sal played Tony’s character in his teen years. The next movie, Mineo’s second, would propel him towards stardom. He was cast as John “Plato” Crawford in director Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, which also starred James Dean and Natalie Wood. I was fortunate to find a short documentary about James Dean, called Masters, on You Tube, and the section on Rebel was most interesting. Screenwriter Stewart Stern created a story about troubled teens, utilizing gangs and information about urban gangs. Director Ray had also done research on urban gangs, but wanted the movie to focus on suburban teens and what such a gang from that environment might look like and what they might occupy their time with. The title of the movie was taken from a book by psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner, published in 1944, a book about juvenile delinquents, but no material from his book was used in the movie. Mineo’s character is a 15 year old boy, an only child, often left to his own devices. His father has walked out on the family and has had no contact with his son, and we never see Plato’s mother. He is a very lonely boy. When James Dean’s character, new student Jim Stark, arrives in town, Mineo’s character, Plato, gloms on to the new student for here he has found a friend, a father-figure, and someone to idolize. Later film critics have made much of a possible homosexual attraction that Plato’s character possibly has for Stark, but screenwriter Stern said that no, in writing the two characters, he wanted to show the kind of love and camaderie two young men can have for one another. Not a sexual love, but a strong, brotherly love, as Stern said he himself experienced while serving in World War II. Rebel Without a Cause was released in late October of 1955, a month after the tragic car crash that killed the film’s star James Dean. Mineo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film.
In between film roles, Mineo did a lot of television shows. Omnibus, The Philco-Goodyear Televison Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Kraft Theatre, Dr. Kildare, The Patty Duke Show, just to name a few. After Rebel, Mineo appeared in the movie Crime in the Streets released in 1956. Portraying a young tough with a switchblade knife, he earned the nickname of The Switchblade Kid. Next up came a part in the film Somebody Up There Likes Me, released in 1956, starring Paul Newman, a biographic film about boxer Rocky Marciano. George Stevens’s film Giant was next for Mineo, portraying a young Mexican man, one of his many ethnic roles. After a few more films in the late 50’s, including Tonka, a film for Disney, portraying a young Sioux, Mineo starred in another biopic flick, portraying drummer Gene Kruppa in The Gene Kruppa Story. 1960 was another big year for Sal Mineo, as he starred in director Otto Preminger’s film Exodus , based on the novel by Leon Uris. Mineo played the part of Dov Landau, a young survivor of Auschwitz, who wants to join the Irgun, a radical Zionist underground network. Dov is also in love with another holocaust survivor, Karen Hanson, played by British actress Jill Haworth. Dov and Karen’s characters are a subplot of the film which focuses on Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint’s unfolding love story and on Newman’s character, trying to help one Uncle procure Israel’s independence via diplomatic means and saving another Uncle from the inherent dangers in getting that independence through terrorist means. Mineo’s Dov wants to join the radical group that Newman’s Uncle oversees and this Uncle forces Dov to confess that while at Aushcwitz, he was a “somderkommando”, a Jewish prisoner who had to deal with and dispose of the dead remains of the victims of the death camp’s ovens. Dov also has to confess that he was sexually assaulted by the Nazi guards at the camp. Dov is then accepted into the Irgun. He successfully bombs the King David hotel, turns himself in to the police in order to use his explosion skills in rigging an escape from Acre Prison, where by this time in the film, Newman’s radical Uncle is a prisoner. After the successul prison escape, Dov is on guard outside of a kibbutz where many of the refugees from the boat are living, including his love, Karen. One evening, while he is on guard duty, he and Karen reaffirm their love, their goal to marry and their desire to raise their children in a free and independent Israel. Upon leaving Dov to go back to the Kibbutz, Karen is overtaken by a gang of Arab militiamen and is murdered. For this emotional rollercoaster of a role, Sal Mineo was nominated and won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Inexplicably, even though Mineo had proven to many that he had talent, that he could act, his career in films started on a downward path. He badly wanted a part in Lawrence of Arabia, was not hired, even after auditioning. The same for The Godfather, he was not cast for a part. This ignoring of him by the film community led to more television roles, on such hit shows as Harry O, Hawaii 5-0, Columbo, Mission Impossible, My Three Sons, Dan August, S.W.A.T., Police Story, and Ellery Queen. He did manage to snag a film part in Escape From the Planet of the Apes, playing Dr. Milo. It would be his last film role. Mineo soon turned to theatre work, which he had been quoted saying that it forced an actor to stretch and try new things;while not paying out as much “bread” as film work, it was more creative. In 1971, he produced and starred in the play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, about the brutal life inside a men’s prison. The play received good reviews in LA, but when the play moved to NYC, the critics were harsh in their reviews. In 1972, Mineo directed Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Medium, in Detroit, himself portraying The Mute character. 1976 brought a starring part in the play P.S. Your Cat is Dead. The San Francisco production’s success and the postive publicity was garnering Mineo attention once again from the film industry. As the play moved to LA, so to went Mineo, and it was upon returning home late one evening from a rehearsal, that he tragically became the chosen victim of Lionel Ray Williams. After a long investigation, Williams was arrested and convicted by the police in 1979 for the murder of Sal Mineo, and for 10 other robberies in that area of West Hollywood. He was sentenced to 57 years in prison, did receive parole in 1990, but did get put back into prison for other criminal activity.
I would be remiss not to mention that Sal Mineo also had a bit of recorded music success, releasing some vocal albums, with some popular songs on them, from 1957-59. “Love Affair”, “Baby Face”, Young as We Are”, just to name a few of his song titles. For those who want to know more about Sal Mineo, there is a relatively new book, Sal Mineo: A Biography, by author Michael Gregg Michaud, in bookstores, libraries, and via online book sources, that has gained good reviews.
A funeral mass was held for Sal Mineo on February 17, 1976. The mass was held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Mamaronek, New York. He was buried next to his father’s grave at Gate of Heaven Cemetary in Hawthorne, New York. His sister’s husband, Charles Myers, delivered the eulogy: “He was a rare and very special person, a gentle man whose sensitivity and understanding affected everyone he met.” I would like to end my blog on that note, and to say RIP, Sal Mineo, gone too soon, at the age of 37. Be sure to check out Comet Over Hollywood for more blog posts about actors, actresses, directors, and musicians that were Gone Too Soon.