Sal Mineo died on February 12 1976, stabbed to death during a botched robbery. Hollywood frequently cast the baby-faced actor as the archetypal troubled teen.
Born in New York to Italian parents, Sal Mineo made his first stage appearance at the age of 12. At 17, he appeared in one of the most iconic coming-of-age films of all time. Rebel Without a Cause starred James Dean who would die in a car accident before the film’s release.
Of course, no matter how ‘groundbreaking’ a Hollywood film, a heterosexual romance is a prerequisite. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and Natalie Wood play the romantic leads, but with Sal Mineo’s character as a third wheel, always along for the ride and obviously smitten with Dean.
Sal’s character dies during the movie. He summed up the homosexual undertone in a 1972 interview and explained why his character had to die.
The first gay teenager in films
“He was, in a way, the first gay teenager in films. You watch it now, you know he had the hots for James Dean. You watch it now, and everyone knows about Jimmy [James Dean’s bisexuality], so it’s like he had the hots for Natalie and me. Ergo, I had to be bumped off, out of the way.”
Despite the fame he achieved through that role, the baby-faced actor remained typecast as a troubled teen. As he grew older, movie roles dried up. Rumours about his sexuality meant no one would risk casting him as a leading man. Sal focused on stage plays, both acting and directing. He also appeared as a guest star in television shows.
However, by 1976, Sal Mineo seemed poised for a comeback. He was happy both professionally and personally. He’d been in a gay relationship with actor Courtney Burr III for six years and his stage acting was attracting rave reviews.
But, returning home after rehearsals one night, he was stabbed to death. The only clue – a vague description of a young blond man running away from the scene.
Unable to find a motive for the crime, police seized on the revelation that Sal was gay. Perhaps harking back to the 1968 Hollywood murder of Ramon Novarro, they pondered the possibility of a trick gone wrong.
“We found out that he was homosexual. That opened a whole new field. Is this a disgruntled lover? A prostitute he picked up off the street?”
The Chicago Tribune reported, “Sal Mineo was acquainted with a homosexual group and some investigators believe he was killed by one of his friends.”
The police and the newspapers were wrong. Two years later police arrested a young career criminal and discovered he killed Sal Mineo during a series of robberies in the area. The 21-year-old had never heard of the movie star.
The New Adam
Check out The New Adam by Harold Stevenson at the Guggenheim. Sal Mineo posed for the colossal male nude, ‘precisely and sensually rendered in full anatomical detail’.
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