… he was murdered on February 12, 1976 when he was 37 years old.
Salvatore “Sal” Mineo, Jr. was born in The Bronx, New York City and was enrolled by his mother in dancing and acting school at an early age. In 1957, Mineo made a brief foray into music by recording a handful of songs and an album. Two of his singles reached the Top 40 pop charts. In 1959, Sal also starred as drummer Gene Krupa in the movie The Gene Krupa Story.
A little-known facet of Mineo’s career was his involvement with opera. On May 8, 1954, he portrayed the Page (miming to the voice of mezzo-soprano Carol Jones) in the NBC Opera Theatre’s production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, set to the play of Oscar Wilde.
But Mineo was best known as an actor. In 1950, he had his first stage appearance in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo. He also played the young prince opposite Yul Brynner in the stage musical The King and I.
His breakthrough performance came in 1955 when he starred opposite James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Mineo played John “Plato” Crawford, the sensitive teenager smitten with James Dean’s Jim Stark.
Biographer, Paul Jeffers, recounted that Mineo received thousands of fan letters from young female admirers, was mobbed by them at public appearances and further wrote, “He dated the most beautiful women in Hollywood and New York.” Mineo also appeared in Dean’s last film in 1956, Giant, although they didn’t share any screen time.
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-----Many of his subsequent roles were variations of his role in Rebel Without a Cause and he often played juvenile delinquents. In the Disney adventure Tonka, for instance, Mineo starred as a young Sioux named White Bull who traps and domesticates a clear-eyed, spirited wild horse named “Tonka” who becomes the famous horse Comanche.
In 1960, Mineo’s acting ability and exotic good looks earned him a role as a Jewish emigrant in Otto Preminger’s Exodus for which he received another Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
By the early 1960s he was getting too old to play the types that had made him famous and for a variety of reasons wasn’t considered appropriate for leading roles. He auditioned for David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia but wasn’t hired. Mineo was baffled by his sudden loss of popularity, later saying “One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle, the next, no one wanted me.”
His role as a stalker in Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), co-starring Juliet Prowse, didn’t seem to help. Although his performance was praised by critics, he found himself typecast anew, now as a deranged criminal.
He returned to the stage to produce the gay-themed Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971), starring Don Johnson of later Miami Vice fame. Although the play got positive reviews in Los Angeles, it was panned during a run in New York and its expanded prison rape scene was criticized as excessive and prurient.
By 1976 Mineo’s career seemed to be turning around again. Playing the role of a gay burglar in a San Francisco run of the stage comedy P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, he received substantial publicity from many positive reviews and moved on to Los Angeles with the play. Arriving home after a rehearsal on February 12, 1976, Mineo was stabbed to death in the alley behind a West Hollywood apartment building. He was 37 years old.
According to Warren Johansson and William A. Percy’s Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence, he was murdered under circumstances that suggested “a homosexual motive.”
A career criminal named Lionel Ray Williams was later sentenced to life in prison for killing Mineo. Although there was considerable confusion relating to what witnesses had seen in the darkness the night Mineo was murdered, Williams was reported to have boasted of the crime, which turned out to be a botched mugging. At the time of the murder, Williams had no idea who Sal Mineo was.