Remembering Mineo Mania on the Anniversary of the Rebel Star’s Murder

SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, Sal Mineo, 1956

As the lonely teen Plato in Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo reminded the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, of his own son“only prettier.” Ray’s screen test of Mineo, James Dean and Natalie Wood, his Rebel leads, pulses with sexual heat between the two male stars. Audiences in 1955 might not have realized it, but Plato was the movies’ first gay teenager.

Dean offered 15-year-old Mineo a suggestion on how to play Plato: “You know how I am with Natalie. Well, why don’t you pretend I’m her and you’re me? Pretend you want to touch my hair, but you’re shy.” Ray recalled Mineo looking “transcendent” after receiving Dean’s direction, remarking  that “the feeling coming out” of Mineo for Dean could break “the sound barrier.” It took Mineo years to understand he was “incredibly in love” with Dean.

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, from left: Sal Mineo, James Dean, 1955Salvatore Mineo, a self-proclaimed “wop from the Bronx,” was born on January 10, 1939, the third son of a Sicilian immigrant and his Italian American wife. Mineo first trod the boards as Jesus Christ at Saint Mary’s parochial school in the borough. Soon afterward, looking at theater marquees on Broadway, Mineo made his first professional decision: “I counted the letters to see if my name would fit. ‘Salvatore’ was too long, so I changed it right then and there to ‘Sal.’” The 11-year-old Mineo before long was appearing onstage opposite Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams’s 1951 drama The Rose Tattoo, reciting his single line, “The goat is in the yard.”

The $75 a week the boy earned surpassed his father’s wages at the Bronx Casket Company, and Sal next appeared on Broadway as the Crown Prince in The King and I, starring Yul Brynner. Mineo remembered being “pretty bad.” “I was playing the part of a prince,” he said, “but onstage I walked and talked like a Bronx boy.” In 1954 Mineo transitioned to film, playing a younger version of Tony Curtis’s character in Six Bridges to Cross and with Charlton Heston in The Private War of Major Benson. But the role of Plato in Rebel was the one Mineo coveted: “I was almost sick, I wanted that part so badly.”

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Sal Mineo, James Dean, Natalie Wood, 1955Mineo later commented that “teenagers really didn’t have an identity” until Rebel. The film centers on three of them: Jim, Judy and Plato, who, feeling unloved at home, form their own idealized kind of family. For screenwriter Stewart Stern, Rebel was supposed to “tell the story of a generation growing up…in one night.” Alone in an abandoned mansion, the trio bare their souls to one another. As Michael Gregg Michaud writes in the biography Sal Mineo, “Dean seems to be as attentive to Sal as he is to Natalie.… Suddenly, Sal lays his head on Dean’s arm, and the scene jumps from the screen.”

Director Ray certainly recognized Mineo’s attraction to Dean, but Geoffrey Shurlock, a Warner Bros. censor, wasn’t open to any gay subtext in the film. His memo to studio head Jack Warner read, “It is of course vital that there is no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.” Too late, Geoff! Looking back at Rebel, Mineo laughed, “You watch it now, you know [Plato] had the hots for James Dean.” At just 17 years old, Mineo became the youngest man to be nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar up to that point.

CRIME IN THE STREETS, Sal Mineo, 1956Dean encouraged George Stevens to hire Mineo for a small but crucial role in his saga Giant, telling the Oscar-winning director of Shane and A Place in the Sun that Mineo “had the look of the angels.” Mineo followed Giant with Crime in the Streets, for which he earned the nickname the Switchblade Kid. “Mineo Mania” was how The New York Times described the mayhem at the Crime premiere, as “hysterical teenagers, banked 10 deep,” rioted, even tearing at Mineo’s clothes. The actor’s first screen kiss, in 1957’s Dino, was such a big deal, it was featured on the cover of Dig magazine.

In 1957 Mineo went full teen idol, releasing two Top 40 singles and an album. Bob Hope even joked on television, “No school tomorrow, kids. It’s Sal Mineo’s birthday! All those in the Bronx can stay home.” The absentee rate soared! After receiving $100,000 to star in Aladdin, for CBS, Mineo had earned enough money to buy his family a house in the suburbs. His career peaked in 1960 with Otto Preminger’s Exodus, and he appeared on the cover of Life with costar Jill Haworth. The film earned Mineo a second Oscar nod for best supporting actor, but he lost to Spartacus star Peter Ustinov. Mineo wasn’t happy. “That was my fucking Oscar,” he recalled.

At the height of Mineo Mania, Motion Picture magazine asked, “Is Sal Mineo Burning Himself Out?” “His fan mail is staggering. Bobby-soxers screech at the mere mention of his name,” the article gushed. “Teenagers buy his records. But these ardent admirers are aged 13 to 17. Will they be loyal in five years?” Apparently not: As Mineo himself bemoaned, “One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle; the nextno one wanted me.” In 1971’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Mineo’s last major film role, his famous face was buried under latex ape makeup. He returned to the theater, directing Fortune in Men’s Eyes and starring in P.S. Your Cat Is Dead.

In Rebel Without a Cause, Plato asks Jim, “Do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime?” The end came for Mineo on the night of February 12, 1976. He was stabbed to death in the carport behind his West Hollywood apartment building. Biographer H. Paul Jeffers, author of Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder and Mystery, referenced the actor’s remark that “the best way to remember him would be to watch his films.” I will be watching Rebel Without a Cause tonight.

Photos: Everett Collection

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