“He didn’t have sex with James Dean, and his murder wasn’t the result of a homosexual tryst gone wrong,” says Michael Gregg Michaud, author of Sal Mineo (Crown Archetype, $25.99), of misconceptions about the late actor. Michaud, a fan since seeing Mineo’s career-defining performance as Plato, the lonely boy smitten with Dean’s character in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, spent a decade researching and writing about the actor. Michaud recalls being haunted by Mineo’s death in 1976. “I was very excited that Sal was going to do a play at the Westwood Playhouse,” he says. “Just days after I bought the ticket he was murdered.”
Mineo’s rise to fame reads like the archetypal Cinderella story, minus the happy ending. His mother sent him to dancing and acting classes to keep him out of trouble on the mean streets of the Bronx. Mineo was acting on Broadway before he was a teenager. Rebel earned him an Academy Award nomination and made him a sought-after teen idol — due largely to his chemistry with the bisexual Dean, who died just weeks before the film’s release. By the 1960s, Mineo was so identified with the more innocent ’50s that he was considered passé. “As he became an adult he still looked like a kid,” Michaud says. “It was hard to find work as a leading man.”
Despite the career setbacks, Mineo comes across as jovial in Michaud’s book. “The guy was so damn charming,” Michaud says. “Of all the people I interviewed, there wasn’t one person who had an unkind word to say about him.” Among those interviewed are Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr III— female and male Mineo lovers, respectively—who hadn’t previously spoken so candidly on record. Haworth drops one of the book’s biggest bombshells—an affair she says Mineo had with ’60s teen idol Bobby Sherman.
Eager to be relevant again, Mineo began seeking darker projects. In 1969 he became the first well-known actor to appear fully nude onstage—in a production of the play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. “It was the talk of the town,” Michaud says. But what looked like a career resurgence was undone by too many provocative interviews with gay media.
Still, it’s primarily Mineo’s mystery-shrouded death that has tainted his reputation. Returning from rehearsal, the actor was fatally stabbed in the heart outside his West Hollywood apartment. “The police found his copy of the gay Kama Sutra and saw a pair of leather pants hanging in his closet, and they jumped to ridiculous conclusions that it was an S/M thing,” Michaud says. The killer, Lionel Williams, was eventually convicted and sentenced in 1979. “People have a hard time believing that something random and horrible can happen to a famous person without a mysterious plot behind it,” Michaud says. “There’s a dark cloud that hovers over Sal as a result of it.”