Skip to main content

Book helps rediscover murdered Hollywood star

By Matthew Carey, CNN
  • Actor Sal Mineo was murdered outside West Hollywood apartment building in 1976
  • He is best known for his role as James Dean's friend in "Rebel Without a Cause"
  • Author Michael Gregg Michaud explores actor's life in "Sal Mineo: A Biography"
  • Movie Stars
  • James Dean
  • Hollywood

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Sal Mineo never had a second act to his career. Death deprived him of the chance.

But more than 30 years after his shocking murder, the actor is poised to regain a measure of his former prominence, courtesy of a new book, and the designs of a young Hollywood star.

"He was a remarkable actor. He was a new kind of actor. He was able to project a vulnerability," says Michael Gregg Michaud, author of "Sal Mineo: A Biography" (Crown Archetype), the first in-depth exploration of the life of Mineo, who was stabbed to death in 1976 after returning home from a play rehearsal.

Michaud confirmed that James Franco has optioned his book, and plans to develop it into a feature film. It's still unclear if Franco intends to portray Mineo. (He played James Dean, Mineo's "Rebel Without a Cause" co-star, in a 2001 biopic.)

To Michaud, Mineo deserves rediscovery. "I could really never find anything accurate about his life, which was very interesting to me," the author said. "He had a remarkable career, but there were no books (about him). ... There was nothing really about Sal."

Speculation about Mineo's death, and curiosity about his sexual exploits with women and men, have tended to obscure what he achieved as a performer. "He really needs the attention that Natalie (Wood) and Jimmy Dean have enjoyed since 1955," the year of "Rebel's" release. "Sal belongs right up there with them on that pedestal," Michaud said.

The book retraces Mineo's upbringing in the Bronx as the son of a Sicilian immigrant coffin maker. The young Mineo was something of a juvenile delinquent, a type he would frequently portray on screen. Mineo won a role in the first play he auditioned for, Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," the Tony winner for best play in 1951. A year later, Mineo appeared in "The King and I."

At 16, he was cast in "Rebel" as "Plato," the lonely, sensitive boy who idolizes Dean's Jim Stark. Their horseplay on screen contains a homoerotic charge, obvious even to some observers at the time. In his book, Michaud quotes a memo from a Warner Bros. censor, who warned his bosses, "It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim."

"He represented the first gay teenager portrayed in movies," Michaud said. "We have gay teenagers now in 'Glee.' It's something we're used to. But this was really the beginning of that."

Mineo earned an Academy Award nomination for "Rebel" and added another for "Exodus." He still holds the record as the youngest person to receive two competitive Oscar nominations, which he accomplished by age 22. His credits include "The Longest Day" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" as well as dozens of TV shows.

At the height of his fame in the late '50s, Mineo was persuaded to launch a singing career by record executives keen to capitalize on his teeny-bopper fan base. The venture proved lucrative, and Mineo sold more than 1 million copies of his first single.

But music diverted his attention from acting and ultimately pigeonholed him as a teen idol. Mineo's star began to fade in the late '60s, hastened by tremendous cultural upheaval.

"He represented that 'leather jacket motorcycle' type of teenager in the 1950s, and it became very passé in the '60s," Michaud said.

Roles that might have kept him on top eluded him. Michaud writes Mineo auditioned for the role of Ratso Rizzo in "Midnight Cowboy" and wanted to play Perry Smith, one of the killers from "In Cold Blood." His biggest disappointment may have been losing out (to Al Pacino) for the role of Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." Michaud said Mineo, as the son of a Sicilian immigrant, saw himself as perfect for the part.

Michaud said despite the disappointments Mineo remained mostly upbeat, although he occasionally expressed frustration with Hollywood. He quotes Mineo as saying, "When things started to cool off, I couldn't get anything I wanted. The roles I wanted most went to new people."

Unlike most stars of his era, Mineo did little to disguise his adventurous sexuality. As a teenager he allowed himself to be photographed nude in a shower. And in his early 20s he posed nude for artist Harold Stevenson, resulting in a gigantic portrait called "The New Adam."

He became involved with many young women, including Jill Haworth, his co-star in "Exodus." But at some point in his 20s, he began to pursue men. Michaud said he convinced Haworth to open up for the first time about her relationship with Mineo. And he persuaded actor Courtney Burr III, the man with whom Mineo spent the last six years of his life, to share his recollections as well as personal diaries.

In an interview with CNN, Burr described Mineo as comfortable with his sexuality. "I certainly never saw any fear on the part of Sal once he realized he was interested in men," Burr said. "If anything, he would play on people's suspicions and say, 'Well, you know, I'm pretty out there sleeping with who I want to,' so he would keep it in broad strokes. But he never hid."

Mineo may have struggled professionally in his 30s, but Burr said it was a time of personal growth. "(Sal) got to know who he really was and to own himself and to be an authentic individual," Burr said. "I saw a man whose life was definitely going up in terms of self-awareness and appreciation for what he represented as an artist."

In the mid-'70s, Mineo continued to work both as an actor and, increasingly, as a director. He was preparing to star in a play in Los Angeles in early 1976, having just turned 37. After rehearsal the night of February 12, Mineo headed home to West Hollywood, parked his car and walked toward his apartment. A man armed with a knife leapt out of the shadows and stabbed him to death. Investigators initially discounted robbery as a possible motive.

For clues they focused instead on Mineo's sex life. Michaud quotes a detective at the time saying, "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?"

That speculation proved incorrect. Two years after Mineo's murder, a 21-year-old man, Lionel Ray Williams, was arrested and later convicted in his killing. Authorities determined it had been a botched robbery. Michaud is convinced that if Mineo had lived, he would have succeeded in reviving his career.

"He had been through, I'm sure, the worst of it," he said. "I'm certain he would never have stopped working. He would never have stopped trying."

A singular quality of Mineo's might have elevated him back to Hollywood's top ranks.

Burr, the partner he left behind, describes it: "His greatest strength, which I always told him, was his vulnerability, not only as an actor but a man. ... Whenever he returned to the core vulnerability that he had, his work as an actor was absolutely terrific."