SAL MINEO: Oscar-nominated Actor, Teen Heartthrob, Stage Director & Recording Artist

Sal Mineo portrait, circa 1955. Photo Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

“They tried to change everything except my fuckin’ gender! But they finally figured out that maybe what I had worked.”

TRQ: Sal Mineo Born Jan. 10, 1939

Oscar-nominated actor, teen heartthrob, stage director and recording artist Sal Mineo is mostly widely known for his role as Plato, one of film’s first gay characters, in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Besides working alongside James Dean in two films, Mineo appeared on stage and screen with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Don Johnson.

Salvatore Mineo, Jr. was born in the Bronx, New York on January 10, 1939. His Sicilian parents, Sal and Josephine, were casket makers. Josephine enrolled her son in dance and acting classes after he was expelled from a parochial school at age 8. By age 10, he was making appearances on local tv shows. His first acting roles were those of troubled juveniles. In 1951, he appeared on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo(1951).

In 1955, Mineo made his first film appearances in Six Bridges to Cross and The Private War of Major Benson. Later that year, his role as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause, defined his career.

Mineo’s Plato is clearly coded as gay, and he’s palpably infatuated with James Dean’s sexually ambiguous character, Jim. The two temporarily form an alternative family bond with Natalie Wood’s Judy, in which Jim and Judy are parental figures to Plato, a sensitive child. Tragically, while Dean and Wood’s characters share their first kiss, Plato is implicated in gang violence and dies after being gunned down by the police. Mineo was nominated for his role as most likely the first gay teenager in film.

Mineo’s heartthrob status lasted through the 1950s. However, as he grew older and lived openly as bisexual, his acting career suffered. His roles were largely typecast, either around the vulnerable or aggressive qualities of his screen presence.

In 1960, director Otto Preminger cast Mineo as Dov Landau in Exodus, a role that blended the actor’s vulnerability and aggressiveness. “They used me as you would use a woman,” Mineo’s character confesses in an interrogation scene. For what is largely considered his best performance, Mineo earned a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination. Regardless, his film career continued to decline. 

In 1969, Mineo took to the stage to direct and perform in John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which also featured Don Johnson. Explicitly queer, the production included a prison rape scene with nudity and simulated anal sex. Mineo is likely the first male celebrity to appear nude onstage.

In 1971, Mineo played Dr. Milo in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, his last film role. The following year, Mineo directed Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Medium in Detroit.

Mineo’s career was once again thriving when he played a bisexual burglar in P.S. Your Cat is Dead (1976). However, on February 12, 1976, a mugger stabbed Mineo in the heart, as he returned home after play rehearsals. Neighbours found Mineo dead in the carport below his apartment in West Hollywood.

The police first homophobically assumed the killer was either Mineo’s boyfriend of six-years, a sex worker or drug dealer. The murder caused a scandal, given there was no evidence that Mineo paid for sex or used drugs. Despite witnesses claiming to see a white man fleeing the murder scene, the police arrested a Black pizza delivery man named Lionel Ray Williams. Many of Mineo’s friends and relatives believe the authorities charged the wrong man. Actors Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper, Desi Arnaz, and Natalie Wood were among those attending services at the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Mamaroneck, New York. 

Sal Mineo’s career was marked by a multitude of accomplishments, from his role as one of film’s first gay characters in Rebel Without a Cause to his role as a bisexual burglar in P.S. Your Cat is Dead. His life was tragically cut short at age 37. Despite the police’s initial homophobic investigation, his friends and family remember him as a talented actor and director who helped pave the way for greater representation in Hollywood.

Sal Mineo with James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955. Photo Warner Brothers, Archive Photos, Stringer
Sal Mineo, n.d. Photo donated by Klaudija Martinovich of Sweeden
Sal Mineo, 1956. Photo Unknown
Sal Mineo in Swimming Pool circa 1950s. Photo Bettmann, Contributor
Sal Mineo circa 1950s. Photo Unknown
Sal Mineo portrait, circa 1955. Photo Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images
Sal Mineo and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955. Photo Bettmann, Contributor
Sal Mineo at the premiere of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on 12 April 1956. Photo Los Angeles Times
Sal Mineo circa 1950s. Photo Unknown
Sal Mineo portrait, circa 1955. Photo Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

About the Authors

Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.

Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.

Sources:

Biography

GLBTQ Archive

History

Legacy

NY Times

Queer Portraits

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SAL MINEO: Oscar-nominated Actor, Teen Heartthrob, Stage Director & Recording Artist

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