Born January 10, 1939 in the Bronx, New York City, New York, Salvatore (Sal) Mineo was one of four children of casket maker Sal, Sr. and his wife, Angela. A troubled kid, his mother enrolled him in dance school after he was kicked out of parochial school at the age of eight. Arrested for robbery at age of ten, he was given a choice between juvenile confinement and professional acting school. He chose the latter and within two years was on Broadway in The Rose Tattoo and The King and I in which he played the crown prince. Privately tutored by the show’s star, Yul Brynner, it wasn’t long before he was appearing in TV movies and by 1954 in Hollywood films.
The young actor made his big screen debut at 15 in 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross in which he played the boy who grows up to be Tony Curtis. He followed that with The Private War of Major Benson and the film that made him a household name, Rebel Without a Cause for which he received his first Oscar nomination.
More supporting roles on TV and in such films as 1956’s Crime in the Streets, Somebody Up There Likes Me and Giant, but by the end of the year Mineo had his first starring role in Rock, Pretty Baby, followed by more of the same in 1957’s Dino and The Young Don’t Cry, 1958’s Tonka and 1959’s A Private’s Affair and The Gene Krupa Story.
1960’s Exodus brought Mineo his second Oscar nomination for his key supporting role in the epic film toplining Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. 1962’s Escape from Zahrain reunited him with Yul Brynner. That same year’s The Longest Day found him as an American parachutist killed by a German soldier after landing. 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn found him amongst the many stars in John Ford’s last western. 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told found him as one of the many famous actors making a guest appearance in that film from his Giant director, George Stevens.
1965 was also the year that Mineo has his best role in some years as the confused stalker in Who Killed Teddy Bear. Considered a cult classic now, it was not successful at the time of its release and quickly faded from view. Although he was still popular enough to find guest starring roles on TV, it would be Mineo’s third from last theatrically released film, followed by 1969’s Krakatoa: East of Java and 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
With his film career in limbo, and his TV guest appearances dwindling, Mineo returned to the stage most notably in Fortune and Men’s Eyes opposite a pre-stardom Don Johnson and P.S. Your Cat Is Dead opposite Keir Dullea.
It was during a performance of the latter play, which he was also directing, that Mineo was murdered in the alley behind his apartment building in West Hollywood. Although there were many theories surrounding the murder, it turned out that the 17-year-old drug addict who killed him had no idea who Mineo was. He was just after the money he was carrying.
Sal Mineo died on February 12, 1976. He was just 37 years old.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), directed by Nichols Ray
Released weeks after the death of star James Dean, this quintessential teen angst melodrama was a huge success. The late star’s fans flocked in droves to see him in his second starring role, and they weren’t disappointed. The tale of disaffected youth not only enhanced the growing legend of the late star but made household names of his two young co-stars, Natalie Wood and Mineo, both of whom, like Dean, would die tragically before their time. Dean died in a motorcycle accident at 24, Mineo was murdered at 37 and Wood drowned at 43. Dean was Oscar nominated for this year’s East of Eden while Mineo and Wood were nominated for this.
GIANT (1956), directed by George Stevens
Edna Ferber’s novel and James Dean’s legacy were the driving forces behind the success of this modern western in which Dean was third billed behind Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Dean, Hudson and Mercedes McCambridge were Oscar nominated for their performances which earned George Stevens an Oscar for his direction, its only win out of ten nominations which also included Best Picture. The superb supporting cast includes Carroll Baker, Earl Holliman, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Dennis Hopper and Mineo as a young Mexican-American who is killed in World War II. His scenes with Taylor are among the film’s most moving.
EXODUS (1960), directed by Otto Preminger
Preminger’s film of Leon Uris’ epic novel about the founding of Israel was a hug box office success that underperformed at the Oscars, winning only for Ernest Gold’s magnificent score. Its other two nominations were for Sam Leavitt’s color cinematography and Mineo’s performance as the lone survivor of a large family slaughtered at Auschwitz. His is far and away the best performance in a film that stars three Oscar winners, Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Hugh Griffith and such other acting heavyweights as Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, John Derek and Jill Haworth as Mineo’s love interest.
WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR (1965), directed by Joseph Cates
Mineo plays a sexually repressed stalker who gets off making dirty phone calls to Juliet Prowse in this one-of-a- kind cult classic filmed in New York at its grimiest. Mineo’s younger sister was traumatized by his seduction of an older woman when they were both teens. The sister then falls down the stairs, causing a brain injury resulting in retardation. Flashforward and Mineo is a waiter at a seedy New York disco where Prowse spins the records. Elaine Stritch is the joint’s predatory lesbian manager. Jan Murray is the cop whose wife was murdered years earlier and who now gets his kicks listening to new rape victims describe their plight.
KRAKATOA: EAST OF JAVA (1968), directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Savagely lambasted by comics of the day for its erroneous title, Krakatoa being west of Java, not east, this is nevertheless a well-made action film about a 1983 shipwreck salvage mission at the time of the volcanic explosion that caused many tsunamis and has recently been in the news for a recent devastating underwater tsunami. As with many of his films, Mineo is once again the standout as the young balloonist at odds with his father, Rossano Brazzi. Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith and John Leyton also turn in fine performances, but as usual, it’s Mineo in his penultimate film that you can’t take your eyes off of.
SAL MINEO AND OSCAR
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
- Exodus (1960) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor