Oscar Profile #536: Sal Mineo

Born January 10, 1939 in Bronx, New York to Josephine and Salvatore Mineo, a casket maker from Sicily, Salvatore (Sal) Mineo, Jr. was one of four children. A troubled child, he was thrown out of parochial school, and by the age of eight, had joined a tough Bronx gang. His mother enrolled him in dancing school, and after being arrested at age ten, he was given the choice between juvenile confinement and acting school. He chose the latter, and in the blink of an eye was embarking on a stage career..

Mineo’s first stage appearance was in the original 1951 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. Later that year, he replaced the original actor playing the son of the king in the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I for which he was personally mentored by Yul Brynner.

On TV from 1952, the young actor made his screen debut in 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross in which his character morphs into Tony Curtis as he becomes older. That same year he played a major role in The Private War of Major Benson with Charlton Heston and then played his signature role as James Dean’s friend in Rebel Without a Cause for which he received an Oscar nomination at the age of 16.

TV work for Mineo continued, as did film work. In short order, he was in 1956’s Crime in the Streets, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Giant and Rock, Pretty Baby; 1957’s Dino and The Young Don’t Cry; 1958’s Tonka; 1959’s A Private’s Affair and The Gene Krupa Story; and 1960’s Exodus for which he received a second Oscar nomination at the age of 21.

While Mineo’s TV career continued in the early 1960s, film roles were harder to come by, although he did appear in 1962’s Escape from Zahrain and The Longest Day, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn and 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told and Who Killed Teddy Bear? . He found work in the late 1960s even tougher to come by, appearing only in 1968’s Krakatoa: East of Java and 80 Steps to Jonah. In 1969, he returned to the stage to direct the Los Angeles production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes in which he starred opposite a young Don Johnson.

Although he could continue to count on the occasional TV role, the actor’s big screen career ended with 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

Mineo returned to the stage once again in the 1975 San Francisco production of P.S. Your cat Is Dead. He was in rehearsals for the Los Angeles production in which he was to star opposite Keir Dullea when he was stabbed to death by a mugger upon returning home on February 12, 1976. The mugger was caught and sentenced to 57 years in prison in 1979 but was paroled in the early 1990s.

At the time of his death, Mineo had been in a six-year relationship with actor Courtney Burr III. He was just 37 years old.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), directed by Nicholas Ray

One of just three films in which James Dean starred, the legendary teenage angst classic opened just four weeks after the actor’s tragic death in at an automobile accident at 24. The built-in publicity caused an immediate sensation at the box-office, adding to Dean’s legend and making stars of Mineo and Natalie Wood, 15 and 16 respectively, during the making of the film. Both were Oscar nominated for their sensitive performances while Dean was nominated for the earlier East of Eden for which Jo Van Fleet won the Oscar for his playing his cathouse madam mother over Wood. Mineo lost to Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts.

GIANT (1956), directed by George Stevens

Dean’s third film which was released a year after Rebel Without a Cause, was taken from Edna Ferber’s sprawling Texas novel, earning Dean his second posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination along with nine other nods including Best Picture, Actor (Rock Hudson), Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge) and Director (George Stevens), winning for the latter. The film’s memorable cast also included Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Earl Holliman, Jane Withers and Chill Wills in principal roles. Mineo has a relatively minor, but important role as a young Mexican boy helped by Taylor.

EXODUS (1973), directed by Otto Preminger

Leon Uris’ sprawling novel was the basis for Otto Preminger’s epic about the birth of Israel and the ensuing war with its Arab neighbors. Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint were the main stars with Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, John Derek, Hugh Griffith, Gregory Ratoff, Felix Aylmer and David Opatoshu in memorable supporting roles, but the standouts in the huge cast were Mineo and newcomer Jill Haworth as the tragic young lovers. The film won an Oscar for Ernest Gold’s score and nominations for Sam Leavitt’s cinematography and Mineo’s unforgettable performance.

KRAKATOA: EAST OF JAVA (1968), directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Despite its title, this adventure film about the 1883 eruption of the volcano in the Dutch West Indies takes place west of Java. Prolific TV director Kowalski does a good job of balancing the film’s action scenes with fine performances from a strong cast led by Maximilian Schell, Daine Baker, Brian Keith, Barbara Werle and Mineo, along with Rossano Brazzi, John Leyton, J.D. Cannon. Marc Lawrence and more. Brazzi and Mineo play father and son scientists. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects, the film is perhaps best known for getting its title location wrong. Krakatoa was west of Java, not east of it.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), created by Don Taylor

One of the better in the series that followed the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, Mineo plays Milo, one of three chimpanzees, along with original series stars Roddy McDowall as Cornelius and Kim Hunter as Zira who escaped Earth’s destruction in the previous outing and through a time warp end up back in 1973. Cornelius and Zira want to hide the fact that they speak English while Milo wants to let it be known. As a result, he agitates a caged gorilla who when he gets too close to the gorilla’s cage, strangles him to death, becoming another Mineo character, who like the actor himself, is gone too soon.

SAL MINEO AND OSCAR

  • Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
  • Exodus (1960) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor

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