On January 20, 1965, “Patty Meets a Celebrity” aired on ABC-TV. It was a special episode of The Patty Duke Show that highlighted the fame of its guest star, Sal Mineo. In the episode, Mineo returns to his alma mater to perform in a play with the students. Patty, a stand-in for the typical mid-century, all-American teenager swoons her way to a starring role in the play. It is a testament to the fame and teenage adulation that had followed Mineo since he starred in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. He had become a teen idol for his depictions of juvenile delinquents, depictions that resonated deeply with an adolescent audience searching for new ways to assert their individuality and their identities in a larger, conformist world. It is, to this day, the way that Mineo is viewed, in part due to the fact that he was at the height of a fame that he was never able to replicate.
Sal’s story ends with a robbery, in which he was murdered at the age of 37. And, as so often happens in tragic circumstances, his death has overshadowed his life, his career, and his personality. It has informed, incorrectly, the tone and tenor of his life and accomplishments. It is a disservice to a dynamic man to reduce his life to one instant, to believe that one tragic moment indicates a lifetime of tragedy. Sal was deservedly an idol, but he was also a complex man who doesn’t deserve to have his legacy reduced to the story of his death.
With a string of releases, including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets (1956), and Dino (1957), Sal Mineo cemented his status as the iconic juvenile delinquent. These films, huge successes, catapulted Mineo to stardom. His stardom was so immense that he was mobbed by fans everywhere he went. Mineo recalls a story of landing at an airport in Australia, saying, “‘By the time we got to the Chelsea Hotel I had lost almost every button, had my tie torn off- don’t know why I wasn’t choked to death in the process-and had some girls’ telephone numbers scribbled on my coat, in ink’” (141). As Mineo aged, he became interested in pursuing other stories, other characters. Unfortunately, he had been effectively typecast and although he tried to distance himself from these rebellious yet soulful characters, he was ultimately unsuccessful. This was the only way that producers and directors saw him and, more importantly, the only way they thought the audience saw him. If anything, Sal was able to imbue these somewhat stereotypical, flat roles with nuance and power that make it clear that he was a capable actor. But the role of rebellious icon became an albatross from which Mineo could not escape, an especially hefty burden in a changing cultural landscape. As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Mineo found it even more difficult to get work. Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Mineo’s sums up the problem, saying, “‘Sal was an anachronistic reminder of the teenage fifties the chic people preferred to forget; that he was a talented actor seemed beside the point’” (206).
But not to be deterred, Mineo decided that telling stories, rather than acting, was his passion. He followed this desire into other spheres, namely that of producing and directing film and theatre, and was constantly optioning rights for films. He had a true interest in telling stories and in finding ways to convey the multiplicity of the human condition and he was not about to shy away from challenging subject matter. He gave Bogdanovich the Larry McMurtry book that would eventually become The Last Picture Show (1971), knowing that he was too old to play the lead but knowing that the story was in good hands. He was interested in getting James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, a book that deals frankly with issues of sexual identity, made into a movie (a notion that Baldwin was very enthusiastic about). Ultimately, he didn’t succeed, but his failures never deterred him. He always continued to work. Mineo interests expanded to include visual art. He posed for the massive painting The New Adam (1962) by Harold Stevenson. It is a multi-panel male nude that eroticizes the male body for a male gaze. It is sensual and erotic and was particularly shocking at the time of it’s unveiling.
All this is an attempt to paint a portrait of Mineo that isn’t contingent on his death or that doesn’t deal solely with the beginning of his career and the indelible image of Mineo as rebel. That was just the beginning of Sal’s career, and though it is the part for which he is largely remembered, it was by no means the most fruitful or fascinating era of his life. Sal Mineo was an icon, an emblem of disaffected youth whose death often informs our collective notions of his life. But Mineo was also a dynamic, complex man whose ambitions and interests informed his later career in fascinating ways that absolutely warrant examination. Sal Mineo was a driven creative whose ambitions and projects pushed the bounds of acceptability in a restrictive era, and because of this, his path often crossed with some of the most recognizable and challenging works of art ranging across many mediums. He was truly a visionary and he deserves to be remembered as such.
Michaud, Michael Gregg. Sal Mineo: A Biography. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.