Today In Pop Culture: Say Goodbye To Sal Mineo

Published on February 12th, 2016 in: Eulogy, Movies, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin

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Today marks the date of the murder of Sal Mineo, and if you remember who that guy is, I’m impressed with you. Yeah, you. Congratulations. Mineo remains a mysterious figure of ambiguous sexuality, a man who achieved great fame, lost it, and was on the verge of getting it back when the unthinkable happened.

Mineo’s big break was in Rebel Without A Cause, in the role of Plato. Plato was in love with James Dean’s character, making Rebel one of the few films from the 1950s to deal with homosexuality in any form (not counting Douglas Sirk movies). Mineo scored an Academy Award nomination for that performance.

Behind the scenes in Hollywood, people wondered how close that performance was to real life. Even though Mineo went on a tear, dating beautiful women on both coasts, rumors still floated around, questioning Mineo’s sexuality.

On the set of Otto Preminger’s Exodus, Mineo met the actress Jill Haworth. They dated on and off for years, even getting engaged at one point. Still, words like “beard” followed them around. Mineo won a Golden Globe and picked up another Academy Award nomination for Exodus, but that success couldn’t stop the rumor mill from grinding.

After that, the roles dried up. Mineo was typecast as either a troubled teen or a Native American, based on his striking Italian looks. That make sense, doesn’t it? During this time, his romantic relationship with Haworth crumbled.

It was in the late 1960s that Mineo began to embrace the LGBT community, and they loved him right back. In 1969, Mineo directed and starred in a play called Fortune and Men’s Eyes. His co-star was Don Johnson. It was a play about gay men, and although some said the prison rape scene was too long, notices were generally good.

During a 1972 interview, Mineo self-identified as bisexual. He was living with another man at the time, one with whom he had a six-year relationship with. So much for that whole “beard” rumor. Mineo loved a woman, then he loved a man. That’s how that works.

One evening in 1976, Mineo was parking his car behind his apartment building after a play rehearsal. His neighbors heard him calling for help. By the time help arrived, Mineo was almost dead from a single stab wound to the heart.

While investigating his murder, police found a great deal of homosexual pornography in Mineo’s apartment. They spent a long time believing that had some bearing on his murder, and ran down a lot of dead ends in that direction.

Two years later, a man was arrested in Michigan for kiting bad checks. While in custody, the man started bragging about killing a man in Los Angeles during a string of robberies. The man’s name was Lionel Williams, and his big mouth got him a life sentence in jail. The medical examiner had made a plaster cast of the wound that killed Mineo, which matched the description of the blade Williams described as the murder weapon.

It was an ignominous end for Mineo, who had finally found a sense of community and was building his career back up. It almost seems disappointing that his murder wasn’t about his sexuality, back in a time where homosexuality was still some kind of taboo mystery, usually reserved for degrading broad comedy roles. One almost wishes a martyr’s death for Mineo. Hell, his murderer didn’t even realize who he was killing. He had no idea Mineo was famous. He was just another dude, another victim.

In the end, Sal Mineo was like one of those trick birthday candles. He shone brightly for a while until Hollywood tried to blow him out. Then his career came back, almost like magic, and the candle reiginited itself. Then, someone who knew the secret of extinguishing that tricky fire snuffed Mineo out.

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