Sometimes, a supporting role can make or break a film. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Sal Mineo, the actor best remembered for his role in the iconic film Rebel Without a Cause. But after this meteoric rise, he seemingly disappeared…only to re-enter the public eye years later, when his life came to a tragic end.
1. His Parents Had A Strange Job
Mineo’s family was very artistic. Both his two brothers and his sister were actors, and his family happily enrolled him in dancing and acting school at a very young age. Mama and Papa Mineo supported the family through a very different talent—they worked as a team of professional coffin makers. But none of this meant that young Sal didn’t still get into immense trouble.
2. He Had A Dark Past
Mineo’s early reputation as a kid who could play “tough guy” parts was no accident. He had a much darker history than the public realized. During his childhood, Mineo joined a street gang. After a fight at school involving the future actor and the leader of this gang, the hooligans recruited Mineo to join them in wreaking havoc on the streets of New York. Only, this had surprising consequences.
3. His Troubles Led To His Career
This experience played a far greater role in Mineo’s life than just an awkward childhood phase that he’d like to forget. In fact, it actually directly contributed to the launching of his acting career. During one troublesome incident, Mineo’s actions landed him in court. While there, he received an ultimatum of either juvenile detention time or enrolling in a school that would teach him practical skills.
Mineo chose the latter, learned to act, and the rest is history. Although, it wasn’t as simple as that at first.
4. He Started Out Small, But Made An Impact
Mineo’s professional acting career didn’t begin with a splash, but he clearly made a mark on his colleagues. In the early 1950s, while still just a teenager, Mineo got a job as an extra in the hit musical The King and I. As modest as this original job was, the crew eventually promoted him to play the role of Prince Chulalongkorn. This led him to a very famous face.
5. He Had A Famous Friend
Every aspiring artist hopes for a mentor to show them the ropes and lead them on the path to success in their career. Well, Mineo won the jackpot on that one. During his time in The King and I, the young actor befriended Yul Brynner, the popular movie star who played the leading role in the show. Brynner took Mineo under his wing, and took it upon himself to teach him how to be a better actor. Well, it paid off.
6. He Beat Out A Legend
Mineo made his film debut in 1955 in the Joseph Pevney film noir Six Bridges to Cross. Turns out he didn’t win this part so easily, though. The other person who had tried out for the role turned out to be none other than Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. How many other 15-year-olds get bragging rights of that magnitude? And that wasn’t all.
7. He Had Good Company
Without question, Mineo had the biggest year of his burgeoning career in 1955. Not only did he begin his film endeavors, but he also got to star alongside major names like Charlton Heston. But by the end of that same year, destiny would call on the youngster to take on the role that would change the course of his life forever…
8. He Had A Legendary Big Break
At the end of the year, Mineo appeared in the role that most of us remember him for: the part of troubled teenager “Plato” in Rebel Without a Cause, one of the best-loved classic films of all time. Starring alongside James Dean and Natalie Wood as three youngsters who act out in response to problems at home, the film is groundbreaking for its artistic style and pioneering in openly addressing taboo subject matter.
9. The Film Rustled Feathers
To say that Rebel made waves with audiences and critics would be a major understatement. Depicting dissatisfaction with the American dream is controversial enough, but doing so while pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to show in movies at the time only increased the intensity of the reaction. The film received a number of scathing reviews, and the United Kingdom censored parts of it from its theaters.
Not only that, but certain headlines coming from behind the scenes shocked the conservative public…
10. He Broke New Barriers
For most of his career, fans had an awareness of Mineo’s “orientation” in dating. Despite working in a time where many frowned upon anything outside of a traditional idea of relationships, Mineo never hid his identity or his intimate relationships with other men. In doing so, he made history by becoming one of the first-ever openly gay or bi celebrities in Hollywood.
11. His Character Had A Deeper Meaning
Rebel Without a Cause is a milestone in LGBTQ history due to its inclusion of so many artists from that community. Only, there’s more to it than that. According to Mineo himself, his character of Plato is himself gay and is in love with James Dean’s character. Movies couldn’t explicitly address this at the time, so Mineo implied this fact through subtle details in his performance, such as the way he looked at Dean on screen.
12. His Identity Is Often Misunderstood
Despite people calling him one of the first openly gay actors in Hollywood, Mineo actually self-identified as bi. He also harshly criticized the assumptions people made about him due to his relationships with men. He accused such people, including many in Hollywood, of trying to unfairly box him in, and insisted “I don’t like to be told I can only love a woman–or a guy.” He clarified in an interview that he liked “all” men, but also “chicks now and then.”
While these comments don’t seem too controversial by today’s standards, at the time they would have been shocking to some folks.
13. A Lot Went On On That Set
While most fans today know about Mineo’s orientation, fewer know about that of his Rebel Without a Cause co-star, James Dean. Not only was Dean bi himself, but the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, also was. This has led to a slew of rumors over the years that several (or potentially all) of the main people involved in the film may have been sleeping together while making it.
14. One Relationship Remains A Mystery
The biggest question of all for many fans interested in the backstage drama from the set of Rebel is whether Mineo and James Dean slept together. Both men were bi, and they appear to have had a very close relationship—so it’s no surprise that speculation about this possible affair remains prevalent even all these years later.
When confronted with these speculations directly during an interview, Mineo’s response was telling. He refused to publicly confirm or deny whether or not he and his late co-star had slept together, since he considered their relationship a “special” one and therefore felt its nature should remain private. As understandable as that is, we still wanna know!
15. One Relationship Turned Really Weird
There’s one definite affair from the set of Rebel: The one between Mineo and the film’s director, Nicholas Ray. Aside from Ray being Mineo’s boss and also nearly 30 years older than him, the fling had a far more unsettling detail to it. Ray once stated that he was attraced to Mineo because the young star reminded him of a “prettier” version of his own son.
16. Their Work Environment Had Some Downsides
Despite idolizing James Dean and considering their relationship a “special” one, Dean also intimidated him. Mineo even described himself as “terrified” of him at one point. He recalled Dean’s behavior on set at times being extremely aggressive and rude towards others, including himself. Unfortunately, Mineo took these actions very much to heart.
Because of how much he looked up to his co-star, Dean could instantly make or ruin Mineo’s entire day based on whether he chose to warmly greet or ignore him on any given morning.
17. He Had A Bizarre Favorite Scene
In a surprising way, Mineo found intense emotional solace in filming the ending to Rebel Without a Cause, where his character loses his life and passes in the arms of a grieving James Dean. As a somewhat troubled youngster in real life, Mineo recalled that filming this scene allowed him to feel what it would be like to have someone he looked up to truly mourn for him.
Mineo wanted to film this scene over and over again so that he could continue to relive this unusual feeling. Yet before long, Mineo would witness a real-life tragedy.
18. Hollywood Censored His Character
Those who have seen Rebel surely remember this moving death scene. But not too many fans likely know why the story ends that way. Apparently, because of how far Mineo’s character pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable at the time, Hollywood’s “Hays Code” censorship policies required that the character not make it out alive.
19. The Academy Recognized His Talent Right Away
As much as some people disliked Rebel Without a Cause at first, others clearly recognized its brilliance. At the Oscars that year, the 17-year-old Sal Mineo received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his emotional portrayal of Plato. He was the fifth-youngest actor to get a nomination. But his world was already falling apart.
20. Things Took A Horrible Turn
The excitement of the Rebel Without a Cause production changed forever when tragedy suddenly struck. The film’s young star, James Dean, lost his life in a car crash just weeks before the film hit theaters. Sadly, this meant that the young actor never lived to see the superstardom that his persona in the film created for him. But, unfortunately, Rebel‘s bad luck didn’t end there…
21. He Wound Up On The Wrong Kind Of List
A few decades later, Mineo’s other Rebel co-star, Natalie Wood, passed in a mysterious drowning incident, also at a very young age. For years, fans have speculated that the film must have put some kind of curse upon its main cast—and tragically, time would prove that Sal Mineo had no exemption from this curse. In fact, he would get it worst of all.
22. He Had An Unlikely Reunion
Fans who enjoyed the powerful on-screen dynamic between Mineo and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause were probably devastated that the pair could never work together again following Dean’s untimely passing. However, in a weird twist of fate, they managed to do exactly that. Turns out that the pair had already finished filming another movie before Dean’s car crash.
As a result, the world got to experience the impossible: a posthumous Dean and Mineo reunion in the 1956 film Giant.
23. He Tried For Another Kind Of Reunion
After Dean’s passing, it took Mineo a long time to accept the fact that his friend and colleague was truly gone forever. But once he did, he recalled a spooky conversation they’d once had. In it, they pondered the thought of trying to contact each other from beyond the grave some day. Mineo decided to take this idea seriously…and he pursued it in a very strange way.
He tried all kinds of supernatural means of contacting Dean’s spirit, including ouija boards and reciting psychic spells over a glass. On at least one occasion, Mineo believed that he felt Dean’s presence during one of these rituals. He also believed that the actor continued to watch over him in some way for the rest of his life.
24. His Image Started Out Very Different
Though we associate him now with the quiet “troubled teen” types of roles, Mineo had quite a different reputation as an actor in the early years of his career. Hollywood producers tended to think of him as a “tough guy” character, nicknaming him the “Switchblade Kid” and frequently casting him in noir stories. And Mineo had his own way of keeping that reputation alive.
25. He Returned To His Controversial Roots
Even after becoming an actor, Mineo did not completely leave his troubled youth behind. In addition to playing gangster-type characters, he actually physically returned to the world he came from in order to prepare for a role by spending some time with the famous Hell’s Angels gang and observing how they lived. That’s one way to go method.
26. He Had A High-Profile Romance
Despite being famous for his romantic relationships with high-profile men, Mineo also had a now largely-forgotten romance with a pretty high-profile woman. In the early 1960s, he became engaged to actress Jill Haworth, one of his on-screen co-stars. Things seemed to be going well for the couple, until that all abruptly changed one day…
27. Fans Considered Them Meant To Be
Haworth and Mineo had met one another on the set of the film Exodus, where they portrayed a couple. Fans loved their on-screen chemistry and loved the idea of the pair dating in real life—so much so that LIFE magazine even featured them on its cover one week. But audiences who were looking forward to the wedding were in for a major shock.
28. His Engagement Ended With A Bang
Mineo’s engagement to Jill Haworth broke off abruptly. The reason behind it was shocking. The young actress caught her fiance in bed with another man. This led to a slew of rumors and speculation, including many people claiming that Mineo had just been using Haworth to cover up his true proclivities. However, the real story may have been more complicated…
29. It’s Not What You Think
Many of the people closest to Mineo insist that his relationship with Haworth was indeed genuine, and that he was not merely using her to cover up his true identity, but that he really loved her. The two remained very close friends for the remainder of Mineo’s life, and always spoke extremely highly of their time together as a couple.
30. The Breakup Was More Awkward Than You Think
In a particularly awkward twist of irony, the affair that broke up Mineo’s relationship with Haworth was with pop singer Bobby Sherman. This was actually even more devastating than you think. Sherman was a friend that Haworth herself had introduced Sal to not long before. Not only that, but it appears this affair was precisely the one that made Mineo realize the extent to which he truly enjoyed relationships with men.
31. He Had To Re-Learn The Birds And The Bees
According to Mineo, prior to his affair with Sherman, the star was confused about how intimate relationships between gay men actually worked in bed. As he recalled it, when he became aware of his interest in Sherman, he asked his gay hairdresser to explain to him the details of what should be happening between them physically. The hairdresser was happy to oblige.
32. He Earned Accolades Again
Mineo may be most famous for his role as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause, but this was by no means his only significant film role. Mineo also received high praise for his portrayal of a Jewish soldier in the 1960 film Exodus, which depicts the early years of the modern conflict in the Middle East. Mineo received his second Best Supporting Actor nomination for this role.
33. He Almost Played Another Epic Role
As great a resume as Mineo had in Hollywood, he almost improved it even further. Turns out he actually auditioned for a part in the epic Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps surprisingly, Mineo lost out on that role. Though it’s hard to say why this rejection took place with any degree of certainty, Mineo had an unfortunate theory.
In his own words: “I lost [the part] because I had appeared in a pro-Jewish picture,” referring to his role in Exodus.
34. He Attracted Some Impressive People
In the heyday of his popularity, the press reported that Mineo “dated the most beautiful women in Hollywood and New York City.” And when it came to men, we have much more specific details. in addition to Dean, Sherman, and Ray, Mineo’s list of ex-lovers includes celebrity names as big as Peter Lawford and Montgomery Clift.
35. He Had Strong Views On His Industry
During the later years of his career, Mineo landed many guest spots on TV programs, but then seemed to appear less frequently. Turns out this slow-down took place in part out of principle. Mineo considered TV a lower art form than film and theater, and claimed that TV is essentially a “kiddie version” of the kind of entertainment other mediums provide.
36. An Unlikely Culprit May Have Hurt His Career
There are many reasons why Mineo slipped out of the public eye after the early 1960s—but one is more surprising than others. As it turns out, Mineo’s own mother Josephine was his amateur career manager, funding the family’s expenses with his earnings. Had the star been able to hire a professional manager to do this job instead, some think things may have gone differently for him.
37. He Ventured Into Surprising Areas
Mineo truly had many talents that the average person likely doesn’t know about. Apparently, these hidden talents included the high-class art of opera. Mineo both performed in and even directed legitimate opera performances over the course of his career. In fairness, however, he lip-synced his performance, using more of his acting skills than his singing ones.
Mineo also had a brief career as a pop singer. He released several songs and even an album during this period. And even though this endeavor didn’t continue, don’t think it didn’t go well; the actor had two songs reach Billboard’s Top 40.
38. He Almost Changed His Name
In a sense, Mineo as we know him almost never happened. Back in Old Hollywood, actors with particularly ethnic-sounding names often changed their names to ones that sounded more generic. Since “Sal Mineo” sounds so Italian, people tried to persuade him to follow this practice and change it. One suggestion that someone proposed to him was “Sal Maynard.”
If you’re thinking that just doesn’t feel right, you’re on the same page as Mineo himself. Despite the pressure, and much to his fans’ (and his mother’s) delight, he decided to stay true to his identity and keep the name we all know and love.
39. He Had A Soft Side
Despite his rough background, Mineo had an extremely sensitive personality and often found himself emotionally affected by world events. For example, he cried after hearing about the passing of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, and then again after hearing about the shooting of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. A far cry, if you will, from the tough persona that first landed him onto the silver screen.
40. He Was Not Immune To Tabloid Rumors
Like many celebrities, Mineo was the subject of wild stories on the pages of Hollywood’s gossip columns. On one occasion, famous journalist Walter Winchell wrote an article claiming that Mineo had plans to elope with Italian actress Anna Maria Alberghetti, where he would be hosting 72 relatives for a grand engagement party.
Only one problem: Mineo and Alberghetti had never even met each other, let alone planned to get married. The entire story was completely bogus. And it had big complications. The actor had to spend the next several days awkwardly explaining to relatives who read the piece that there would be no invitations or plane tickets, since there would be no engagement party.
41. Another Role Changed His Life
Mineo took on a controversial stage role in the late 1960s, playing a convict. He received acclaim for his acting, but the show also affected his life in another way. One of his colleagues on the project was Courtney Burr, who would go on to become Mineo’s long-term partner for the remainder of his life. This turned out to be the longest and most serious relationship that Mineo ever had.
42. He Made A Comeback
After a hiatus from major roles, Mineo began to revive his career in the mid-1970s. He starred in an LGBTQ-themed comedy play called P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. Thanks to the show’s popularity, the producers decided to take it for a run in Los Angeles. So, in 1976, Mineo moved to Los Angeles to continue playing his part. It was a decision that tragically sealed his fate.
43. He Met A Tragic End
Late on the night of February 12, 1976, on his way home from his play rehearsal, Mineo encountered a dangerous situation that ultimately resulted in tragedy. While it’s still not 100% clear what exactly went down that night outside his Hollywood apartment, neighbors called the authorities when they discovered Mineo lying in a pool of blood with a wound in his heart.
Sadly, the 37-year-old star didn’t make it through the night. But right off the bat, a plethora of questions surrounded the Mineo case.
44. Someone Screwed Up The Investigation
Due to Mineo’s well-known orientation, investigators simply assumed that the attacker had been either hate-motivated or upset about an intimate relationship with Mineo. Time would prove that they made this flawed assumption without any actual evidence to back it up. The real story, however, was just as senseless…but it would take a long time to discover.
45. The Mistake Had Consequences
This initial mistake caused justice to be delayed for a long time, as investigators searched in the wrong places. They focused almost exclusively on patrons at gay bars, and even suspected Mineo’s long-time boyfriend of being the culprit. Unfortunately, the public believed the reporting of this false narrative hook, line, and sinker, too.
46. He Didn’t Get Fair Treatment
The authorities’ botched response to the Mineo case had far reaching effects. In addition to the false assumptions and finger-pointing at Mineo’s LGBTQ friends and acquaintances, some also claim that the officers never particularly cared about the case or took it as seriously as they would have if the victim had been of a different kind of background or identity.
Sadly, the mishaps of the investigation didn’t end with following false leads.
47. They Disrespected His Boyfriend
In one particularly egregious act, officers grossly mistreated Courtney Burr, Mineo’s long-term boyfriend, with whom the star lived at the time of his demise. Despite Burr being the owner of their apartment, officers did not let him return home, nor did they allow him any information on the case outside of what they already made public.
48. His Passing Had A Special Significance
If you believe in the curse against Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo’s untimely demise completes the trifecta of all three of its main stars losing their lives mysteriously at young ages. Now, the classic film doesn’t particularly need any help in exuding a unique aura. Still, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit this development adds an extra layer of spookiness to the experience of re-watching it.
49. He May Have Had A Disturbing Habit
As if the investigation wasn’t strange enough already, things took another weird twist. An unidentified tipster, referred to only as “the cat,” offered investigators a whole host of bizarre accusations about Mineo’s personal life. Not only did the informant label Mineo a heavy substance user, but they also alleged that the actor had a strange and creepy habit.
Supposedly, this habit involved seeking out young, sometimes even underaged, caucasian men of below-average intelligence and of a specific build. Then, Mineo would try to play “mind games” with them. But what really did happen to Sal Mineo?
50. The Breakthrough Came From An Unlikely Source
After more than a year of searching with no results, authorities finally apprehended a suspect named Lionel Williams, who had been working as a pizza delivery boy. At first, this development led to even further controversy. See, Williams is Black and the original witnesses who reported the incident claimed the perpetrator was caucasian.
Some accused the officers of merely trying to throw a person from a racialized background under the bus. But then a few facts came out that changed everything…
51. Justice Finally Took Place
Williams’ own wife is the one who turned him in. She’s also who ultimately revealed the incriminating details. On the night of the incident, she claimed Williams came home and announced he had “stabbed a dude in Hollywood” while robbing him. Later on, Williams realized his victim had been a celebrity. At that point, Williams apparently bragged about what he had done to some friends.
Although some of the further evidence has still never been completely proven, these facts sufficed for a judge to put Williams away for over 50 years. Mineo’s tragic end was due to nothing more than a petty theft attempt. But the debacle wasn’t over yet.
52. The False Claims Still Persist
You know you’re important when someone writers a book–or a Factinate article–about your life. But in Mineo’s case, even this did not go down without some controversy. When author Michael Gregg Michaud decided to write a 2010 biography on the late star, he shockingly discovered that much of the public continues to believe conspiracy theories about the tragedy that ended his life.
Many insist that the incident happened due to the star being gay. The author finds this particularly disappointing and cruel, since it implies some degree of responsibility on Mineo for the horrific attack that befell him. The author has since tried to dispel this myth. Given that the book became popular enough to get turned into a movie, let’s hope he had some success in doing so.
53. He Left A Meaningful Legacy
Much of what has been written about Mineo revolves around this tragedy. But despite the many misconceptions associated with that end, it’s not the end of Mineo’s legacy. People primarily remember Mineo today as an icon for the LGBTQ rights movement. He was also a pioneer in helping to normalize LGBTQ relationships and identities in the public eye.