Bronx-born actor Salvatore “Sal” Mineo exploded into movie stardom on impact as troubled, implicitly homosexual adolescent John “Plato” Crawford opposite James Dean and Natalie Wood in the instant and eternal Hollywood teen angst classic, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
At just 16, Mineo earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for Rebel, and five years of growing acclaim, teen idol popularity, and high-profile productions followed. In 1960, the Academy nominated Mineo again for his role in Exodus.
Those glory days, though, seemed a long way off on February 12, 1976 — the date on which Sal Mineo was murdered.
The former superstar had fallen on hard times. He had been struggling to regain his professional footing and, at last, success seemed possible, even imminent. It all ended, though, when an assailant ambushed Mineo behind the actor’s West Hollywood apartment complex and stabbed him once in the heart. Mineo cried for help and then died on the spot. He was only 37.Mineo had been returning home after rehearsing his lead role as a bisexual burglar in the darkly comedic play, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. Early word buzzed that the show could well have served as a Mineo’s comeback following years of diminishing movie and TV roles.
By the mid-1970s, it was thought, mainstream culture and alternative-lifestyle acceptance had evolved in terms of the “open secret” that many believe caused Mineo’s career slide in the first place: the fact that the actor himself was gay and, after putting up a “straight” facade for some time, had given up keeping himself in the closet.
LAPD officers, then, initially worked “the gay angle” on Mineo’s murder, theorizing that perhaps he had picked up some fatally volatile “rough trade” — i.e., thuggish predators who cruise gay spots, then often rob the men who take them home.
When that proved wrong, police tracked down known drug addicts and dealers in the area, thinking that perhaps a junkie jumped Mineo for money to get high. No leads turned up there, either.
After two years of dead ends, Mineo’s killer turned out to be Lionel Ray Williams, a career criminal who had been using a job as a pizza deliveryman at the time of the murder to commit serial robberies.Williams was already serving 57 years for 10 of those crimes in 1979, when corrections officers overheard him say he’d stabbed Sal Mineo. Police then built a case and proved that Williams was, indeed, the murderer. He ultimately received a life sentence.
Rebel Without a Cause is often talked about as a “cursed” film, with superstitious fans citing how the classic’s three dynamic leads all succumbed to unexpected and violent deaths.
James Dean — with whom Mineo was rumored to have had an affair, although Mineo denied it — died at 24 during a high-speed car accident. Dean made just three films and continues to reign as one of Hollywood’s most incandescent and enduring icons.
Natalie Wood, who transitioned from child stardom to more mature roles by way of Rebel, drowned in 1982 under mysterious circumstances. Wood had been onboard a boat with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and her Brainstorm costar Christopher Walken. The coroner officially ruled Wood’s death an accident, but police have never officially pieced together how she ended up in the water.
The murder of Sal Mineo is tragic in all the most obvious ways, including that his remarkable talent was snuffed out at so young an age … for the second time. The first occurred by way of alleged Hollywood “blackballing” against gay performers. Then, finally, Sal Mineo succumbed to the knife of a back-alley hoodlum who robbed us all of so much.
Main photo: Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, documentary video [screenshot]