In 1955, Warner Brothers released ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ starring the late film icon James Dean (1931-1955). And though the film cemented Dean’s legacy in Hollywood, the actor tragically died the month before the film’s release in a violent car crash while en route to Salinas, California. In death, Dean became the poster boy for the new sense of rebellion sweeping across America. In the film, he was joined by actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who played the role of Judy and Sal Mineo (1939-1976) in the role of Plato. The film was a hit and is considered a classic. The enormous success enhanced the careers of the three stars and Mineo quickly became one of Hollywood’s hottest new stars. The Italian kid from the Bronx had arrived with charming good looks and acting skills to match. For the next twenty-one years, he would leave his mark on Hollywood and television before his tragic departure on February 12, 1976. In just thirty-seven years, he had lived what could be considered for some, a lifetime. I knew of Mineo before reading this book but there was much about his life that I was completely unaware of. This book came up as a recommendation and I decided to see for myself, why Mineo is still revered.
Author Michael Gregg Michaud presents the story of Mineo’s life, based on meetings with his former lovers, friends and interviews Mineo gave during his career. The story begins in the borough of the Bronx in New York City where Salvatore, Sr. and Josephine Mineo welcome their youngest son Salvatore, Jr. into the world on January 10, 1932. As we see in the book, from an early age Mineo was a performer and it was destined that he would later make it to Hollywood. But before the film industry came calling, he was a young kid in an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in the city that never sleeps. Michaud takes us back in time to the early 1930s post-depression. The Mineo family story highlights the challenge faced by many immigrants making a life in America then and even today. The struggles and successes of Salvatore, Sr., are a prime example of the attainability of the American Dream. He and his wife do whatever they can for their children and Sal would need and benefit from their never ending support.
The story moves along as a typical biography until Sal is offered a role on Broadway at the age of eleven. As the roles start to come in, the pace of the book picks up as we follow Sal along his path to stardom. Guided by his mother Josephine, he climbed up the ladder to stardom. Michaud wisely inserts Sal’s own words which gives the appearance that he is telling the story along with Michaud. The book does not come off as simply a collection of facts. By the time Sal made to Hollywood, his life took twists and turns that no one could have ever anticipated. Michaud covers it all brilliantly and tells Sal’s story in a way that keeps the pace of the book moving just right and at no point did my attention wane nor did I ever feel that Michaud had strayed off track. The book is focused and stays on point.
One surprise that I did find in the book was the topic of Mineo’s sexuality, of which I had very little prior knowledge. The revelations are eye-opening and even shocking considering the time period in which Mineo lived. However, he was undoubtedly a free spirit and Michaud captures it in the story. Readers that are more on the reserved side with regards with sex might find the book a bit of challenge to read. While there are no graphic details of sex provided, it does feature prominently as Sal matures in manhood. The idea of normal becomes subjective and it is up to the reader form their own opinion about Sal’s adventures. I can say that as I read the book I was reminded of the novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ by James Baldwin (1924-1987). The author here offers no personal opinion and rightfully remains neutral. He is simply telling Mineo’s story and does it showing both the star’s bright side and also his dark side.
As to be expected, other Hollywood stars make an appearance in the book including Yul Brynner (1920-1985), Jill Haworth (1945-2011) and Don Johnson. The story begins in the Bronx, but as Sal moves through life, we follow him to California, France and even London as he searches for the next big project. There are highs and lows, which show just how difficult it can be in Hollywood to stay relevant. Michaud addresses Sal’s inability to get work through the words of those who knew Sal best and Mineo’s words on why he believed Hollywood was not knocking on his door. Today we call it typecasting and it is a vicious cycle many actors work hard to avoid.
As we approach 1976, you can feel that something is about to change in Sal’s life. His casting in ‘P.S. Your Cat is Dead‘ after two prior auditions brightened his spirits. On February 12, that spirit was dimmed when the lives of Sal Mineo and Lionel Williams intersected and changed history. Michaud discusses the crime, the investigation and the trial that followed. However, it is not an exhausted analysis of the legal proceedings but rather a summary of what happened after Sal’s death with regards to the law and his family. The encounters between Sal’s family and Courtney Burr are tense and telling. Mineo was quite open about his sexuality and Burr had an intimate role in Sal’s life. But incredibly, Mineo was never officially “out of the closet” . And he was not the only star with a voracious sexual appetite as many of us know. The tales of Hollywood sexual scandals are endless. And I think back to my father who has always said “they don’t call it tinsel town for nothing son”. Sal was free, open and lived with no regrets. That is a lot more than many of us can say for our own lives at times.
Michael G. Michaud has written what I believe is the definitive biography of Sal Mineo. It is an incredible story with a sad ending. A star was taken too soon but this book ensures that along with his films and television appearances, that Sal Mineo is never forgotten. Had he lived, we can only guess as to where his career would have taken him. But regardless, he was and is still considered one of the greats from a pivotal time in the history of Hollywood. He is gone but certainly not forgotten. Great book.