The twenty years beginning in 1955 and ending in 1975 were some of the most culturally and politically diverse years in history, and reflected the most profound changes in the way we think and live our lives. The acknowledgment of teenage angst, the empowerment of teenagers as a consumer force, rock ‘n’ roll music, experimental film, civil unrest, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, sexual liberation, birth control, and recreational drugs were just a few of the issues faced by a newly enlightened public. These are the same twenty years of Sal Mineo’s tumultuous career. Not only his entertainment projects but his personal life reflected the staggering changes people dealt with each day. Anyone old enough to recall these times will be interested in revisiting the days leading to a paradigm shift like none other in the last century.
Even though Sal’s life is colored by earlier times, the story is as relevant today for young people as it was then. Coming to terms with the personal freedoms available to us, trying to take control of our lives and define ourselves in terms of our professional choices, and recognizing our true sexual natures and embracing the person we discover ourselves to be are timeless problems we all experience. And no amount of technical wizardry and invention lessen the simple, everyday problems of growing up. There’s nothing dated about young people coming to grips with who they were born to be.
Sal’s career included every aspect of show business. He worked as an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director. His career included theatre, television, motion pictures, popular music recordings, and radio. He was the original “teen idol” and became part of the lexicon of American film with his Oscar-nominated performance in “Rebel Without a Cause” in 1955. He was fifteen years old. And like the teenage pop stars of today, he, too, experienced the pressures of stardom and growing up too fast.
Sal’s numerous performances on screen as a vulnerable, loving, and defensively aggressive young man are appealing to both men and women. He did not play characters who engendered fear in his audience. Instead, his characterizations generated strong feelings of compassion and affection. “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Dino,” and “Exodus” best display his remarkable ability to project vulnerability and innocence that is sympathetic and appealing, and still be masculine with an edge of defiance. He was a teenager in the first two films, and his acting skills were unlike any others’ seen at the time. He represented a new type of young, leading man. It was an image no one else could duplicate.
Sal’s love life was as dramatic and colorful as his acclaimed performances on screen. “We met on the plane on the way to Israel to shoot ‘Exodus’ in 1960,” actress Jill Haworth explained. “Sal had flown in from America and I sat next to him on the flight from London to Tel Aviv. I was fourteen and he was twenty, and I thought he was such on old man. I didn’t have any idea who he was, but he was kind and funny, and had a beautiful smile and eyes. I had no idea how much he would come to mean to me. I certainly wasn’t expecting to fall in love with him.” Jill, who made several films for Otto Preminger and starred in the original Broadway production of “Cabaret,” lived with Sal in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and they remained close friends until his death.
In 1970, Sal cast a young actor named Courtney Burr in his San Francisco production of the play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” Soon, Courtney ended his engagement to marry a young woman when he fell in love with Sal. “I had relationships with men before, but never thought I could actually fall in love with a man,” Courtney said. “And he was the last man I thought I could ever fall in love with!” When they first met, Courtney was stunned by Sal’s appearance. “Shaking my hand was a man barely five foot eight, with well-tanned, olive skin, a horseshoe mustache worthy of Pancho Villa, long wavy black hair almost to his shoulders, an earring in his left ear, and tight purple Levis tucked into brown leather Spanish cowboy boots. He also wore a flat Spanish cowboy hat and dark glasses on his broad, obviously broken nose. I knew nothing of his career in show business, and I certainly didn’t know I was meeting the man who would spend the rest of his life with me.”
More than anything, Sal wanted to be relevant in a fast-changing world. Maybe his own sense of mortality drove him to experience every aspect of life, and to not deny himself any opportunity or pleasure that presented itself. He was willing to explore his attractions with fearless curiosity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Gregg Michaud’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and publications, including the Los Angeles Times. He is also a playwright, editor, artist, and award-winning photographer. An animal-rights defender, he is a founding director of the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles. His latest book, Sal Mineo, was released in November.
Images, from top to bottom: Sal and Jill Haworth, Las Vegas, 1964; Sal Mineo, Publicity Photo, Los Angeles, 1957; Sal and Jill Haworth, Los Angeles, 1963; Courtney Burr and Sal onstage in “Sunday in New York,” Florida, 1974; Courtney Burr and Sal onstage in “The Tender Trap,” Florida, 1975.