The Switchblade Kid: The Life and Death of Sal Mineo
On Top of the World
Rebel Without a Cause struck a cord among American teens. During the 1950s, juvenile delinquency was a major concern for parents and law enforcement agencies across the country. Many feared that aggressive teenage rebellion would lead to the eventual disintegration of traditional norms, values and of society as a whole.
The movie also depicted for the first time on film a blatant homosexual desire between James Dean and Sal Mineo. Dean, who was an admitted bisexual, encouraged Mineo to express homosexual feelings toward him during the filming in an attempt to add more depth and realism to the characters. It was believed that a relationship developed between the two off screen, but the rumor was never substantiated. Yet, there was no doubt that there was chemistry between the two actors on screen.
Years later, Sal would admit he was also bisexual but that he didn't realize his interest in men until several years after the movie's completion. According to Jeffers, when Sal was asked if he had a relationship with James Dean he was quoted as saying that if he "understood back then that a guy could be in love with another one, it would have happened. But I didn't come to that realization for a few more years, and then it was too late for Jimmy and me".
James Dean befriended Sal and Natalie Wood during the months of filming. The three were often seen together speeding away in James Dean's car to some unknown destination.
James acted as a kind of guardian to Sal and Natalie, who in turn saw him as a kind of hero. At 24, he had more years and experience in the trade and they learned a great deal from him. Sal and James were particularly close and after the movie was completed, James helped him to get his next role.
Shortly before the release of Rebel Without a Cause, Sal signed a contract to play the part of Angel Obregon II in the upcoming movie Giant, starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Filming began several weeks after the signing, in a small Texas town called Marfa. During the making of Giant, Sal acted in only a few scenes, most of which ended up on the cutting room floor. However, his disappointment with being cut out of most of the movie ended when he delightedly signed a contract with MGM to star in another film with James Dean called Somebody Up There Likes Me.
On September 30, 1955, several weeks following the completion of Giant, James Dean was killed in a car accident. Sal was devastated by the loss of his confidant and hero, and the death changed his life. Sal began taking up hobbies in which James Dean had expressed interest, including boxing, drums and weightlifting. Jeffers states that he even changed his style of acting to emulate the techniques practiced by James, popularly known as 'The Method.'
Sal was able to apply his new style of acting, which involved incorporating life experiences into the stage character's personality, in the movie Somebody Up There Likes Me. Hollywood newcomer Paul Newman played the main character, Rocky Graziano, the role that was originally designated for James Dean. According to an interview Boze Hadleigh had with Sal years later, he and Newman didn't get along during the making of the movie, although he agreed that he had the talent and looks to make it to movie stardom.
While he was filming Somebody Up There Likes Me, Sal learned that he had been nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role of Plato in Rebel Without a Cause. Sal became one of the youngest performers to have ever been nominated for an Oscar for the best supporting actor. His reputation and popularity among young Americans soared to new heights after the movie was released. Moreover, critics around the country raved about his splendid performance, calling him "sensational" and "brilliant." Nevertheless, he was passed over for an Oscar at the 28th Academy Awards.
But he refused to let this loss deter his ambition to become a great actor. By the end of 1956, he starred in more than six television dramas, including one called Dino, for which he earned an Emmy nomination. He also starred in the movie Crime in the Streets, for which he received the nickname 'The Switchblade Kid' for his performance as a bitter criminal.
The beginning of 1957 saw a different side to the teenager who usually played tough street kids on the silver screen. With the increasing popularity of rock-'n'-roll, Sal turned his attention to singing. In the summer of 1957, he appeared in a television production by Kraft Television Theater, where he performed for the first time a new song titled "Start Movin' (In My Direction)."
It wasn't long before the single became an instant hit among teenage fans. It was quickly followed by another hit single entitled "Lasting Love," which made it into the Top 40s for several weeks. However, the more popular "Start Movin'" stayed in the Top 40s and for more than 13 weeks and reached the number nine position. The albums that Sal recorded with Epic Records sold more than one million copies.
Over the years, he had several more hits with Epic Records, including, "Sal," "The Words That I Whisper," "Love Affair," "Little Pigeon," "Party Time" and "You Shouldn't Do That." Much like his acting, Sal had an undeniable talent for singing. His emotion-filled voice, which made many teenage girls swoon, made for a successful singing career. However, Sal began to miss doing what he most loved, acting.
In late 1957, Sal appeared in a couple of television programs and several popular movies, including a movie version of Dino. In the movie, Sal portrayed a bitter teenager seeking love, acceptance and revenge. His emotionally charged portrayal of the title character earned him praise from critics and movie audiences alike, which further boosted his reputation as a serious actor.
Between 1957 and 1959, Sal added five more movies and six theatrical television appearances to his growing list of credits. The movies included The Young Don't Cry, Rock Pretty Baby, Tonka, A Private's Affair and The Gene Krupa Story. During the late 1950s, Sal was reported to have earned more than $200,000 a year. It was a far cry from the $65 a week he was earning less than a decade earlier.
Although many adored the public figure Sal had become, few really knew him behind the scenes. Contrary to the hardened street kid image he often portrayed, Sal was a gentle and fun-loving person who maintained a close relationship with his family. In fact, his family helped him make decisions about his career. Throughout much of his youth, Sal's mother Josephine managed his career with the assistance of the other three siblings.
According to Jeffers, Sal's brothers Mike and Victor performed numerous jobs for him, including handling and negotiating contracts, guardians and personal assistants. Sal's little sister Sarina often helped with the flood of fans letters. However, it was Sal's mother who ran the show behind the scenes, making sure that her son took the "right" contracts for usually large sums of money.
Sal understood that he probably would not have achieved as much as he had in such a short period of time without his family. At the age of 18, he could afford to buy his family a luxurious home that stood along the shores of Long Island Sound in Mamaronek, New York. He also bought himself an apartment in New York City and rented a large house in Beverly Hills, where he often entertained the "who's who" of Hollywood.
Sal enjoyed all the good things life offered him. When he wasn't performing, he often threw himself into one or more of his many hobbies, which included waterskiing, painting, working on cars, weightlifting, racing his speed boat and playing the drums. Sal also spent a great deal of his time goofing off with his friends.
In 1960, the work pace picked up again. He signed a contract to star in what would be one of his most acclaimed roles, in the film Exodus. The movie, directed by Otto Preminger, was a screen rendition of the novel by Leon Uris about the Jewish people's struggle for the liberation of Palestine following World War II.
Sal starred as the Dov Landau, a Polish Jew on route to Palestine to create a Jewish homeland after having survived the horrors of the Nazi run Auschwitz concentration camp, only to be diverted and imprisoned by the British. Exodus was filmed almost entirely in Israel andboasted an all-star cast including Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford and Jill Hawthorn, who played Sal Mineo's love interest.
During the making of Exodus, Sal Mineo was rumored to have fallen in love with 15-year-old actress Jill Haworth, who played the role of Karen Hansen. Suspicions were confirmed when the starlet moved into his Beverly Hills home after the movie was finished.
However, the relationship was short-lived. Haworth eventually moved on to bigger roles elsewhere, leaving behind Sal. Although the relationship was brief, the two remained close friends for many years afterwards.
Following the release of Exodus, Sal's hard work was acknowledged by the excellent reviews he received. Once again, critics raved about 21-year-old Mineo's passionate performance, which earned him a second Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He was the only actor in the all-star cast of the movie to have been nominated for an award. Sal had achieved some of his best work in the making of the film and he was confident that he would win. Yet fate would prove otherwise.
Sal's hopes were dashed when he was passed over for an Oscar a second time. He knew that it was unlikely he would be nominated a third time. After Exodus, Sal's career, which had always been moving steadily upward, began to change course.