The Switchblade Kid: The Life and Death of Sal Mineo
A Change of Pace
Between 1962 and 1964, Sal had been in the game for more than a decade and Hollywood was on the lookout for new faces. Fewer and fewer roles were being offered to Sal, and his career and financial situation began to slowly diminish. He starred in several television shows, one play that ran for only a brief period and three movies, including Escape From Zahrain, The Longest Day and Cheyenne Autumn. However, all three films failed to draw large audiences and Sal's performances received little credit.
Although his career began to lose pace, Sal found that he had more time available to discover other sides of his persona, specifically in regard to his sexuality. Sal's interest in men began to accelerate and he became involved in several low-profile homosexual relationships. During the 1960s, homosexual relationships were considered taboo, and movie stars who flaunted their diverse sexual interests in the public forum usually found they were quickly out of work. Realizing this, Sal became particularly careful about keeping his relationships with men private.
Work became scarce and Sal's finances worsened. He was forced to sell almost everything he owned to pay the bills that had quickly accrued due to his extravagant lifestyle. He even had to sell the house he bought for his family on Long Island Sound. Although Sal experienced financial dire straits, he refused to give up his love for acting.
After hiring a new Hollywood agent named Tom Korman to manage his career, Sal's deteriorating financial situation was temporarily relieved. He was offered roles in two movies during 1965, including The Greatest Story Ever Told and Who Killed Teddy Bear. The earn-out for his performances was considerable, yet the movies did little to boost his suffering career.
In fact, after starring in the film Who Killed Teddy Bear, in which he played a busboy in a sleazy discotheque who stalks his manager, played by Elaine Stritch, his reputation in Hollywood began to slide further. According to Hollywood.com's biography of Sal Mineo, following the film's release critics called it, "everything from edgy to unwatchable," even though audiences found Sal's performance brilliant. During this time, Sal sought solace in spending his money on his friends, a new home, a motorcycle and other material goods. It wasn't long before his finances were exhausted.
From 1966 to 1968, Sal faced financial ruin. For a second time he had to sell off all of his belongings and give up his home. To earn extra cash to survive he appeared in more than 10 television series, but they paid very little. Once again, he refused to allow his situation to deter him from fulfilling his dreams. Sal moved into a low rent apartment in L.A. and began planning his next comeback.
In 1969, Sal decided to turn temporarily away from acting and try his hand at directing. He became interested in a play written by Canadian-born John Herbert called Fortune and Men's Eyes. The play told the story of a man named Smitty who is imprisoned for a minor offense. While in prison, he suffers homosexual rape and degradation at the hands of other inmates, which deeply embitters him.
According to Jeffers' book, in order to earn enough money to buy the rights to the play, Sal traveled to Las Vegas and gambled the little money he had left at the casinos. He got lucky and earned enough to buy the rights. Sal began the difficult task of choosing the actors who would star in his performance.
Sal sought perfection in those who auditioned for the play and rightly so. This was his debut as a director and a possible turning point in his career. One of the actors Sal chose for the lead part of Smitty was a young, handsome 18-year old named Don Johnson, who would later go on to star in the 1980s hit television program Miami Vice. At the producer's urging, Sal played the bullying character Rocky.
In 1969, "Fortune and Men's Eyes" opened at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles. The play received encouraging reviews, especially from the gay press. But it did not appeal to everyone because of a shocking homosexual prison rape scene. Nevertheless, the play had large audiences and eventually became a hit. That same year, "Fortune and Men's Eyes" opened under the direction of Sal in New York City, but the reviews were less favorable. In less than a year the play closed.
Before long, Sal found himself back in financial woes, looking for a chance to make some additional money. From 1969 to 1975, he appeared in more than 22 television series, one other off-Broadway play called "The Children's Mass" and three films, including 80 Steps to Jonah, Krakatoa, East of Java and Escape From the Planet of the Apes. All of these endeavors gained him little attention from the critics, but allowed him to pay the bills.
During the 1970s, with little to lose and everything to gain, Sal became more open about his sexuality and his relationships. In the interview by Hadleigh, Sal admitted to being bisexual and during one interview expressed a particular interest in "all men... and a few chicks now and then." There were even rumors that Sal had had brief relationships with several Hollywood leading men, including Peter Lawford and Rock Hudson.
1976 was considered Sal's comeback year. Sal was offered the role of a bisexual burglar named Vito in a hit play called "P.S. Your Cat is Dead" written by James Kirkwood and produced by Richard Barr. Following the opening of the two-act play at Montgomery Playhouse in San Francisco, Sal received excellent reviews for his brilliant performance. Sal's determination saw him through life's rough spots and his career was on the verge of taking off again. However, fate would intervene.
After many successful runs, the play moved to the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles several miles from Sal's West Hollywood apartment. Jeffers writes that, at about the same time, Sal obtained the financial backing to direct what would be his first movie, called McCaffrey. The pace was quickly picking up for Sal and he was happier than he'd been in years. Until February 12, 1976.
Walking home from a rehearsal of "P.S. Your Cat is Dead" at the Westwood Playhouse, Sal was attacked and stabbed to death.