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Sal Mineo: The Switchblade Kid

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Sal Mineo: The Switchblade Kid

Thirty-five years ago today, actor Sal Mineo was found murdered in an alley in West Hollywood just as his stalled career was on the upswing. We look back at his life and work.

Born in East Harlem as the third of four children to a Sicilian coffin maker, Mineo began his professional acting career at only 11, debuting in Tennessee WilliamsThe Rose Tattoo before going on to appear alongside Yul Brynner in The King and I. He also appeared in several TV shows, landing roles by beating out the likes of Clint Eastwood.

The film that made him though, was Rebel Without a Cause. Starring alongside legends-in-the-making James Dean and Natalie Wood, Mineo played 15-year-old John "Plato" Crawford, a troubled, fatherless teen who idolizes Dean's Jim Stark. Directed by Nicholas Ray, Mineo was the last of the major players to be cast, reputedly getting the role because he reminded Ray of his own son, "but prettier." Mineo later claimed he was the first to play a gay teenager on film, a characterization nowhere overtly referred to in either the finished film or the script but a credible claim nonetheless (perhaps sensing gay overtones, a worried studio exec warned Ray that no scene showing Dean and Mineo kissing would be allowed – even though no such scene was planned or had even been discussed). Years later, Mineo claimed he had fallen in love with Dean, but didn't recognize it at the time because he was unaware of his own bisexuality.

The movie was the first major Hollywood drama to take a distinctly teenage point of view and it was a smash hit, garnering its three major stars Academy Award nominations, including a best supporting actor nod to Mineo. (The film would also later be said to be "cursed" due to the untimely deaths of its young principal actors – Dean was the first, dying at just 24, a month before the film's release.)

Teenage girls across the country were swept up in "Mineo mania" and, when Bob Hope joked in a TV appearance that there would be no school the next day because "It's Sal Mineo's birthday – all those in the Bronx can stay home," hundreds of Bronx school kids did just that. But while Rebel Without a Cause made Mineo a teen idol, its popularity also led to him being typecast as a tough but vulnerable juvenile delinquent, a role he played in Crime in the Streets, Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Young Don't Cry. People started referring to him as "The Switchblade Kid."

Mineo managed to escape the type somewhat in The Gene Krupa Story, a warts-and-all biopic chronicling drummer's descent into drug addiction and eventual hard-won redemption. In 1960 Mineo earned his second Academy Award nomination for his role in Otto Preminger's Exodus, but lost to Peter Ustinov who won for his role opposite Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.

After 1960 the roles slowly began drying up. Too old to play sensitive young hoods, and not seen as leading man material, Mineo saw his career fall into a slump. He tried but failed to get cast in Lawrence of Arabia and told a columnist, "It's a situation I've never been able to fathom. One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle, the next – no one wanted me." A critically acclaimed turn as stalker Lawrence Sherman in Who Killed Teddy Bear saw him continually cast thereafter as deranged criminals. He'd escaped one typecast only to fall into another.

Stepping away from acting, in 1969 Sal used the last of his dwindling fortunes to secure the rights for the play Fortune and Men's Eyes, which he directed on Broadway (one account has him being able to afford the rights only thanks to a lucky streak in Vegas). The drama was about a young prisoner (played by 18-year-old future Miami Vice star Don Johnson) and although it was critically well-received, some audiences were uncomfortable with an extended rape scene. The production closed after a year.

Mineo's last comeback attempt happened in 1976. Playing a bisexual burglar in a San Francisco production of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, Mineo received raves. The play ended its San Francisco run and moved to Los Angeles.

Mineo was coming home from rehearsal Feb. 12, 1976, when he was confronted by an attacker in an alley. He died of a single stab wound to the chest at 37. Eventually, a 19-year-old sometimes pizza delivery man serving time on another violation in Michigan was convicted of the murder, depicted by prosecutors as a robbery gone bad.

Among the mourners crowded into the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Mamaronek, New York, to pay their last respects to Mineo were Dennis Hopper, Desi Arnaz, Paul Newman and Natalie Wood, who would herself die under mysterious circumstances just five years later. With her death, all the rebels were gone.