On the night of February 12, 1976, actor Sal Mineo returned home following a rehearsal for the play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. After parking his car in the carport below his West Hollywood apartment, the 37-year-old actor was stabbed in the heart by a mugger who quickly fled the scene. Police pursued all kinds of leads but assumed the crime to be the result of some sort of “homosexual motivation.” Three years later, pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams was convicted of the murder, in addition to a number of local robberies. Williams, who claimed he had no idea who the actor was at the time of the stabbing, had bragged about the murder and his wife later confirmed that on the night Mineo died, Williams had come home with blood on his shirt. He was paroled in the early 1990s.
Mineo made his initial mark in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, as Plato, a bullied teen, understandably lovestruck at the first sight of James Dean’s character. The role would earn him an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor and establish him as a major heartthrob to teenagers of the era. The next year he appeared in a small role in another Dean film, Giant. He launched a briefly successful recording career, headlined several motion pictures that played up his status as a rebel icon, and would garner another Oscar nod for 1960’s epic Exodus. The transition to adult roles would ultimately prove to be challenging for Mineo, despite his being a perceptive actor. Rumors of Mineo’s sexual orientation (he was bisexual, although many presumed he was gay), as well as his strong identity as a teen idol, made it difficult for producers and casting directors to see him as an adult leading man.
Through the 1960s and early ’70s, Mineo occasionally landed small roles in studio films like The Longest Day and The Greatest Story Ever Told and costarred in the entertainingly-deranged cult film Who Killed Teddy Bear? opposite Elaine Stritch. He found consistent work performing guest spots on television series, such as The Patty Duke Show and Combat! In 1969, he directed and starred in the Los Angeles production of the queer-themed prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes opposite a very young Don Johnson. During much of the 1960s, Mineo had been involved with actress Jill Haworth, who’d gain fame as the first Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. At the time of his murder, he’d been in a relationship with actor Courtney Burr for six years. Among his more significant achievements was posing fully nude in 1963 for Harold Stevenson’s painting The New Adam, which is now part of the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection. He remains the youngest actor to have achieved two Oscar nominations by the age of 22.
Learn more about his complicated life and the murder investigation in Michael Gregg Michaud’s definitive biography Sal Mineo. Scroll down to see photos of the handsome actor.
Photos courtesy of Michael Gregg Michaud