I own dozens of biographies; they're my favorite kind of book to read, and increasingly, due to the decreasing amount of time on my hands, they're becoming the dominant type that I actually get through.
The best biographies are the ones on subjects about whom I thought I knew everything, but about whom I learn something new on virtually every page.
I recently found a bio that I enjoyed in this way—Sal Mineo: A Biography (Crown, $25.99) by Michael Gregg Michaud, about the late actor and one-time teen heartthrob Sal Mineo. Mineo rose to fame as the tragic Plato in Rebel Without a Cause, briefly became a singing idol, had uneven success as a dramatic actor and was brutally stabbed to death 35 years ago today during a botched robbery while he was in the middle of a potential professional comeback.
Mineo is now something of a gay icon; he never came out (he died in 1976), but his homosexuality was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood and common knowledge among at least some of his fans.
One thing I found so compelling about Sal Mineo: A Biography was Michaud's unsensational approach, which is hard to do while at the same time confirming Mineo, who was close pals with David Cassidy, fucked Bobby Sherman.
Despite these tidbits and despite Mineo's sexual kinks (he apparently harbored a fetish for briefs and seemed to be especially attracted to barely legal/barely illegal types), his life is recounted in a firmly matter-of-fact way that starts out feeling a bit cut-and-paste in its rigorous detail but that quickly becomes diaristic. Is it possible to write someone else's diary for him? Because I felt every aspect of Mineo's life had been explored and recorded, presenting a full picture of a thoughtful, iconoclastic, troubled, loving man bursting with creativity and ambition.
In his pursuit of the whole story on Mineo, Michaud spent years persuading the late icon's two most important intimates—actors Jill Haworth (left, who created the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway and who died of natural causes last month unexpectedly) and Courtney Burr. Thanks to winning their trust, Mineo's life is captured with the help of his most important male and female lovers, and not with the breathless adulation of a fan or the judgmental cynicism of a skeptic. In that regard, it's a "bi"-ography unparalleled by any others I've read.
Mineo daringly posed fully nude in the early '60s for Harold Stevenson's The New Adam
The book is also a fascinating look at a gay man's mid-life reassessment of his purpose, and a heart-breaking reminder to leave nothing undone and to regret nothing one's done.
I reached out to the author with some questions and he kindly found the time to reply. Keep reading for the full Q&A...
Boy Culture: I’ve read James Franco (pictured) has optioned the book? Do you have any information on whether that seems to be a go, and what is your opinion on his possibly directing and/or starring in a film based on Mineo’s life?
Michael Gregg Michaud: James Franco did option the book a month after publication. I think he is interested in directing and perhaps writing the film. I don’t know if he wants to play Sal in the film. I have not met Mr. Franco.
BC: When did you become interested in Sal Mineo, and when did you decide your would write a book about him? Do you have a large personal archive?
MGM: I’ve been a Sal Mineo fan since I was a kid. There was nothing of any consequence on record about him, so I began to do a little research and decided he was the perfect subject of a biography. I was shocked that there was so little written about a fellow who earned two Oscar nominations, an Emmy nomination and won a Golden Globe and gold record by the time he was 21. I have an enormous collection of memorabilia including movie scripts, posters, lobby cards, photographs and hundreds of magazines.
BC: Mineo hasn’t endured in the public’s memory as much as James Dean, but he does seem to be remembered far more than countless other performers of his stature—what do you think it is about him that’s most responsible for keeping his name and mystique alive?
MGM: The film Rebel Without a Cause has become a classic American motion picture that defined teenage angst in the mid 1950s. Sal’s remarkable portrayal of a young man, virtually abandoned by his family and left to his devices, was appealing to both girls and boys at the time. His character’s fear and defensive aggression, and his need to find a family of his own, represent timeless human issues. The film is still as relevant today as it was in 1955.
BC: Which of his performances would you say are the most underrated or most unfairly forgotten, and are there any you think are pretty inarguably bad?
MGM: His work in the films Dino and The Gene Krupa Story is excellent and underrated. Some of his best television work was on the Studio One episode of “Dino," and his three appearances in the series Combat in the early 1960s. If you asked Sal, he would probably say his Disney film Tonka is forgettable.
BC: I was fascinated by the seemingly endless projects Mineo participated in that you chronicled, from stage to TV to movies, many of which I’d never heard of. Are some of his TV performances and appearances lost forever? Were there any you were unable to see that you particularly wished you could have unearthed? Is there any footage of him performing in dinner theatre or any of his other stage performances?
MGM: With only a few exceptions, most of his live television appearances in the 1950s are lost. I tried to see everything Sal did—whatever I was able to find. I would like to have seen his earliest live television appearances. To my knowledge, there is no existing footage of Sal on stage.
BC: I felt your presentation was very matter-of-fact—not a lot of extrapolating and psychologizing. Was that a conscious decision?
MGM: It was a conscious decision. I didn’t want to judge him or his choices. I tried to present his story in a reportorial manner, and allow the readers develop an opinion of their own.
BC: The amount of intimate details you were able to ferret out is remarkable. Some old-school fans might resent hearing about his obsession with Jockey shorts, for example, but why did you make sure to include this kind of info? What do you think it adds to what is undoubtedly the final word on this man and his life?
MGM: Although the public knew Sal as a film star, I wanted to paint a picture of him as a human being with the same fears, hopes, strengths and weaknesses as anyone else. His life was a fascinating journey, not unlike the journeys all of us experience. He experienced life to the fullest with determination and optimism. It’s not the adversities life hands us that define our lives, but how we handle the problems we face.
BC: Your books seems to say that Mineo really didn’t have any early same-sex experiences; his first would have been with a hairdresser in preparation for a liaison with Bobby Sherman. Are you confident Mineo was that late of a bloomer, despite his proximity to other gay and bisexual stars on movie sets?
MGM: Every person explores their sexual impulses when they are ready, and not when other people think they should. Sal was born into a devout Catholic, old-school Italian family. Homosexuality was something never talked about, and most often denied. When Sal worked in Hollywood with James Dean, he was 15 years old. Dean was involved with another man, and nothing happened—sexually—between Sal and Dean. It makes good copy, but it just didn’t happen. After talking with many of his friends, and the four people who knew him best as an adult, I’m certain he didn’t explore his homosexual urges until the time described in the book. Looking at where he found himself at that time, admitting to and exploring his sexual urges was just another step in emancipating himself professionally and personally.
BC: The Mineo family seemed loving and supportive of the actor, and his mother’s early financial decisions seemed more naïve than malicious. But by the end of the book, they definitely did not come off well. Were surviving members reluctant to be involved in the book? Do you think you can firmly place the blame for Mineo’s financial woes the last 10 years of his life on the mistakes of his mother? Do you think a family’s mismanagement of their minor child’s monies is a terribly common thing in Hollywood?
MGM: I believe Sal’s mother acted on his behalf with good intentions. But she was not a savvy businesswoman, and her naïve mistakes cost Sal every penny he had earned by the age of 21. An adult must take responsibility for their own life and decisions, of course, but Sal never learned how to manage money as he relied entirely on his mother. It took him years to pay the back taxes that had accrued due his mother’s management. He loved his father and sister dearly, and maintained good relations with them. He and his brother Michael had a falling out. Sal’s brother Victor had his own life and family to support. Sal loved his mother, but his relationship with her gradually became more distant as the years passed. This issue of family mismanagement of a minor child’s income in Hollywood is very common still, and often written about in current publications.
BC: How did you persuade Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr (pictured in a stage performance with Mineo at left) to trust you with so many personal (and illuminating) details of their experiences with Mineo? How did you find working with them?
MGM: I reached Courtney first. He lives near me in Los Angeles. Though he was very reluctant, we met several times. I explained I was not writing a murder mystery book, I wanted to write a book about the life and career of a very under-appreciated actor. Jill was more difficult to reach. A mutual friend provided me with her phone number in New York and slowly began to chat on the phone. Courtney, a long-time friend of Jill, also spoke with her and encouraged her to talk freely so they could "set the record straight" before it was too late. A story like this has never been told. We have an inside view of a very successful and critically acclaimed movie star, told from the points of view of his two lovers; one female and one male. Both Courtney and Jill were brave, forthcoming, painfully honest, funny and very, very generous with their time and memories.
BC: Were there many Hollywood figures who refused to speak with you, or had negative impressions of Mineo?
MGM: There were a few people who refused my requests for an interview, but for the most part, people were open, helpful and anxious to talk about their friend. It was very interesting that not one person had an unkind word to say about him. He was professional and easy to work with. He was a generous and very loyal friend. Everyone commented on his humor and charm.
BC: For me, the most fascinating part of the book was the end of Mineo’s life—he seemed to be on his way toward recovering from a mid-life slump with Fortune and Men's Eyes and P.S. Your Cat is Dead...or about to plunge into complete obscurity. Knowing him as well as you do after your research, and knowing what we know about the entertainment biz, which way do you think it would have gone for him? What kinds of things do you imagine he might have done in the '70s, '80s and beyond?
MGM: When he was killed, Sal was at a good place in his life. He was happy and peaceful with himself as a human being, and he was excited by the prospects of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead going back to Broadway, and his first film directorial assignment. From his earliest age, he was interested in writing and directing. Though his writing skills were limited, he was a gifted director. His career probably would have taken him behind the camera and he could have forged a successful professional life as a director.
BC: Do you imagine Mineo would have ever publicly come out?
MGM: The career choices he pursued were a subliminal coming out, but I doubt he would have made any bold pronouncements about his sexuality to the press. He wanted to maintain a private life, he didn’t want his lifestyle to limit his career possibilities, and he didn’t want to be anybody’s poster boy.
BC: One of he most unique aspects of the book is reading about a devoted same-sex relationship involving a major celebrity; Courtney Burr (pictured at left as he appears today) was very forthcoming with you. Do you think the movie-going public is any closer to accepting homosexuality and bisexuality from its icons? What do you think about outing, either as a political exercise or as a matter of reporting the truth about a public figure?
MGM: I don’t think movie-goers are ready for homosexual icons. There are still many film stars living double lives. Gradually, as the audience demographic changes, as more and more people are exposed to gay and lesbian characters on TV and in film, actors and actresses will be able to be who they are in public as well as in private. Familiarity with homosexual men and women, bisexuals and transgender people, is one of the most powerful and effective means of changing public perceptions. In reporting the truth about a public figure’s life, it is impossible not to write something that will offend someone. But the truth is the truth, and the easiest way to life your life is to fully live the truth of your life without regard for others think of you.
Mineo's "perverse" turn in Who Killed Teddy Bear?
BC: You say Mineo never wanted to be anyone’s poster child. But why do you think he is still a gay icon of sorts? And what attributes did he have that you think make him deserving of that title?
MGM: Any gay person who lives his/her life truthfully is a gay icon. They don’t need to be a film star or a celebrity. Their willingness to be who they are deserves our admiration. I think, in Sal’s case, if he is considered a gay icon, it has everything to do with his characterization of Plato in Rebel Without a Cause. Every gay teenager at the time recognized the fear, the vulnerability, the defensive aggression and the deep need to connect with someone that Plato experienced in the film. There was no hiding it. The film, and especially Sal’s incredible performance, stands the test of time. Plato still represents the lonely, repressed gay teenager in high school looking for love and companionship. Some things never change.