Here's How 'Rebel without a Cause' Sal Mineo Tragically Died
As a “remarkable actor” during the 1950s and like the rest of his co-stars, James Dean and Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Sal Mineo suffered a violent and unusual death.
On the eve of his acting comeback, Sal got stabbed to death, but it took years before his assailant got brought to justice.
Michael Gregg Michaud, author of Sal Mineo: A Biography, told CNN that in spite of his natural acting talent and fame, few facts regarding his life panned out.
"He was a remarkable actor. He was a new kind of actor. He was able to project a vulnerability," Michael said. "I could really never find anything accurate about his life, which was very interesting to me. He had a remarkable career, but there were no books (about him). There was nothing really about Sal."
On the night of February 12, 1976, the then-37-year-old Sal returned to his West Hollywood apartment after a play rehearsal. After he parked his Chevette while walking to his apartment, a man jumped out of the bushes and stabbed Sal to death.
Los Angeles detectives found $21 in Sal’s coat, and not even his car keys got stolen, which led the authorities to believe that Sal got murdered for a motive other than burglary.
When they discovered male pornographic magazines at Sal’s apartment, the detectives surmised that his death stemmed from a relationship gone wrong.
The autopsy revealed evidence of drug use and found that he died of a single stab wound to the heart. But detective’s investigations into a sex crime ran cold until a woman named Theresa Williams came forward 16 months later.
She told investigators that her husband, Lionel, killed Sal with a hunting knife after he attempted to rob him. Shortly after Theresa’s statement to the police, she committed suicide.
A dig into Lionel’s past revealed a hardened criminal, but he didn’t fit the original description by witnesses of an Italian or Hispanic male, as he is African American.
With no evidence against Lionel, the detectives caught a break after he got overheard bragging about how he killed Sal to other inmates.
In January 1978, he got extradited to Los Angeles from Michigan where he faced murder charges. He got convicted of 10 robberies and second-degree murder and sentenced to 51 years in prison.
Since Sal died, his personal exploits somewhat overshadowed his talent and achievements as authorities explored all avenues in solving his murder. "He really needs the attention that Natalie (Wood) and Jimmy Dean have enjoyed since 1955. Sal belongs right up there with them on that pedestal," Michael said.
Born on January 10, 1939, in East Harlem, New York City, Sal spent most of his childhood in the Bronx. At 9-years-old, Sal landed the first role he auditioned for in “The Rose Tattoo,” by Tennessee Williams, which received a Tony for the best play in 1951. The following year Sal got cast in “The King and I.”
In “Rebel without a Cause,” Sal played the role of Plato alongside James Dean’s Jim Stark, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination, and a second for “Exodus.” He starred in dozens of television shows and feature films like “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “The Longest Day.”
But after Sal got persuaded to launch his singing career during the height of his success in the late 1950s, his status changed from Hollywood heartthrob to popstar. His “leather jacket motorcycle” allure wore off during the 1960s, and top roles kept eluding him.
A big disappointment for Sal came when Al Pacino got the role of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” as Michael Michaud said Sal, as a Sicilian immigrant’s son, felt that the part suited him perfectly.
During Sal’s early 20s, his sexual preferences attracted attention. He had been involved with many women, including his “Exodus” co-star, Jill Haworth, but then he started to pursue men.
Courtney Burr III, the actor with whom Sal shared the last six years of his life, told CNN that Sal felt comfortable with his sexuality.
"(Sal) got to know who he really was and to own himself and to be an authentic individual," Courtney said. "I saw a man whose life was definitely going up in terms of self-awareness and appreciation for what he represented as an artist."
While Sal’s murder got solved, his “Rebel without a Cause” co-star Natalie Wood’s death remains unsolved. She died on November 29, 1981, after she drowned during a boat trip t Santa Catalina Island with her husband, Robert Wagner.
Because Natalie didn’t like being in the water, and couldn’t swim, her death by drowning came as a surprise. Other contributing factors led many to ask what happened to Natalie Wood on the day she drowned.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
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