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Take Five: James Franco's 'Sal' Reveals True Sal Mineo

Tribeca Film

He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Rebel Without a Cause. At the height of his fame, he needed bodyguards to help him get through mobs of adoring fans. And, in the prime of his life, he died tragically. Not James Dean — Sal Mineo. James Franco’s recently released biopic follows the last day of Mineo's brief life.

Towards the end of his life, Sal Mineo had every right to be bitter.  The two-time Academy Award nominee had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the 1950s. Perhaps best known for his role opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Mineo at one point needed bodyguards at airports to help him get through mobs of adoring fans. Not just an actor, the accomplished writer and singer was also selling out arenas across the country.

But by the early 1960s the roles stopped coming, and many believe this shift was due to "Sal’s" open homosexuality. 

“When people would confront him about it or ask him about it, he wouldn’t deny it,” said Val Lauren, star of the new movie Sal, directed by James Franco and now showing at the Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center.  “He’d say, ‘Look, I don’t want to be labeled as a homosexual or bisexual actor, director, writer, I’m an artist, I’m a human being, and I’m not going to pigeonhole myself for you to understand me and tell you what I am and what I’m not.’”

People that he would collaborate with and friends that he had in Hollywood stopped associating with Mineo, Lauren said. “They didn’t want to be guilty by suspicion, and he just found himself really struggling to make it — and by that I mean eating and having a roof over his head and a telephone, for that matter.”

 By the 1970s, Mineo was often couch surfing and doing dinner theater.

“But he never stopped,” said Lauren. “Whether it was a play in a 20-seat theater or in a college or a movie, or writing or directing or painting, he just never stopped… and I find that really special.”

Even on the last day of his life — which is the focus of Franco’s movie — Mineo was working on his art. We see him at the gym, working to keep his body in good shape for potential roles; we see him shopping a screenplay; and we see him at rehearsal for a play that he’d written called PS, Your Cat is Dead, which was set to open at the prestigious Westwood Playhouse. The play, which had enjoyed a successful run in San Francisco, signaled the possibility of a very real comeback.

But just two days before the play was set to open, Mineo was killed — stabbed to death in an alley near his West Hollywood apartment.

“He was considered some kind of weirdo because he was gay and when he died, the media really ran with it because they found a very interesting hook,” said Lauren. “They made this big deal that it was some mysterious homosexual-related killing, and that it was one of the johns that he was with, and he was into S&M and someone went crazy, and so on and so forth.”

In reality, it was discovered over a year later that the killer was an off-duty pizza deliveryman who used that job to case apartments. Mineo just happened to come home from rehearsal to catch the guy in the act. When he screamed, the killer stabbed him in the chest and fled.

“It was a completely random murder,” said Lauren.

While Franco’s film aims to tell Mineo’s story as honestly as possible, its focus on the final day of his life isn’t the typical biopic format.

“The movie’s very unconventional as a biopic,” said Lauren.  “Where a conventional biopic will take you through the milestones and the ups and downs and peaks and valleys of the person’s trajectory and life’s career, James’ point of view was, let’s spend that time to really be able to be a ghost on this guy’s shoulder and really sit with him and get to know him in a very intimate way.”

Lauren and Franco go back awhile.  They were part of the same theater company in Los Angeles and were frequent collaborators.

“We were kind of regarded as the Sal Mineo and James Dean of our acting school,” said Lauren. “It was kind of like a joke, I guess there was a resemblance there and we hung out a lot, and so forth.”

And when Franco booked a role in as James Dean in an upcoming film, Lauren helped him research.

“We learned a lot about Sal Mineo of course, through seeing these movies, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant and their relationship and such, and James always had kind of a special feeling for Sal Mineo, and so did I,” said Lauren.

Credit Tribeca Film
James Franco and Val Lauren behind the scenes from Sal

Soon, art would imitate life. After reading a biography on Mineo written by Michael Gregg Michaud, Franco decided to make a film. He didn’t have to look far for his lead.

“I got a text saying ‘You’re going to play Sal Mineo, cool?’” recalled Lauren. “And I just looked at it and looked at it some more, and some more and texted him back, 'Cool', and that’s how it began.”

Sal is currently showing as an exclusive engagement at the Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

“I’ve been a fan of Sal Mineo’s since I was a little kid,” said Zeitgeist Founder and Director Rene Broussard. “I think I first saw him in The Private War of Major Benjamin with Charlton Heston, and then of course, Rebel Without a Cause — I was obsessed with in my youth, although I wasn’t around when it was made. Also, I’m a gay male, so I of course was familiar with Sal Mineo as one of the very first openly gay actors in Hollywood.”

So when Broussard saw that Tribeca Films had picked up the film, he jumped at the chance to screen it.

“I called them immediately and booked it.”

For show times, visit their website,  

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