The Switchblade Kid: The Life and Death of Sal Mineo
From the Bronx to Broadway
Salvatore Mineo Jr. was the third of four children born to Sicilian immigrants Salvatore Mineo Sr. and his wife Josephine on January 10, 1939, in East Harlem, New York City. The newest addition to the family was referred to as Junior and was preceded by two older brothers, Victor, born in 1936, and Michael, born in 1937. In 1943, the Mineo family became complete with the birth a little girl named Sarina.
In 1948, after years of saving, Josephine and Salvatore Mineo Sr., a skilled casket-maker who owned his own company, moved the family to a larger three-story home on East 217th Street in the Bronx, New York. It was where Sal Mineo was to spend the formative years of his childhood. The Bronx was also the one place with which he was most associated.
Following his move to the Bronx, the young Sal found it difficult to make friends. The neighborhood children either avoided or made fun of him because of his father's unusual business. Sal found acceptance from a small neighborhood street gang after he took a dare of smoking a pack of cigars. He was eventually named as one of their leaders.
At the age of nine, Sal made his first stage debut at his local parochial school where he was asked by the nuns to play the role of Jesus. According to H. Paul Jeffers' book, Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder and Mystery, he studied diligently for the part, learning the lines verbatim and developing the character he was to portray. On stage, he displayed a great deal of talent and was able to improvise to make his character more believable. To Sal's surprise, acting not only came naturally but it was something he enjoyed tremendously. It was just the beginning of his lifelong love for the art.
That same year, the owner of a dancing school spotted Sal's natural grace and good looks while he was playing sandlot baseball with friends. According to Hollywood.com's biography of Sal Mineo, the man convinced Josephine that her son could one day be on television if he were given the appropriate training. Although his mother was hesitant at first, she eventually gave in to the idea of her son attending a dancing school. Her decision was further supported by the fact that Sal was having behavioral difficulties. He had been recently thrown out of school for being involved in a fight and had also been caught stealing.
Sal was thrilled at the prospect of being on television. For several years he worked hard at learning how to dance and perfecting his techniques. Eventually, Sal's mother transferred him to another more reputable dancing school. While attending the school, he was asked to occasionally perform on the popular television program The Ted Steele Show.
At the age of 11, Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford approached Sal after seeing him dance. She asked him to recite one line, "The goat is in the yard," which he did. The line came from a Tennessee Williams play known as "The Rose Tattoo," which Crawford was producing at the time. She gave him a small part in the play paying $65 a week, where he was to reiterate the same line twice a night to audiences at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City.
This was the break Sal dreamed of, and he was filled with excitement at the opportunity of performing in a Broadway play, even if he was only going to speak one line. The play was to have a trial run in Chicago before being played in New York. Sal had to leave home for the first time in his life. According to Jeffers, he broke into tears saying goodbye as the train was departing from the station. He cried so much that Tennessee Williams, who was also traveling on the train, held him in his lap until Sal stopped sobbing.
However, the tears did not last long and Sal found happiness in performing at the theater. Eventually the play made its way back to Broadway and Sal was back on his own turf. Twice a week he took the subway train from his home in the Bronx to Broadway to perform. The good looks that propelled him onto the stage also got him into a great deal of trouble off the stage.
En route to his job he was frequently propositioned by strange men for sex or threatened by gangs traveling on the subway. He would often have to escape their advances or threats by switching trains or running through the subway in an effort to lose them. There were times when a gang of kids would catch him and beat him up and he would arrive at work bloodied and disheveled from a fight.
To ward off the predators, Sal bought a realistic toy gun, which he successfully used on several occasions. Although his trip on the subway was often frightening, he never allowed it to disrupt his work at the theater, according to writer Hans Hafkamp. He continued to act his part in the play for one year before its closing in 1952.
That same year, he acted in another Broadway play called "Dinosaur Wharf," yet only for four performances. Sal also played a small role in the television drama, which chronicled the life of ex-first lady Abigail Adams, called "A Woman for the Ages." Both experiences earned him little money and even less praise from critics.
One of Sal's big breaks came in 1952, when he won the part of an understudy for the Crown Prince of Siam in the Broadway play "The King and I" at the St. James Theater. The play starred such greats as Yul Brynner, who portrayed the king of Siam, and Gertrude Lawrence, who played the King's English teacher. This time Sal was given more lines and was even required to sing. The play provided him with the opportunity to display his unique vocal abilities. Yet, as the understudy, he only performed when the boy who played the part fell ill or went on vacation.
In the summer of 1953, Sal got his chance to play alongside Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence full time, when the boy who usually played the part went on vacation. Sal found Yul Brynner to be as intimidating as he was talented, and the boy was afraid to speak to the domineering star. One day, Sal went into Brynner's dressing room on the advice of his make-up man to discuss the application of his theater make-up. To his surprise, Brynner was welcoming, jovial and supportive of the young co-star.
It wasn't long before Brynner took Sal under his wing. Brynner taught the eager beginner how to develop his acting techniques and skills, which would help him perfect his stage performance. The advice from Brynner paid off. Sal's acting steadily improved and he was offered the part of the Crown Prince of Siam on a permanent basis. Finally, in 1954, the play "The King and I" came to a close. Fifteen-year-old Sal, with great reviews under his belt, went on the search for a new role.