Book Review: Sal Mineo: A Biography (Michael Gregg Michaud)

I had intended to review Sal Mineo: A Biography, the new book by Michael Gregg Michaud released in November 2010 by Crown Archetype, a lot earlier, but things kept getting in the way. I decided that if I didn’t do it by today – what would have been Sal’s 72nd birthday – I was never going to get it done. Part of the reason why it’s been such a struggle to get my words out when it comes to this book is because, as I’ve mentioned in passing, Sal Mineo is my favorite actor. Yes, THE Favorite Actor, the one I love above all others, living or dead. (Don’t believe me? Check out my college dorm room.) As someone new to the classic film blogging scene, I’ve been a bit embarrassed to admit this. First of all, Sal is mostly associated with the 1950s, a decade that doesn’t get a lot of love or respect amongst classic fans. Secondly, there’s that whole Teen Idol bit that he had going for a while, which makes me afraid that people won’t take him seriously as an actor, and therefore won’t take me seriously as a classic film blogger. But that’s exactly why I do need to talk about Sal, to make sure he’s remembered as a legitimate actor – the boy got TWO Academy Award nominations, for goodness’ sake! – and to make people take a second look at his body of work. Some of it’s pretty cheesy, yes – and what’s wrong with that? – but some of his better performances have gone largely overlooked. By no means do I think he was a perfect actor – and that is, I think ultimately, what I like best about Sal. He had a vulnerability, an eagerness to learn and to improve his craft. You can see him grow stronger as an actor as he ages on screen. Plus he was funny, sensitive, self-deprecating, adorable, and had an intensely interesting personal life. So yes, I am officially coming out of the closet as a Sal Mineo Fangirl. I may be the only one, but that’s fine by me – everyone needs an obsession.

I had been anticipating Michaud’s book for several months prior to its release – half anticipating, and half dreading. You see, despite what Michaud likes to claim in interviews, this isn’t the first seemingly-legitimate biography of Sal Mineo to hit the shelves. I have treasured my copy of Sal Mineo: His Life, Murder, and Mystery by H. Paul Jeffers (2002, Running Press) ever since I bought it; in fact, I’ve read and referred to it so many times there are actually pages falling out. I was apprehensive about having a new account of Sal’s life, partially because I felt like everything I knew about Sal came from that first book. However, Jeffers’ biography is far from a literary masterpiece; written by someone who knew Sal on a physical, if not intimate, level, much of it reads like hilarious Mary Sue fanfiction (“basking in the sight of his unruly black hair, the bedroom eyes, imperfect nose, muscled arms and torso, narrow hips, and bewitching smile”), and Jeffers relies a little too much on dubious Hollywood sources like Boze Hadleigh (although Michaud is guilty of this too). As the release of Michaud’s book grew closer, my apprehension turned to giddy eagerness. I bought the book the day it came out and finished it the day after.

What I found in Michaud’s Sal Mineo is a serious, well-written, thoroughly-researched account of Mineo’s life that even I, who thought I knew everything about the subject, gleaned a lot of surprising new information from. The book contains a deftly-woven mix of facts and personal anecdotes derived from contemporary articles and interviews with the actor, as well as the accounts of Sal’s close personal friends and acquaintances whom Michaud took the time to locate and endear himself to. Best of all, it is not at all derivative of any previous work. Rather than expound upon or contradict Jeffers’ biography, Michaud instead presents us with an entirely new perspective through his use of previously-unpublished information and all-new anecdotes. Jeffers’ work is like the pulpy “unauthorized” paperback account; Michaud’s is a serious and dignified examination of the all-too-brief life of Sal Mineo and the people he loved. The two books compliment each other nicely.

What’s especially remarkable about Michaud’s book is the unprecedented access he was granted to the recollections of two of Sal’s closest companions, who here collaborate for the first time with a Mineo biographer. Jill Haworth (who tragically passed away just a week ago) was the female love of Sal’s life from 1960 to 1964; Courtney Burr III was the male love of his life from 1970 until Sal’s death in 1976. It cannot be overstated how valuable the contributions of these two people were to this work, especially given that both of them have been very reluctant in the past to speak on the subject of Sal Mineo and incredibly wary of anyone who asked. While this does lend a loving, personal quality to the book, it also has its negatives. Later chapters become tedious as each movement of both Sal and Courtney Burr are recounted. Furthermore, while Michaud does a marvelous job of piecing together Sal’s life before he knew Jill Haworth, the book ends up very heavily biased against Sal’s family. Perhaps this was Michaud’s revenge against the Mineo clan for not answering his calls (assuming he made an attempt to contact them), or his reward to Burr for his cooperation. While I understand that the religious beliefs of the Mineo family caused them to disapprove strongly of Sal’s later life and his relationship with Burr, that’s their prerogative and their right, and I don’t feel it was fair or particularly professional of Michaud to condemn them for it. Sal’s sister Sarina and brother Victor have spoken lovingly of their brother in previous biographical pieces on Sal, and his niece Samantha (who never knew her uncle) has voluntarily spoken on behalf of the family in the past. Why were these people not consulted for the special point of view they could have offered? It left me feeling as though the book was missing an important chunk of information, and the nasty insinuations Michaud makes about Mineo’s mother Josephine at the very end left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

Overall Michaud’s Sal Mineo is a rich and engaging look at a brilliant artist and sensitive soul who was taken from this earth much too soon. Any nit-picky gripes held by die-hard fans (of which, let’s admit, there are few) are far outweighed by the wealth of knowledge and insight into Mineo’s life and work Michaud has provided us, with the invaluable contributions of Haworth and Burr. No matter my personal qualms with some of his journalistic choices, I am grateful to Michael Michaud for giving this overlooked actor the serious biographical treatment he has so long deserved.

This review is dedicated to the lovely and talented Jill Haworth (August 15, 1945 – January 3, 2011), who made her film debut at the tender age of fourteen alongside Sal Mineo, Paul Newman, and Eva Marie Saint in Otto Preminger’s 1960 epic Exodus. She went on to originate the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway in 1966. She died of natural causes at her home in New York last Monday at the age of 65. Thank you for everything, Jilly. You will be missed.

17 Comments

  1. Great review! I think it’s a shame Michaud showed such bias against Sal’s Family, it discredits his work imo. In any case, sounds like a good book.
    PS DID YOU HEAR THAT JAMES FRANCO BOUGHT TEH RIGHTS TO THIS!!!1? hahahaha

  2. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  January 10, 2011

    I am sad to say I never saw your Sal wall! I LOVE EET. I would do a similar thing on my wall with Scott Bakula, but then Sean would move out. Decisions, decisions.

    • It was sophomore year and a really ridiculously epic endeavor. Also probably one of the greatest things I accomplished in college, besides my thesis and that time we dressed up like Ken Burke for Halloween.

  3. Love the Sal wall! Is that a Rasterbator project? I had a smaller one of Rock Hudson in my last apartment and it is freakin hard to get it lined up that perfectly. Well done!

    • YES, it IS a Rasterbator project, and it took FOREVER. I printed out each page individually and then cut off all the white borders so it would line up perfectly. It was an 8’x4′ labor of love.

  4. bill

     /  January 26, 2011

    I am so totally impressed by you Sal Mineo dorm room wall that I would declare my undying love for you were it not for my even more intense undying love for Sal Mineo! At least I’m happy to know my obsession is relatively minor when compared to that of others.

    BTW, your wall photo is my favorite SM photo.

    • Thank you Bill! I was very proud of it when I put it up. The worse part was, at the end of the year I had to take the whole thing down.

      Sal Mineo deserves obsessive fans! The more the better!

  5. bill

     /  January 26, 2011

    PS. I like the Natraj as well.

  6. Sara Alvaro

     /  June 25, 2011

    The book is very inaccurate from the beginning, and relies heavily on quotations from such stellar sources as Photoplay and Silver Screen. What happened to fact checking.?

  7. Sara Alvaro

     /  June 25, 2011

    Certainly the whole segment about “The Rose Tattoo.” He was known as Salvatore then (I have the Playbill), and there were 3 children in it, not 12 or 14 as the author says. After a while I stopped counting flaws and became bored. But the pictures are excellent.

  8. Bill

     /  June 25, 2011

    I just reread the Rose Tattoo segment. When Michaud writes, “Sal joined fifteen other boys on stage,” he was referring to the audition for the part. Not an actual performance of the play.

    As for whether he used the name “Sal” or “Salvatore” at the time, I don’t see where Michaud states anything about that one way or the other.

    • Regardless, allegedly being mistaken about a few unimportant details on a play Sal did when he was twelve years old hardly discredits the whole book as “very inaccurate,” in my opinion.

  9. Bill

     /  June 25, 2011

    Especially when the allegations arise from careless reading.

  10. SaraSean

     /  January 20, 2014

    I know I am coming upon this rather late. I’m a Sal fan girl too :-) I came across him pretty recently though, and have been trying to find as much information on him as I can get my hands on. I keep coming up disappointed. Not because there isn’t any *info* out there, but a lot of things on him seem to be jagged and tarnished. I started reading this bio onGoogle books but I admit I am dreading reading the whole thing. He has 200 pages, I read, on just Sal’s sex life alone which paints him predatory, pedophiliac from the impression I get from reviewers and I have mixed and irritating feelings on that.

    Besides for my personal feelings on how these “facts,” I feel that when a biography is written about a poignant figure we also need insight as to *why* this figure thinks, feels, and acts in the way they do. We have tons of biographies rulers and conquerors that give us strong insight, so why not on this very talented and seemingly sweet actor?

    Just drawing my “own conclusions” from the “facts” he presented and thinking, “Oh he was human like all of us” isn’t enough for me regarding Sal. I am tired of seeing him painted as just a sexual deviant who wanted to jump into bed with every young, pretty face he came across. Something inside just isn’t BUYING that limited portrait being painted of Sal for the past several decades and I feel like this biography does absolutely nothing to show otherwise, except support that underlying pariah mentality some people saw him as. A little more insight and psychology would be awesome to read. I feel sad we may not get it though, because so many people who knew him are not around. But a few still are, around. Also, I don’t like that his family will be portrayed as some villains in his life either.

    Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find a really good bio of him someday and have detailed accounts from those who knew him. Along with more accounts from Burr, I wished I had the means to ask Eli Wallach and David Cassidy some questions about what they observed Sal was like. Wallach is very old and I know worked with Sal when he was very young, but it would still be great to get his account before he’s gone. David Cassidy and Courtney Burr, it would be nice if they could tell us what parts was Sal open to them about himself? What made him tick? What was it he was looking for in life and how did he try to go about finding it? How do THEY feel when he is portrayed in a certain way? Does that ring true with the Sal they knew?

    Ugh! I’m rambling! This man must have a haunting soul or something. But yeah…I’ve become an obsessive fan girl LOL. I need to go see your Sal wall. ;-)

    Anyways, love your review, your blog and writing style. Any time you want to give us more Sal, you have an appreciation and someone who takes you seriously in me. :-) Thank you.

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