SAL MINEO ASKS WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR?
In 1960, matinee idol Tony Perkins, who was very popular with teenage audiences, decided to shake up his image and starred as psychotic killer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece suspense thriller, Psycho. Perkins was excellent as the unbalanced murderous motel owner winning raves from the critics and he achieved his goal to be taken seriously as an actor.
Trying to duplicate his success and shake typecasting, a few teen idols followed suit in the Sixties trying to stretch their range. Unfortunately, lest for Tuesday Weld playing a deranged cheerleader who out psychos co-star Tony Perkins as an arsonist in Pretty Poison (1968), most received dismal reviews in box office disappointments ala Troy Donahue in My Blood Runs Cold.
With Who Killed Teddy Bear? Sal Mineo set out to prove to producers that there was more to him than playing the ethnic friend and could essay the leading man. He garnered good reviews but the film wound up playing 42nd Street grind houses. At the time the movie failed but due to Mineo baring his muscular torso in a number of scenes the film has become a cult classic in gay circles especially since the sexual orientation of its star was always in question.
Sal Mineo was one of the most popular juvenile actors of the late Fifties and despite his two Academy Award nominations, he was not able to progress to more mature lead roles in the Sixties much to his frustration. By 1964, he still was only able to land supporting roles as part of all-star ensemble casts such as John Ford’s western Cheyenne Autumn playing a mute Indian (in a huff the director cut all his lines when forced by Warner Bros. to cast Mineo) and George Stevens’ biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) giving a touching performance as Uriah a crippled young man Jesus (Max Von Sydow) heals and who later is present when Jesus summons Lazarus from the tomb.
So it is no surprise Mineo jumped at the chance to play a sexual deviant busboy in the low-budget Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965). However if he thought by taking this role would shake the rumors of his homosexuality (one of the reasons Hollywood seemed to have closed the door on his career) he was sorely mistaken.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? was the first movie to go before the cameras by Phillips Productions for release by Magna Pictures, the same outfit that distributed Electronovision’s Harlow starring Carol Lynley. The film was shot in black-and-white for a nourish feel in the winter of 1965 with exteriors on location in New York City and interiors at the Hempstead Studios on Long Island. It was directed by Joseph Cates (a well-known TV producer and director) from an original story and screenplay by Arnold Drake whose most notable screenwriting credit was The Flesh Eaters (1964).
The movie was produced by Everett Rosenthal an attorney who was the executive producer of a few TV series in the Fifties including Treasury Men in Action and Decoy. Teddy Bear was his first feature film. Recalling how he and Joseph Cates chose the lead players he commented, “We thought Juliet Prowse’s personality would be just right for the women’s role…she had a key scene in which she had to do a dance. You can’t find a better dancer than she is.” He went on to say that Sal Mineo was cast because “he’s a fine, sensitive actor who was anxious to play the role because it’s so unusual.” He also needed the money—desperately!
Shooting on the streets of Manhattan’s Times Square in the early morning hours caused a story of its own. Sal Mineo shared with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen that when filming the scene of his character being chased by two actors playing police officers who begin firing their weapons, three cab drivers blocked Mineo’s escape driving right up the sidewalk. This caused him to tumble and another bystander threw himself on top of the startled actor shouting, “Don’t shoot. I’ve got him. The boy is hurt, he won’t get away.” Director Joseph Cates kept the cameras rolling and decided to keep this unexpected footage in the movie paying his “unexpected” actors for their performances.
Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse were professional and got along very well during the shoot—perhaps too well. Prowse had to dispel rumors about a supposed love affair between her and Mineo but did find her leading man to be “a very good little actor.”
Remembering Who Killed Teddy Bear? when it played at New York City’s Film Anthology in early 2010, Elaine Stritch commented in the Village Voice that the part of Marian was described to her as “’A lesbian who runs a discotheque [and has a crush on] Juliet Prowse and is strangled with a silk stocking by Sal Mineo on East End Avenue.’ Nobody turns a part like that down…I enjoyed it very much. I liked all the people I worked with, and it was a nice experience.” As for Sal Mineo, she opined that he was “a good guy and a hell of an actor.”
The homoerotic Who Killed Teddy Bear? is equal opportunity exploitation as both Sal Minoe and Juliet Prowse are treated as sex objects in this tale set in the gritty milieu of New York City’s Times Square. Singer Rita Dyson sings the haunting title song over the opening credits which end with a little girl holding a teddy bear as she falls down a flight of stairs. Right from the start of the movie, you know you are in for a lurid ride. A faint light reveals the muscular torso of a young man wearing a pair of tight white briefs (back then on screen men’s underwear was exclusively baggy boxer shorts) reaching for a phone where he makes an obscene call to a woman while fondling his chest. The receiver of the unwanted attention is pretty independent Nora Dain an aspiring actress working as a DJ in an upscale discotheque run by a no-nonsense Lesbian broad named Marian Freeman (Elaine Stritch). At work Nora is harassed by a middle aged drunk who won’t take no for an answer and when he is accidentally killed by the club’s bouncer she meets detective Lt. Dave Madden (Jan Murray) who is obsessed with sexual deviants after failing to solve the sadistic murder of his wife. Could either of them be her stalker? Or is it the sweet busboy Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo)?
Unfortunately Mineo is off the screen for about fifteen minutes (that’s fourteen minutes too long) as Nora and Madden get acquainted, argue, and flirt. After a mutilated teddy bear turns up in her apartment, Nora then agrees to stay with the detective and his daughter. The audience sees someone watching them through binoculars and when the Peeping Tom puts them down to light a cigarette Lawrence is revealed to be the stalker. Timid at work, he is stern at home to his brain damaged younger sister who took a fall down the stairs years earlier after watching him make love to a woman. Throughout the remainder of the movie Mineo’s Lawrence is either shirtless or clad in tight jeans revealing a big package and very cute butt as he trolls the dirty book shops and grind house movie theaters. He is cool to Nora when he runs into her and the detective at the zoo with his sister the next day. Later than night Marian exits Nora’s apartment wearing the girl’s fur coat after being asked to leave for making unwanted advances. Thinking it is Nora,Lawrence chases after the fleeing Marian who ducks into an alley way. They struggle and Lawrence strangles his boss with her silk stocking after he realizes his mistake.
A pent up Lawrence (riddled with guilt feelings for his sexual urges) goes to the gym to pump iron as fans are treated to many shots of shirtless Mineo lifting weights. Even more enticing is Mineo clad in a tight Speedo leaving nothing to the imagination as Lawrence goes for a swim where he runs into a bikini-clad Nora. As she drones on about her unsuccessful acting career, the demented boy fantasizes of frolicking in the pool with her.
Later at work when everyone has gone home, she tries to teach Lawrence how to Wa-tusi after he puts down the club’s patrons. Nora’s shimmying body (Prowse excels in this scene demonstrating what ‘60s go-go dancing is really all about) becomes too much for the sexually frustrated boy who attacks her but she is saved by Lt. Madden who has figured out that the busboy was the caller.
Not surprisingly due to its subject matter, critics of the day were deeply divided on Who Killed Teddy Bear? The Los Angeles Times critic Margaret Harford commented, “Suspense builds tightly, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the viewer.” Judith Crist on the other hand found it to be “positively the worst picture ever produced. By no means should any person under 60 see it.”
Who Killed Teddy Bear? did not help Mineo’s stature with Hollywood producers despite his effective performance and had the adverse affect. He commented, “I found myself on the weirdo list.” He remained off the big screen until 1969 when he found himself supporting country singer Wayne Newton making his film debut in the schmaltzy 80 Steps to Jonah and playing Rossano Brazzi’s son (two divers) along for an expedition to find sunken treasure in Krakatoa, East of Java set in 19th century Dutch West Indies and starring Maximilian Schell and Diane Baker. To pay his bills, Mineo admitted he took any role he could on TV at the time and was reunited with Juliet Prowse in an episode of her short-lived sitcom Mona McCluskey. Mineo’s career was on the upswing in the mid-Seventies due to his performance in and direction of the hit controversial play Fortune and Men’s Eyes but it was cut short when he was murdered in the carport of his West Hollywood apartment complex in 1976.
Unlike My Blood Runs Cold, which remains just a bad Troy Donahue movie, Sal Mineo’s turn as a sexually deranged young man in Who Killed Teddy Bear? has gained in stature over the years and is a bona fide cult oddity.
©Tom Lisanti 2012. Sal Mineo photos by Kenn Duncan/©The New York Public Library