February 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Sal Mineo’s most famous death scene came at the age of 15: As Plato, a disaffected delinquent messing with guns and knives, he was shot by cops and died in James Dean’s arms in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. But Mineo’s own final scene proved equally tragic-and also premature. On Feb. 12, 1976, an assailant stabbed the 37-year-old actor to death in the garage of his West Hollywood apartment.

It was an early end to a surprisingly long career. Mineo had begun acting at 11, commuting from the Bronx to Broadway for a tiny role in The Rose Tattoo. Several TV appearances later, he hit the big screen in 1955’s Six Bridges to Cross, about the Brink’s robbery, and that year Rebel earned him an Academy Award nomination.

It proved a double-edged triumph: Mineo’s plaintive eyes and dark good looks made him a hot property, but he was typecast as a troubled teen. Relishing the idolization, he cut a few records, dissipated his sudden wealth, dominated the gossip columns — and grew into a baby-faced anomaly. Even in his second Oscar-nominated turn, as an Israeli freedom fighter in 1960’s Exodus, he seemed more adolescent than assassin, and when the ’60s spawned a new breed of discontented youth, Mineo was old hat.

He drew acclaim in 1969 for directing a graphic version of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, John Herbert’s play about homosexuality in prison, but it wasn’t enough to revive Mineo’s career. Still, ”Sal was a very optimistic guy,” remembers director Peter Bogdanovich, a friend. ”He never felt down-and-out, even when he was.” He was preparing for the L.A. opening of the play P.S. Your Cat Is Dead when he was stabbed. With no known motive or suspect, rumors spread that drugs and S&M sex in the gay fast lane led to his killing.

Fifteen months later, guards at a Michigan jail heard inmate Lionel Williams boast that he had murdered Mineo. In 1979 Williams was convicted of the crime and of 10 brutal robberies, and was sentenced to at least 51 years in prison. But a mystique still surrounds Mineo’s death — it has inspired a mystery novel and a play — partly due to an eerie set of circumstances: Dean died in his speeding Porsche a month before Rebel’s release, and when Natalie Wood drowned five years after Mineo was killed, all the rebels were gone.

Feb. 12, 1976
While The Hindenburg exploded on the big screen, Barney Miller nabbed TV viewers. Readers were hugely entertained by James A. Michener’s Centennial, and Paul Simon’s ”50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” hit No. 1 on the charts.

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