WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? could, if you wanted to be a jerk, make for the answer to the question “What killed Sal Mineo’s career”? This once maligned, now heralded (well, sort of, in some corners) campfest thriller certainly drove a bulldozer over the talented actor’s hopes, though the backstory consensus attributes it to industry blackballing over rumors about his sexuality. Whatever cinema v.culture cul de sacs the sad Sal story may circle, there’s little denying this 1965 creep-walk is one deranged cookie.*
“Why with everybody else – why with every slob … and not with me?”
List of Ingredients: (1) plot–a foxy yet uptight nightclub DJ is harassed by lewd phone calls. Bad stuff starts to happen and she’s let down by everyone around her. So, light on fun to begin with. She’s played by Juliet Prowse, who’s not bad, in one of the offbeat dancer’s few attempts at drama. (2) Sal, stroking his thighs, in his jockey shorts, obviously excited (this is 19-sixty-five and the guy who had been both a teeny bop fave and twice Oscar-nominee is essentially, well…wanking…right there in black & white where Wonder Bread raised Americans can see it, or at least imagine it. Then, he strips down and hits the weights! –years ahead of the ab-curve. (3) the cop investigating the perversion is TV comic Jan Murray (remember the Match Game–“he did what with his blank?”) who has it out for scum in a big way. Juliet sizes him up: “I don’t care what your problem is and I don’t care if you ARE sick. To me you’re an animal! You, with a wife and child at home… you’re a dirty, disgusting animal!” Of course, this is after he helpfully tells her—remember he’s the detective on her case—“Every scrawny broad thinks she’s the only one entrusted with the crown jewels, and then she’ll die if she loses them!” (4) Broadway legend-to-be Elaine Stritch (‘Broadway legend’ reveals audience demographic giveaway) as a tough broad who turns out to be a dyke-on-the-prowl (parlance of the day, folks: get real). Yet, it is she who console-counsels: “I never wore a bra until I was 28. And then for a fast ten minutes. Some quack convinced me it helped firm the muscles. I don’t like being fenced in. It’s a hang-up of mine”. (5) direction of the leers is courtesy of Joseph Cates (dad of Phoebe, if anyone can recall the 80s), who produced dozens of TV specials and series, co-created The Berenstain Bears and directed The Fat Spy, which I haven’t seen but now want to based on the beyond-terrible reviews. (6) script by Arnold Drake, a prolific comic book writer co-responsible for “Doom Patrol” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, which explains his grasp of real-people-talk in this movie. His other screenwriting credit was The Flesh Eaters, in case you need a tie-breaker between Citizen Kane and Casablanca. (7) the ‘happening’ dance scenes, first in the disco with the young people of 1965 being propelled by the Watusi groove; last and unforgettable, a berserk, fever-inducing frug-jam with Sal and Juliet that has enough contortion power to short-out The Great Society. (8) voyeurism, stalking, assault, murder, Sal takes his kid sister to the zoo.
The boom-wham songs composed came from Bob Gaudio, of The Four Seasons (as in “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Rag Doll”, not the hotel). Gotta love Elaine Stritch talking about why she took the part: “When they called me and asked me to do this movie, I said, ‘What is the part?’ And they said, ‘It’s 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.”
With Frank Campanella, Bruce Glover and Daniel J. Travanti (film debut, as a mute bouncer; he’d been doing TV gigs for seven years). 94 minutes of vintage sleaze, which I vicariously enjoyed as a twelve-year old (what, you wouldn’t peek at a half-dressed Juliet Prowse? what’s your problem?) and now can more fully appreciate, since the scuzz factor holds up with the stamina of bacteria.
*Mineo just finished a cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told and had banked $250,000 from his role in Cheyenne Autumn, both huge credits (that they both flopped was not his fault) as well as showy gigs on The Patty Duke Show, Burke’s Law and Combat. There’s nothing wrong with his acting in this icky flick. Good as he consistently was, he wasn’t a leading man type, so his career woes likely were a mix of timing (curse/savior of all actors), dissing from industry insiders about his bi-sexuality and maybe a dollop of the overall society displacement oddness of the mid 60s. 1965 was a much more interesting year for movie trends than is generally credited. As to Sal Mineo, his tragic and brutal murder in 1976 put an end to his dreams at 37. His killer,who bragged about it, was paroled in the 90s.