In that long ago summer of 1955, one of the hottest movies that year was the story of teenage rebellion, Rebel Without a Cause.
It starred four of the up and coming young Hollywood hopefuls.
But, as in a curse, none of the four would live out a natural life.
The first to die was the best known at the time, James Dean, who was killed in a terrible car accident in California while the film was still playing at the nation’s drive-ins in September of that year.
February 1968: Nick Adams
Thirteen years later, the second, a fine supporting actor named Nick Adams, would die at his Coldwater Canyon home on February 7, 1968.
His death was determined to be a possible suicide.
Born in 1931 as Nicholas Adamshock, the actor was the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner.
Tired of the low pay and “owing his soul to the company store,” Nick’s father Peter, loaded the family into his old car in 1936 and drove east to Jersey City, N.J. where he got a job as a janitor in an apartment building.
Nick grew up in Jersey City and was a good baseball player in high school, good enough to draw an offer from the Cardinals.
He turned it down because, in that era, minor leaguers were paid very poorly.
In 1948 when Nick was 17, he met the actor Jack Palance in New York who, along with Henry Fonda, gave the young man some good advice-take any role that offered experience.
After a year of unpaid acting, Adams hitchhiked to Los Angeles.
After about two years of very small roles, Nick enlisted in the Coast Guard in January 1952.
In the summer of 1954, while on leave, Adams auditioned for director John Ford and got a small role in the movie, Mister Roberts, one that stared Henry Fonda.
He then finished his military service, and at age 23, was able to get an experienced agent who arranged a contract with Warner Brothers.
His first film role for that studio was in Rebel Without a Cause as Chick, one of the gang led by Jim Stark (Dean’s character).
Nick Adams big break came when he signed with ABC in 1959 to star in the TV series The Rebel as Johnny Yuma, an ex-Confederate roaming the American West after the Civil War.
After 76 episodes, the show was cancelled after the 1961 season.
Nick then had the starring role in Saints and Sinners that although acclaimed by the media, lasted only for the 1962 season.
For the rest of the 1960’s, Adams’ career slowly descended until he was only able to get parts in TV episodes and low-budget films.
His marriage to the actress Carol Nugent followed the same downward spiral with separations and on again/off again divorces proceedings.
That was his situation in early 1968.
On the evening of Feb. 7, Adams’ lawyer and friend, Ervin Roeder, an ex-LAPD officer, drove to the actor’s home in Beverly Hills to check on him after a missed dinner appointment.
Finding Adams’ car in the garage, and getting no response to his knock, Roeder broke in and found the actor sitting on the floor with his back to a wall in an upstairs bedroom.
“The Rebel” was dead at age 36.
Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the same LA pathologist that had conducted the autopsy in the death of Marilyn Monroe, found enough paraldehyde and other sedatives in the body “to cause instant unconsciousness.”
Dr. Noguchi listed the immediate cause of death as accident; suicide; undetermined.
Adams left no suicide note, if, indeed, he committed suicide.
Or, not having been warned about mixing some drugs together (not really well understood by the medical profession at the time), Adams accidentally poisoned himself.
Or, as no vials of paraldehyde were ever found in the home, was Adams actually murdered.
Several authors have speculated that as the actor was planning a tell-all book about the sexual secrets of many in Hollywood, someone did not want it published.
As so often the case, the truth may never be known.
February 1979: Sal Mineo
Salvatore (Sal) Mineo, Jr. was the third of the Rebel stars to die well before his time.
Unlike so many of the other deaths in Hollywood over the years, there is no doubt that he was murdered.
But two questions remain — Was it simply the murder of a robbery victim or was his death something else?
And did the LAPD arrest the right man?
Mineo, the son of coffin makers was born in the Bronx section of New York City and grew up in that borough.
Wanting something better for her son, Sal’s mother enrolled him in dance and acting classes early in his childhood.
He was good enough to be in a Broadway play (The Rose Tattoo) at age 12 in 1951.
The next year he played the king’s son in The King and I.
Yul Brynner, who played the king, helped young Mineo further his career.
Sal then got a recurring role as a participant on ABC’s musical quiz program, Jukebox Jury, for the 1953-54 season.
This led to other TV roles that, in turn, gave the young actor his first film role as a young GI in Six Bridges to Cross (1955).
Later that year he got one of the two key supporting roles in Rebel as Plato, a smart kid befriended by Stark (James Dean).
Plato was what would be much later referred to as a “nerd.”
He was always trying to please his hero.
For his outstanding portrayal of Plato, Mineo received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
For the next several years, Sal Mineo had a varied and successful film career with major roles in Giant (1956), Crime in the Streets (1956), Tonka (1959) and The Gene Krupa Story (1959) in which he played the title role.
He even made a foray into pop music with two of his singles making it into the Top 40 on Billboard. In 1960, he won a Golden Globe and another Academy Award nomination for his role as a young Jewish immigrant turned Zionist in Exodus, a film that also starred Paul Newman.
But by the early 1960s as Mineo was now in his early 20s, he was too old to play roles like Plato and his suspected homosexuality (he later claimed to be bisexual) denied him roles as a principal adult male character.
His last film role was a small part as one of the chimps in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).
He was able to get small TV parts during the 1970s but nothing like the ones he had previously.
He famously said in the early 60s, “One minute it seemed that I had more movie offers than I could handle; the next — no one wanted me.”
By 1976, the actor’s career had taken a small turnaround.
He had a starring role in a San Francisco play, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead.
Both the play and Mineo got rave reviews so, after several performances, the play and the cast moved to Los Angeles.
On the evening of Feb. 12, 1976, Sal Mineo was returning from rehearsal to his home in West Hollywood when a knife-wielding assailant attacked him near his apartment.
The killer stabbed him once in the heart.
He died almost immediately at the scene from internal bleeding.
Sal Mineo was just 37-years-old.
Mineo’s murder went unsolved until after the strikingly similar stabbing death in the same neighborhood of a young actress, Christa Helm.
Helm was murdered exactly one year to the day after Mineo’s death.
The LAPD had conducted a thorough investigation into Mineo’s death and finally arrested a pizza deliveryman Lionel Ray Williams, after the Helm’s killing.
Not charged with the second killing, Williams was tried and convicted for the actor’s murder, based mainly on jailhouse conversations he was said to have made that were overheard by corrections personnel.
Williams never admitted that he killed anybody. Further, he claimed he did not even know who Sal Mineo was.
Initially sentenced to over fifty years in prison, Williams was unbelievably paroled in the early 1990s but was soon returned to prison for other crimes. He is still alive today.
Some questions remain unanswered about Mineo’s murder.
If the motive was robbery, what was stolen?
Nothing significant is mentioned in any account, both at the time and later.
The LAPD arrested and charged Williams, a black man, although several witnesses stated that they saw a blond white man running from the scene.
Who was he and why was he never identified, at least to the press?
The murder of Christa Helm has remained in the Open/Unsolved files of the LAPD for over forty years.
November 1981: Natalie Wood
Of the four young stars of Rebel Without a Cause, the only female on the show was by far the most well-known and the most successful.
By the time she appeared opposite James Dean, Natalie Wood had already appeared in two screen hits as a child actress.
She would be the last of the four Rebel stars to die well before her time.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1981, she drowned in the waters off Catalina Island.
Wood was only 43 at the time. Her death was ruled an accident in 1981 but questions have remained even still.
Natalie Wood was born Natalia Zacharenko in San Francisco on July 20, 1938.
Both her parents were Russian immigrants to the U.S.
The young Natalia learned both English and Russian and she spoke both languages fluently throughout her life.
Her paternal grandfather Stepan had been killed in the post-WWI Civil War in Russia.
The young Natalia dreamed of becoming an actress or a ballet dancer.
She achieved the first dream at the young age of five.
Renamed Natalie Wood by her studio, she had a 15 second part in Happy Land in 1943.
At seven, she played opposite of Orson Welles, who later remarked that Wood was a “born professional.”
Several other child-starring roles, including the Christmas hit Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, soon followed; so Natalie was the most experienced player to appear in Rebel in 1955.
From then on, her film career was highly successful.
Wood appeared in one film after another.
Most were outstanding and none were absolute duds with the possible exception of 1960s All the Fine Young Cannibals.
Natalie also mixed in several successful starring roles on TV.
At the time of her death, Wood had the major role in Brainstorm, a science fiction story.
It was later released in 1983 after careful editing and skillful use of substitutes for Wood’s character.
Robert Wagner was 25 when he first became aware of the 17-year-old Natalie in 1955.
On her 18th birthday in 1956, she and Wagner had their first date (perhaps arranged by Warner Brothers).
They married for the first time on Dec. 28, 1957.
Natalie’s mother was very unhappy about the marriage.
It didn’t last long (which could have been the mother’s influence?) and the couple separated in June 1961 and divorced the next April.
After a second marriage to a British director, Richard Gregson, that lasted from 1969 until 1972 failed because of his infidelity, Natalie resumed her relationship with Robert Wagner.
They married for the second time on July 16, 1972 and remained married until her death.
Their daughter, Courtney Wagner was born in 1974.
The Woods-Wagner second marriage was considered by most to be one of the best in Hollywood.
In November 1981, the Wagners took their small yacht on a lazy trip toCatalina, a small island located out in the Pacific, about 25 miles west of Los Angeles.
On the afternoon of Nov. 28, they anchored in the bay off Avalon, the only town on the island.
Dennis Davern, an experienced boat captain, piloted their vessel.
Wood’s co-stair in Brainstorm, Christopher Walken, was also aboard as a guest.
After a long evening drinking, Robert Wagner later stated that he went to bed but that his wife was not in their cabin at the time. At about 8 a.m. the next morning, on Nov. 29, Natalie Wood’s body was found floating about one mile from the boat.
No one reported seeing her go into the water although there were several other vessels in the area. A small dinghy was found beached nearby.
As Catalina Island is part of L.A. County, the long-serving coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi performed the Wood autopsy as he had in the past on so many L.A. celebrities.
He found that her blood alcohol level was 0.14 percent, well above the legal limit.There were also traces of two prescription drugs, both of which would have increased the effects of the alcohol. His report included the there were bruises on her body and arms as well as an abrasion on her left cheek. Noguchi ruled her death an accident by both drowning as well as the result of hypothermia from the Pacific ocean.
Thirty years later in 2011, the case was re-opened, when the captain Davern, changed his story.
He publicly stated that he had lied to the LASD detectives in 1981.
Davern accused Wagner of being responsible for the death of his wife after a terrific fight aboard the vessel. After a nine-month investigation, the only change was in Wood’s death certificate. The current L.A. County Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, changed the document to read for the cause of death “drowning and other undetermined factors”.
Robert Wagner, alive today at age 89, continues to deny any involvement with the death of his wife.
Wagner has never been charged with any crime and the LASD has clearly stated that he is not a suspect in Natalie Wood’s death. There is no public record of testimony given by Mr. Walken in this case, if any such testimony was ever given.
The “Rebel Curse” was over.