The Play That Broke the Barriers

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IN ITS EARLY DAYS, The Advocate often featured semi-nude males on the covers. You would have found a nearly nude Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy, for example, on the September 1969 edition. A headline announcing the “First Gay Riots” points readers to page 3. (Another, larger headline promises “18 Groovy Guys”).

         The cover six months earlier was even more risqué: a shirtless Sal Mineo, looking hard and mean and older than his thirty years of age, pulling down the shirt of a then unknown nineteen-year-old Don Johnson. Johnson looks soft, his dark eyes dramatically pleading. The implication, of course, is that he is about to be raped. The bold- faced headline reads: “Sal Mineo’s Big New Hit: Brutal, Exciting!”

         The image was one of several that were made fifty years ago to promote Mineo’s version (and the West Coast premiere) of John Herbert’s prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes. The photos are all very theatrical, leveraging Johnson’s smooth body, Mineo’s fame, and the play’s infamous reputation as brand provocation. There’s Johnson in his underwear, Mineo yanking down Johnson’s underwear, both men in the nude. In 1969, nudity onstage was still a novelty—biographer Michael Gregg Michaud suggests that Mineo was the first male celebrity to take it all off onstage—let alone the suggestion of anal sex. Clearly the publicity photos were meant to shock some 1969 audiences and arouse others.

         The photos are how I first learned about this play.

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Philip Moore is a doctoral candidate at Gratz College in Melrose Park, PA.

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