James Byron Dean (February 8, 1931 - September 30, 1955) was an American film actor. Dean's status as a cultural icon is best embodied in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause, in which he starred as troubled Los Angeles teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his star were as loner Cal Trask in East of Eden, and as the surly farmer Jett Rink in Giant. His enduring fame and popularity rests on only these three films, his entire output in a starring role. His death at an early age cemented his legendary status.
He was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and remains the only person to have two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Dean the 18th best male movie star on their AFI's 100 Years 100 Stars list.
James Dean was born on February 8, 1931, at the Seven Gables apartment house in Marion, Indiana to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. Six years after his father had left farming to become a dental technician, James and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. The family spent several years there, and by all accounts young Jimmy was very close to his mother. According to Michael DeAngelis, she was "the only person capable of understanding him". He was enrolled at Brentwood Public School in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles until his mother died of cancer when Dean was nine years old.
Unable to care for his son, Winton Dean sent the James to live with Winton's sister Ortense and her husband Marcus Winslow on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, where he was raised in a Quaker background. Dean sought the counsel and friendship with Methodist pastor Rev. James DeWeerd. DeWeerd seemed to have had a formative influence upon Dean, especially upon his future interests in bullfighting, car racing, and the theater. According to Billy J. Harbin, "Dean had an intimate relationship with his pastor... which began in his senior year of high school and endured for many years." In high school, Dean's overall performance was mediocre, however was a popular school athlete having successfully played on the baseball and basketball teams and studied forensics and drama. After graduating from Fairmount High School on May 16, 1949, Dean moved back to California with his beagle, Max, to live with his father and stepmother. He enrolled in Santa Monica College (SMCC) and majored in pre-law. Dean transferred to UCLA and changed his major to drama, which resulted in estrangement from his father. He pledged the Sigma Nu fraternity but was never initiated. While at UCLA, he beat out 350 actors to land the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. At that time, he also began acting with James Whitmore's acting workshop. In January 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor.
Dean's first television appearance was in a Pepsi Cola television commercial. He quit college to act full time and was cast as John the Beloved Disciple in Hill Number One, an Easter television special, and three walk-on roles in movies, Fixed Bayonets, Sailor Beware, and Has Anybody Seen My Gal. His only speaking part was in Sailor Beware, a Paramount comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Dean played a boxing trainer. While struggling to get jobs in Hollywood, Dean also worked as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios, during which time he met Rogers Brackett, a radio director for an advertising agency, who offered Dean professional help and guidance in his chosen career, as well as a place to stay.
In October 1951, following actor James Whitmore's and his mentor Rogers Brackett's advice, Dean moved to New York City. In New York he worked as a stunt tester for the Beat the Clock game show. He also appeared in episodes of several CBS television series, The Web, Studio One, and Lux Video Theatre, before gaining admission to the legendary Actors Studio to study Method acting under Lee Strasberg. Proud of this accomplishment, Dean referred to the Studio in a 1952 letter to his family as "The greatest school of the theater. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock. ... Very few get into it ... It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong." His career picked up and he performed in further episodes of such early 1950s television shows as Kraft Television Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger and General Electric Theater. One early role, for the CBS series, Omnibus, (Glory in the Flower) saw Dean portraying the same type of disaffected youth he would later immortalize in Rebel Without a Cause (this summer, 1953 program was also notable for featuring the song "Crazy Man, Crazy", one of the first dramatic TV programs to feature rock and roll music). Positive reviews for his 1954 theatrical role as "Bachir", a pandering North African houseboy, in an adaptation of Andre Gide's book The Immoralist, led to calls from Hollywood.
East of Eden (1955 film)
In 1953, director Elia Kazan was looking for a substantive actor to play the emotionally complex role of 'Cal Trask', for screenwriter Paul Osborn's adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1952 novel East of Eden. The lengthy novel had dealt with the story of the Trask and Hamilton families over the course of three generations, focusing especially on the lives of the latter two generations in Salinas Valley, California from the mid-1800s through the 1910s. In contrast, the film chose to deal predominantly with the character of Cal Trask; initially seeming more aloof & emotionally troubled than his older brother Aaron...yet quickly seen to be more worldly, aware, business savvy, and even sagacious than their pious and constantly disapproving father (played by Raymond Massey) seeking to invent vegetable refrigeration, and estranged mother, whom Cal discovers is a brothel-keeping 'madame' (Jo Van Fleet). Elia Kazan said of Cal before casting, "I wanted a Brando for the role." Osborn suggested Dean who then met with Steinbeck; the future Nobel laureate did not personally like the bold youth, but thought him perfect for the part. Kazan set about putting the wheels in motion to cast the relatively unknown young actor in the role; on April 8, 1954, Dean left New York City and headed for Los Angeles to begin shooting.
Dean's performance in the film foreshadowed his role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. Both characters are angst-ridden, protagonists and misunderstood outcasts, desperately craving approval from a father figure.
Much of Dean's performance in the film is unscripted; such as his dance in the bean field and his curled up, fetal like posturing whilst riding on top of a train-car (after searching out his mother in a near-by town). The most famous improvisation during the film was when Cal's father rejects his gift of $5,000 (which was in reparation for his father's business loss). Instead of running away from his father as the script called for, Dean instinctively turned to Massey and, crying, embraced him. This cut and Massey's shocked reaction were kept in the film by Kazan.
At the 1955 Academy Awards, he received a posthumous Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award nomination for this role, the first official posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history. (Jeanne Eagels was unofficially nominated for Best Actress in 1929, when the rules for selection of the winner were different.)
Rebel Without a Cause
Dean quickly followed up his role in Eden with a starring role in Rebel Without a Cause, a film that would prove to be hugely popular among teenagers. The film is often cited as an accurate representation of teenage angst. It co-starred teen actors Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Dennis Hopper and was directed by Nicholas Ray.
Giant, which was posthumously released in 1956, saw Dean play a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. This was due to his desire to avoid being typecast as Jim Stark and Cal Trask. In the film, he plays Jett, an oil rich Texan. His role was notable in that, in order to portray an older version of his character in one scene, Dean dyed his hair gray and shaved some of it off to give himself a receding hairline.
Giant would be Dean's last film. At the end of the film, Dean is supposed to make a drunken speech at a banquet; this is nicknamed the "Last Supper" because it was the last scene before his sudden death. Dean mumbled so much that the scene had to later be re-recorded by his co-stars because Dean had died before the film was edited.
Coincidentally, the #1 pop song in the US at the time of Dean's death, "The Yellow Rose of Texas" by Mitch Miller, was also featured in "Giant" in a scene following the actor's last appearance in the film described above.
At the 1956 Academy Awards, Dean received his second posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in Giant.
Racing career and 'Little Bastard'
When Dean got the part in East of Eden, he bought himself a red race-prepared MG TD and shortly afterwards, a white Ford Country Squire Woodie station wagon. Dean upgraded his MG to a Porsche 356 Speedster (Chassis number: 82621), which he raced. Dean came in second in the Palm Springs Road Races in March 1955 after a driver was disqualified; he came in third in May 1955 at Bakersfield and was running fourth at the Santa Monica Road Races later that month, until he retired with an engine failure.
During filming of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean traded the 356 Speedster in for one of only 90 Porsche 550 Spyders. He was contractually barred from racing during the filming of Giant, but with that out of the way, he was free to compete again. The Porsche was in fact a stopgap for Dean, as delivery of a superior Lotus Mk. X was delayed and he needed a car to compete at the races in Salinas, California.
Dean's 550 was customized by George Barris, who would go on to design the Batmobile. Dean's Porsche was numbered 130 at the front, side and back. The car had a tartan on the seating and two red stripes at the rear of its wheelwell. The car was given the nickname 'Little Bastard' by Bill Hickman, his language coach on Giant. Dean asked custom car painter and pin striper Dean Jeffries to paint Little Bastard on the car. When Dean introduced himself to Alec Guinness outside a restaurant, he asked him to take a look at the Spyder. Guinness thought the car appeared 'sinister' and told Dean: 'If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.' This encounter took place on September 23, 1955, seven days before Dean's death.
On September 30, 1955, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wutherich set off from Competition Motors, where they had prepared his Porsche 550 Spyder that morning for a sports car race at Salinas, California. Dean originally intended to trailer the Porsche to the meeting point at Salinas, behind his new Ford Country Squire station wagon, crewed by Hickman and photographer Sanford Roth, who was planning a photo story of Dean at the races. At the last minute, Dean drove the Spyder, having decided he needed more time to familiarize himself with the car. At 3:30 p.m., Dean was ticketed in Mettler Station, Kern County, for driving 65 mph (105 km/h) in a 55 mph (89 km/h) zone. The driver of the Ford was ticketed for driving 20 mph (32 km/h) over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph (72 km/h). Later, having left the Ford far behind, they stopped at Blackwells Corner in Lost Hills for fuel and met up with fellow racer Lance Reventlow.
Dean was driving west on U.S. Route 466 (later State Route 46) near Cholame, San Luis Obispo County, California when a black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe, driven from the opposite direction by 23-year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, attempted to take the fork onto State Route 41 and crossed into Dean's lane without seeing him. The two cars hit almost head on. According to a story in the October 1, 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Times, California Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson and his partner had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the scene of the accident, where they saw a heavily breathing Dean being placed into an ambulance. Wutherich had been thrown from the car, but survived with a broken jaw and other injuries. Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 5:59 p.m. His last known words, uttered right before impact, were said to have been "That guy's gotta stop... He'll see us."
Contrary to reports of Dean's speeding, which persisted decades after his death, Nelson said "the wreckage and the position of Dean's body indicated his speed was more like 55 mph (88 km/h)." Turnupseed received a gashed forehead and bruised nose and was not cited by police for the accident. Wutherich died in a road accident in Germany in 1981 after surviving several suicide attempts.
While completing Giant, and to promote Rebel Without a Cause, Dean filmed a short interview with actor Gig Young for an episode of Warner Bros. Presents in which Dean, instead of saying the popular phrase "The life you save may be your own" instead ad-libbed "The lives you might save might be mine." Dean's sudden death prompted the studio to re-film the section, and the piece was never aired though in the past several sources have referred to the footage, mistakenly identifying it as a public service announcement. (The segment can, however, be viewed on both the 2001 VHS and 2005 DVD editions of Rebel Without a Cause).
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers