Tuesday, October 6, 2020

James Dean


James Byron Dean was born in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931.  He was an only child, and according to him, his father was part Native American while his mother traced her lineage back to the Mayflower.  

Shortly after Dean was born, his father, a dental technician, moved the family to Santa Monica.  Life was good for the next few years, until Dean's mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer.  She passed away when he was just nine years old.  Then America entered World War 2, and Dean's father enlisted in the service.  Before he left for Europe, he sent Dean to live with relatives in Indiana.

Dean spent most of the 1940s on his aunt and uncle's farm.  He was a popular student in high school, who played varsity baseball and basketball.  He also studied drama and took lessons in public speaking.  After graduation, he returned to California to live with his newly remarried father, enrolling in Santa Monica College, where he majored in Pre-Law.  It only lasted one semester however, as Dean decided to transfer to UCLA, where he majored in Drama.  The decision did not sit well with Dean's father, and the two were estranged for the rest of Dean's life.  Ironically, Dean never graduated.  In 1951, he dropped out to pursue acting full time.  

Dean didn't have any trouble finding work.  His first job was in this commercial for Pepsi.  He then landed a role in an Easter television special called Hill Number One, wherein he played John the Beloved Disciple.  You can watch the special in its entirety here

Over the next few years, Dean continued to find work, with walk-on roles in such films as Fixed Bayonets (1951), Sailor Beware (1952), and Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952).  He also appeared on television, on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and General Electric Theater.  He supplemented his income by working as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios.

Dean's big break came in 1953, when he was cast in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden.  Director Elia Kazan wanted Marlon Brando for the role, but screenwriter Paul Osborn recommended the relatively unknown Dean.  After meeting with him, Kazan felt that Dean was right for the role, as did John Steinbeck, although the latter disliked Dean personally.

Despite having a script to follow, Dean improvised most of his performance.  This includes what is considered to be the film's most famous sequence, wherein Dean's character embraces his father following an argument rather than leaving the room as the script called for.  You can watch that sequence here.

The film was a huge success.  It led to Dean being cast in what is arguably his most famous role, that of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  Like East of Eden, it proved popular among teenagers, who related to Dean's performance of teenage angst.  You can watch the film's trailer here

Having played similar characters in his first two films, Dean wanted to avoid being typecast as an angst-ridden teenage rebel.  After all, he wouldn't look like one forever.  To that end, he took the role of a Texas ranch hand who strikes oil in what would ultimately be his final film, Giant.  You can watch the trailer here.

When he wasn't acting, Dean was developing a secondary career in motorsport.  Prior to filming Rebel, he competed in his first professional event at the Palm Spring Road Races, where he achieved first place in the novice class and second place overall.  Not bad for a newbie.  One month later, he competed in Bakersfield, where he finished first in his class and third overall.  His final race was in Santa Barbara in May 1955.  Dean was unable to complete it however due to a mechanical issue.  

While working on Giant, Warner Brothers barred Dean from racing.  When the film went into post production, he eagerly resumed his pastime.  On September 30, Dean left Los Angeles in his Porsche 550 Spyder headed for the Salinas Road Race in Salinas, California.  With him were his stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, his mechanic Rolf Wutherich, and a photographer for Collier's, Sanford Roth. En route to the race, Dean was ticketed for speeding.

As the car traveled down what is today State Route 46, a 1950 Ford Tudor driven by Donald Turnupseed passed through an intersection ahead of the oncoming Porsche.  Dean was unable to stop in time and slammed into the passenger side of the Ford.  Wutherich was thrown from the car and suffered a fractured jaw, femur and hip, injuries that he would carry for the rest of his life.  Dean himself however, did not survive.  Rescuers discovered he'd had a broken neck and determined death had been instantaneous.  He was just 24 years old.

Dean was returned to his home state of Indiana, where he was laid to rest at Park Cemetery in the town of Fairmount.  Its rather out of the way and not the sort of place you'd expect to find a Hollywood icon.

Need help finding the grave?  Just follow the sign....

Rest in peace, Mr. Dean.

  • A number of biographies have been written about Dean.  Here are a few available from Amazon:
      The Real James Dean by Peter Winkler (2016)
      Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean by Donald Spoto (2014)
      James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton (2001)

  • Dean was the first person to ever win an Academy Award following their death.  Other notables in this grim fraternity include Walt Disney, Peter Finch and most recently, Heath Ledger.

  • According to author Billy J. Harbin, Dean was sexually abused in Indiana by a local Methodist pastor, something Dean is said to have confessed to Liz Taylor several years later.  However, this story has never been corroborated.

  • One of Dean's early jobs was as a stunt tester on the game show Beat the Clock.  He was fired however, for completing the tasks too quickly!

  • In order to look older in Giant, Dean dyed his hair gray and shaved some of it off, giving him the appearance of a receding hairline.  In the film's final scene, Dean's character gives a drunken speech, which had to be dubbed by another actor following Dean's death.

  • Irony alert!  Shortly before he died, Dean appeared in a safe driving PSA aimed at the young.  You can watch it here.  Actual quote: "Take it easy driving.  The life you save might be mine."

  • Before he died, Dean had signed on to two new films, Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun.  Both roles subsequently went to Paul Newman, and they are credited with jump starting his career.

  • Vlogger Jordan the Lion visits the crash site in this video.  You can fast forward to the 15:50 mark.  Jordan talks too much.

No comments:

Post a Comment