Happy Birthday, James Dean.
"Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."
James Byron Dean (February 8th, 1931 - September 30th, 1955) was an American actor best known for his lead role in the film Rebel Without A Cause (1955). James Dean became an icon and legend in popular culture. His portrayal of the "disillusioned teenager" struck young people nationwide and he is used to exemplify the "teen rebel" figure to this day. Dean was also a lead actor in the films East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956), the latter earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. James Dean died in a car crash at the young age of 24. This tragic accident would forever cement his name as one of Hollywood's most mysterious and loved stars.
James Dean was born in a small city in Indiana. However, he was moved around for most of his life. His parents took him to Santa Monica, California at a young age where he attended school in Brentwood, Los Angeles. When Dean was only nine, his mother passed away from cancer. Dean was reportedly very close with his mother and her death was an extremely difficult experience for him. His father sent him back to Indiana, where he would be cared for by his big sister.
Dean paid little interest to academe and instead spent his high school years practicing mostly sports and drama. He played on both the baseball and basketball teams. Dean's sister and uncle raised him with a Quaker background, which introduced him to Methodist pastor Reverend James DeWeerd. He would form a close friendship with the Reverend, who would spark Dean's two greatest loves: acting and car racing. Upon finishing high school, Dean returned yet again to California and enrolled at Santa Monica College.
Despite registering himself in Pre-Law, Dean soon transferred to study drama at UCLA. When he arrived, he was selected out of a small pool to play the role of Malcolm in the play Macbeth. He subsequently began attending James Whitmore's acting workshop. Inspired by his luck, Dean dropped out of college completely and focused on acting full-time. He landed a Pepsi commercial and an extra role in three films. Dean supported his dream by working at the CBS Studios as a parking lot attendant. He continued to look for auditions in the meantime.
In October of 1951, Dean decided to try his luck in New York. He moved to the city and was cast in small roles in various CBS television shows. The following year Dean was accepted into the acclaimed "Actors Studio" - a school founded by legendary director Elia Kazan and friends. Dean was thrilled for the opportunity and was one of the youngest members there. The placement gained him more roles in TV but it was his performance in CBS's series Omnibus that really got his talent noticed.
James Dean's part in the episode Glory in the Flower of Omnibus was that of a disaffected youth. It was a part he could play flawlessly after a childhood of instability and loneliness. This performance, along with his role in Broadway play The Immoralist (1954), began a cascade of calls from Hollywood.
Once again, James Dean returned to California. He had been offered the role of Cal Trask in Kazan's East of Eden (1955), an adaptation of John Steinbeck's esteemed novel. Cal Trask was an emotionally troubled character, bothered by the mysterious death of his mother. Dean was suggested for the role by screenwriter Paul Osborn. Dean met with Steinbeck and although the author reportedly disliked Dean, he admitted Dean would be perfect for Cal. Dean would go on to receive a Best Actor nomination for this role, although it would happen after his death.
Screen Test for East of Eden
Shortly after this film, James Dean was cast in Rebel Without A Cause. Directed by Nicholas Ray, the film would strike a chord with the nation's teenage audience. Rebel was a drama about middle class teens in the American suburbs. Its commentary on social, urban and generational conflict would secure the film in the United States Library of Congress's National Film Registry come 1990. It was released to critical acclaim one month after Dean's death.
Scenes from Rebel Without A Cause
By this time, Dean was very firmly in Hollywood's spotlight. His many fans started to question his personal life and in particular, his sexual identity. Close friends such as screenwriter and former roommate William Bast would claim they had intimate moments with Dean. The Hollywood press would stir up commotion anytime Dean's name shared the news with an actress. His romance with actress Pier Angeli was verified by many co-stars and friends. Dean confirmed it himself. But when Angeli got engaged to somebody else, the media wondered if their relationship was genuine at all, or simply a stunt for publicity. Dean was also seen with Liz Sheridan and Ursula Andress. Whatever the case, it was clear that the nation was obsessed with the mystery behind this attractive and talented star. The public may have never received a strict answer in exchange for their curiosity but Dean still went down in gay history in the form of book Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001).
Another Scene from Rebel Without A Cause
I never thought I'd live to see eighteen. Isn't that dumb? Every day I look in the mirror and say "What? You still here?" - Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause
Dean's final film role would be in the movie Giant (1955). The film was not fully finished at the time of Dean's crash and would come out after his death. To avoid being typecast, Dean played a supporting role. The character was that of Jett Rink, an older man and rich oil Tycoon. To fully commit to the role, Dean dyed his hair grey and shaved some of his head. In the banquet scene at the end, Dean got himself drunk so that he could act appropriately inebriated. Hollywood legends state that this scene was morbidly referred to as Dean's "last supper".
Alongside acting, Dean had a love for fast cars and racing. When he became successful in film, the two passions crossed paths. Dean was able to spend money on cars and eventually settled for the powerful Porsche 550 Spyder. The car looked dangerous from the onset and friends warned him of driving in it. But Dean's love for the vehicle could not be deflected. After the filming of Giant, he signed up for the Salinas Road Race. He nicknamed his car "little bastard," not knowing the significance it would play in both his life, car culture and American history.
On September 30th, 1955, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich prepared to drive the Spyder to Salinas. They were followed by friend and movie stunt man Bill Hickman. During the journey, all three of them would be ticketed for speeding. On Route 466, a student from Cal Poly merged into their lane. The young driver did not see the Porsche, and the two cars collided in a fiery explosion. Student Donald Turnupseed and Wütherich were both injured. James Dean died on arrival to the hospital later that day.
Scene from Giant
The public became obsessed with the young superstar's death. Reports would come out over the next years about the "curse" of the Spyder and other incidents it had been involved in. The Spyder was taken around the country to car shows, eventually being bought in parts by various racers. The car-loving nation would spread tales of this "curse" and was mentioned in several books including: Cars of the Stars (1974) and James Dean At Speed (2005). On the 50th anniversary of Dean's death, the State of California erected a James Dean Memorial at the intersection of Highways 46 and 41.
James Dean remains the only actor in history to receive two posthumous Oscar nominations. Dean had a brief but influential career and his legacy thrives in film classes and modern references all over the place. Had his life not ended so tragically, it is certain that he would have had a fulfilling career and win many awards. Instead, his fate was just to live on as the despairing young rebel, the enigma-draped star and the heart throb of every American girl.
- Birthday Date: Saturday, 08 February 2014