1955 – James Dean, whose iconic stance in films like Rebel Without

James Dean

1955 – James Dean, whose iconic stance in films like Rebel Without a Cause influenced countless rockers, dies in an automobile accident. He was 24.

James Dean: one of the most influential actors on rock n roll who was not famous as a musician… Rather, a great actor with the right ‘tude.

James Byron Dean (February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955) was a two-time Oscar-nominated 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 stereotypical high school rebel Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his star power were as the awkward loner Cal Trask in East of Eden, and as the surly farmer Jett Rink in Giant. His enduring fame and popularity rests on only three films, his entire starring output. His death at a young age helped guarantee a 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 (although other people had more than one posthumous nomination in other Oscar categories).

Early life

James Dean was born to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson Dean at the “Seven Gables” apartment house, at the intersection of 4th and McClure Streets in Marion, Indiana. 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 some 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 in Brentwood Public School until his mother died of cancer in 1940.

Unable to care for his nine year old son, Winton Dean sent the young James to live with Winton’s sister Ortense and her husband Marcus Winslow on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, where he entered high school and was brought up with a Quaker background. Here Dean sought the counsel of, and formed an enduring friendship with, Methodist pastor Rev. James DeWeerd. DeWeerd seemed to have had a formative influence upon the teenager, 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, but he successfully played on the baseball and basketball team 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 college to pursue a full-time career as an actor.

Acting career

Dean’s first television appearance was in a Pepsi Cola television commercial.

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 Theater, before gaining admission to the legendary Actor’s 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.”

East of Eden

Main article: East of Eden (1955 film)

Dean as Cal Trask in East of Eden.
Dean as Cal Trask in East of Eden.

In 1953, director Elia Kazan was looking for an actor to play the role of “Cal Trask” in screenwriter Paul Osborn’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden. The book 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 in the mid-1800s through the 1910s. However, the film chose to deal predominantly with the character of Cal Trask, who is essentially the rebel son of a pious and constantly disapproving father (played by Raymond Massey), and estranged mother, whom Cal discovers is a brothel-keeping madam (Jo Van Fleet). Elia Kazan said of Cal before casting, “I wanted a Brando for the role.” Osborn suggested to Kazan that he consider Dean for the part. After introducing Dean to Steinbeck, and gaining his enthusiastic approval, Kazan set about putting the wheels in motion to cast the relatively unknown young actor in the role. On March 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 rebel loners and misunderstood outcasts, desperately craving parental guidance from a father figure.

Much of Dean’s performance in the film is completely unscripted, such as his dance in the bean field and his curling up and pulling his arms inside of his shirt on top of the train during his ride home from meeting his mother. 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

Main article: Rebel Without a Cause

Dean in the trailer for the film Rebel Without a Cause.
Dean in the trailer for the film 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 widely cited as an accurate representation of teenage angst. It co-starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, and was directed by Nicholas Ray.


Main article: Giant (film)

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 and horrible 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.


On September 30, 1955, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich 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 Stanford 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 3:30PM, Dean was ticketed in Kern County for doing 65 in a 55 mph zone. The driver of the Ford was ticketed for doing 10 mph over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph. Later, having left the Ford far behind, they stopped at Blackwell’s 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, 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,
Junction of highways 46 and 41.
Junction of highways 46 and 41.

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. Rolf Wütherich would die 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 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).

William Bast identifies a potentially bipolar depression in James Dean’s erratic behavior and mood swings.

James Dean Memorial in Cholame. Dean died about 900 yards east of this tree.
James Dean Memorial in Cholame. Dean died about 900 yards east of this tree.

James Dean is buried in Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana. In 1977, a Dean memorial was built in Cholame, California. The stylized sculpture is composed of concrete and stainless steel around a tree of heaven growing in front of the Cholame post office. The sculpture was made in Japan and transported to Cholame, accompanied by the project’s benefactor, Seita Ohnishi. Ohnishi chose the site after examining the location of the accident, now little more than a few road signs and flashing yellow signals. In September, 2005, the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 in Cholame (San Luis Obispo county) was dedicated as the James Dean Memorial Highway as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death. (Maps of the intersection  35°44?5?N, 120°17?4?W)

The dates and hours of Dean’s birth and death are etched into the sculpture, along with a handwritten description by Dean’s close friend, William Bast, of one of Dean’s favorite lines from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Also on the sculpture, etched with gold inlay, is the truthful line ‘James Dean, he was a poor mans Gordon Kerr’.

Supposed future career

According to a WENN article dating June 2003, Dean was planning to quit his acting career until his ill-fated car accident prevented any of his plans to be taken to action. Days before his sudden death, Dean told his close-friend and Rebel Without A Cause co-star Dennis Hopper that he wanted to become a film director, as he could not stand “being treated like a puppet.” Hopper recalls, “Jimmy was going to try directing. It was going be a movie called The Actor, about being a movie star. Jimmy wanted to be in charge. He was going to stop acting in films and be a director, but he died before any of this could happen. We had pretty much seen the end of James Dean on the screen, even if he had lived.” Hopper continues, “He couldn’t stand being interrupted every five seconds by some idiot behind the camera. He was too caught up in the role to be stopped abruptly and made to start again. He was going to do just one more acting part — as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me — and then stop acting. That part ultimately went to Paul Newman, after Jimmy died in the car wreck.” Dean was also projected to portray the nineteenth-century New Mexico outlaw, Billy the Kid in The Left Handed Gun. This role also went to Newman.

Dean’s iconic appeal

Many American teens at the time of Dean’s major movies identified with Dean and the roles he played, especially in Rebel Without A Cause: the typical teenager, caught where no one, not even his peers, can understand him. Joe Hyams says that Dean was “one of the rare stars, like Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, who both men and women find sexy.” According to Marjorie Garber, this quality is “the undefinable extra something that makes a star.”

Dean’s personal relationships and sexual orientation

Today, Dean is often considered an icon because of his “experimental” take on life, which included his ambivalent sexuality.

Journalist Joe Hyams suggests that any homosexual acts Dean might have involved himself in appear to have been strictly “for trade,” as a means of advancing his career. Val Holley notes that, according to Hollywood biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, gay Hollywood columnist Mike Connolly “would put the make on the most prominent young actors, including Robert Francis, Guy Madison, Anthony Perkins, Nick Adams and James Dean.”

As for Dean’s relationships with women, after Dean signed his contract with Warner Brothers the studio’s public relations department began generating stories about Dean’s liaisons with a variety of young actresses who were mostly drawn from the clientele of Dean’s Hollywood agent, Dick Clayton. Studio press releases also grouped “Dean together with two other actors, Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, identifying each of the men as an ‘eligible bachelor’ who has not yet found the time to commit to a single woman: ‘They say their film rehearsals are in conflict with their marriage rehearsals.'”

Actress Liz Sheridan claims that she and Dean had a short affair in New York. In her memoir detailing this, she also states that Dean was having a sexual involvement with Rogers Brackett, and describes her negative response to this situation.

Dean in popular culture

Dean is mentioned or featured in the following songs:

* “Vogue”, by Madonna
* “American Pie”, by Don McLean
* “Footballer’s Wife”, by Amy MacDonald
* “Helicopter” and “Rhododendrons”, by Bloc Party
* “I Wanna Be Loved Like That”, by Shenandoah
* “Jack and Diane”, by John Cougar Mellencamp
* “James Dean”, by The Eagles
* “James Dean”, by the Goo Goo Dolls
* “James Dean (I Wanna Know)”, by Daniel Bedingfield
* “Janis Joplin Hands”, by Socratic
* “Mr. James Dean”, by Hilary Duff
* “Peach Trees” by Rufus Wainwright
* “Rock On”, by David Essex
* “Rockstar”, by Nickelback
* “Some Girls Do”, by Sawyer Brown
* “Allure”, by Jay-Z

The Futurama character Philip J. Fry was visually designed to resemble Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause.

In an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, the character Liberty likens the rebellious, anti-social Sean to James Dean.

On the TV sitcom Happy Days, Fonzie has a picture of Dean on his wall. A picture of Dean also appears on Rizzo’s wall in the film Grease.

In the alternate history book Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove, James Dean is stated to have died in a car crash and made several more movies, including a film called Rescuing Private Ranfall, based on Saving Private Ryan.

Dean’s estate still earns about $5,000,000 per year, according to Forbes Magazine.

The “curse” of “Little Bastard”
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Since Dean’s death, his Porsche 550 Spyder became infamous for being the vehicle that killed not only him, but for injuring and killing several others in the years following his death. In view of this, many have come to believe that the actor’s vehicle and all of its parts were cursed. Legendary Hot Rodder George Barris bought the wreck for $2,500, only to have it slip off its trailer and break a mechanic’s leg. Soon afterwards, Barris sold the engine and drive-train, respectively, to physicians Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. While racing against each other, the former would be killed instantly when his vehicle spun out of control and crashed into a tree, while the latter would be seriously injured when his vehicle rolled over while going into a curve. Barris later sold two tires, which malfunctioned as well. The tires, which were unharmed in Dean’s accident, blew up simultaneously causing the buyer’s automobile to go off the road. Subsequently, two young would-be thieves were injured while attempting to steal parts from the car. When one tried to steal the steering wheel from the Porsche, his arm was ripped open on a piece of jagged metal. Later, another man was injured while trying to steal the bloodstained front seat. This would be the final straw for Barris, who decided to store “Little Bastard” away, but was quickly persuaded by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to lend the wrecked car to a highway safety exhibit.

The first exhibit from the CHP featuring the car ended unsuccessfully, as the garage storing the Spyder went up in flames, destroying everything except the car itself, which suffered almost no damage whatsoever from the fire. The second display, at a Sacramento High School, ended when the car fell, breaking a student’s hip. “Little Bastard” caused problems while being transported several times. On the way to Salinas, the truck containing the vehicle lost control, causing the driver to fall out, only to be crushed by the Porsche after it fell off the back. On two separate occasions, once on a freeway and again in Oregon, the car came off other trucks, although no injuries were reported, another vehicle’s windshield was shattered in Oregon. Its last use in a CHP exhibit was in 1959. In 1960, when being returned to George Barris in Los Angeles, California, the car mysteriously vanished. It has not been seen since.

The allegedly last known piece of Dean’s Spyder is at Historic auto attractions in Roscoe, IL.


Feature Films
Year     Title     Role     Notes
1951     Fixed Bayonets!     Doggie     (uncredited)
1952     Sailor Beware     Boxing opponent’s second     (uncredited)
Has Anybody Seen My Gal?     Youth at soda fountain     (uncredited)
1953     Trouble Along the Way     Extra     (uncredited)
1955     East of Eden     Cal Trask

* Nominated for Academy Award.
* Nominated for BAFTA
* Won Jussi Award

Rebel Without a Cause     Jim Stark

* Nominated for BAFTA

1956     Giant     Jett Rink

* Nominated for Academy Award.
* Won Golden Globe Award



* See the Jaguar, (1952)
* The Immoralist (1954) – based on the book by Andre Gide


* The Metamorphosis (1952) – based on the novella by Franz Kafka
* The Scarecrow (1954)
* Women of Trachis (1954) – translation by Ezra Pound
* La Légende de Jimmy (1980?) – Musical by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon


* Father Peyton’s Family Theater, “Hill Number One” (Easter Sunday, April 1, 1951)
* The Web, “Sleeping Dogs” (February 20, 1952)
* Studio One, “Ten Thousand Horses Singing” (March 3, 1952)
* Lux Video Theater, “The Foggy, Foggy Dew” (March 17, 1952)
* Kraft Television Theater, “Prologue to Glory” (May 21, 1952)
* Studio One, “Abraham Lincoln” (May 26, 1952)
* Hallmark Hall of Fame, “Forgotten Children” (June 2, 1952)
* The Kate Smith Show, “Hounds of Heaven” (January 15, 1953)
* Treasury Men In Action, “The Case of the Watchful Dog” (January 29, 1953)
* You Are There, “The Capture of Jesse James” (February 8, 1953)
* Danger, “No Room” (April 14, 1953)
* Treasury Men In Action, “The Case of the Sawed-Off Shotgun” (April 16, 1953)
* Tales of Tomorrow, “The Evil Within” (May 1, 1953)
* Campbell Soundstage, “Something For An Empty Briefcase” (July 17, 1953)
* Studio One Summer Theater, “Sentence of Death” (August 17, 1953)
* Danger, “Death Is My Neighbor” (August 25, 1953)
* The Big Story, “Rex Newman, Reporter for the Globe and News” (September 11, 1953)
* Omnibus, “Glory In Flower” (October 4, 1953)
* Kraft Television Theater, “Keep Our Honor Bright” (October 14, 1953)
* Campbell Soundstage, “Life Sentence” (October 16, 1953)
* Kraft Television Theater, “A Long Time Till Dawn” (November 11, 1953)
* Armstrong Circle Theater, “The Bells of Cockaigne” (November 17, 1953)
* Robert Montgomery Presents the Johnson’s Wax Program, Harvest (November 23, 1953)
* Danger, “The Little Women” (March 30, 1954)
* Philco TV Playhouse, “Run Like A Thief” (September 5, 1954)
* Danger, “Padlocks” (November 9, 1954)
* General Electric Theater, “I’m A Fool” (November 14, 1954)
* General Electric Theater, “The Dark, Dark Hour” (December 12, 1954)
* U.S. Steel Hour, “The Thief” (January 4, 1955)
* Lux Video Theatre, “The Life of Emile Zola” (March 10, 1955) – appeared in a promotional interview for East of Eden shown after the program aired
* Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, “The Unlighted Road” (May 6, 1955)

Further reading

* Alexander, Paul: Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean . Viking, 1994. ISBN 0670849510
* Bast, William : James Dean: A Biography. Ballantine Books, 1956.
* Bast, William : Surviving James Dean. Barricade Books, 2006. ISBN 1-56980-298-X
* Dalton, David : James Dean-The Mutant King: A Biography. Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN 1-55652-398-X
* Frascella, Lawrence and Weisel, Al : Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause. Touchstone, 2005. ISBN 0-7432-6082-1
* Gilmore, John : Live Fast-Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1998. ISBN 1-56025-169-7
* Gilmore, John : The Real James Dean. Pyramid Books, 1975. ISBN 0-515-03814-8
* Holley, Val : James Dean: The Biography. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996. ISBN 0-312-15156-X
* Howell, John: James Dean: A Biography. Plexus Publishing, 1997. Second Revised Edition. ISBN 0859652432
* Hyams, Joe; Hyams, Jay : James Dean: Little Boy Lost. Time Warner Publishing, 1992. ISBN 0446516430
* Martinetti, Ronald : The James Dean Story, Pinnacle Books, 1975. ISBN 0-523-00633-0
* Morrissey : James Dean Is Not Dead. Babylon books, 1983. ISBN 0 907 188 06 0
* Perry, George : James Dean. DK Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4053-0525-8
* Sheridan, Liz : Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life With James Dean : A Love Story. HarperCollins Canada / Harper Trade, 2000. ISBN 0-06-039383-1
* Spoto, Donald : Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean. Harpercollins, 1996. ISBN 0-06-017656-3

Biographical films

* James Dean: Portrait of a Friend aka James Dean (1976)
* Sense Memories (PBS American Masters television biography) (2005)
* Forever James Dean (1988), Warner Home Video (1995)
* James Dean (fictionalized TV biographical film) (2001)
* James Dean – Kleiner Prinz, Little Bastard aka James Dean – Little Prince, Little Bastard, German television biography, includes interviews with William Bast, Marcus Winslow Jr, Robert Heller (2005)
* James Dean: The Final Day features interviews with William Bast, Liz Sheridan and Maila Nurmi. Dean’s bisexuality is openly discussed. Episode of Naked Hollywood television miniseries produced by The Oxford Film Company in association the BBC, aired in the US on the A&E Network, 1991.
* Living Famously: James Dean, Australian television biography includes interviews with Martin Landau, Betsy Palmer, William Bast, and Bob Hinkle (2003, 2006).
* James Dean – Mit Vollgas durchs Leben, Austrian television biography includes interviews with Rolf Weutherich and William Bast (2005).
* James Dean – Outside the Lines (2002), episode of Biography, US television documentary includes interviews with Rod Steiger, William Bast, and Martin Landau (2002).

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