The original good looking corpse. The budding sex symbol and rebel without a cause set off to a race in his Porsche Spyder, but crashed en route. After his death, a disturbing picture of the star emerged.
James Byron Dean was born to Winton and Mildred Wilson Dean. 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 Dean was very close to his mother. He attended Brentwood Public School until his mother died of cancer in 1940. It’s been said that Dean's moodiness and antisocial behaviour is attributed to her loss.
Unable to care for his nine-year-old son, Dean’s father sent him to live with his sister Ortense and her husband on a farm in Indiana, where he went back to high school and was brought up with a Quaker background. In high school, Dean's overall performance was mediocre. After graduating from Fairmount High School he moved back to California to live with his father and stepmother. He first enrolled in Santa Monica College (SMCC) to study pre-law but he decided to transfer to UCLA to study drama instead, which resulted in estrangement from his father.
While at UCLA, he beat out 350 actors to land the role of Malcolm in 'Macbeth' and by January 1951, he’d dropped out of college to pursue a career as an actor. Dean began his professional acting career with a television ad for Pepsi Cola, followed by a stint as a stunt tester on the ‘Beat the Clock’ game show. He struggled to get jobs in Hollywood and paid his bills by working as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios.
The first film in which Dean had a speaking role was 'Sailor Beware', also starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, where he played a boxing trainer. Dean then followed actor James Whitmore's advice and moved to New York to pursue live stage acting. He was accepted to study under Lee Strasberg in the Actors’ Studio. Dean’s career picked up as he appeared in several TV shows. Positive reviews for his role in André Gide's 'The Immoralist' led to calls from Hollywood and paved the way to his film success. In 1954, he took the play to Broadway.
On 8 March, 1954, Dean left New York City and headed for Los Angeles to begin shooting 'East of Eden'. Much of Dean's performance in the film is completely unscripted, and he received a posthumous Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award nomination for this role, the first posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards’ history. Dean quickly followed up his role in Eden with a starring role in 'Rebel Without a Cause', a film which would prove hugely popular among teenagers and come to epitomise Dean’s career. Director Nicholas Ray often encouraged Dean’s creative input. However, it was said that Dean’s verbal battles with his directors increased in each film as he increased in confidence.
'Giant', which was posthumously released in 1956, saw Dean play a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. In the film, he plays Jett, a surly, racist Southerner with a high prejudice towards Mexicans. His role was notable in that, in order to portray an older version of his character in one scene, Dean dyed his hair grey and shaved some of it off to give himself a receding hairline. 'Giant' would be Dean’s last film. Dean also received a posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for this film, making him one of four actors to be recognised in this way after death.
When Dean got the part in 'East of Eden', he bought himself a red race-prepared MG TD and shortly afterwards, a white Ford station wagon. He later upgraded his MG to a Porsche 356 Speedster, which he raced. Dean came second in the Palm Springs Road Races of 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 engine failure.
During filming of 'Rebel Without a Cause', Dean traded the Porsche 356 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.
Dean's 550 was customised by the young George Barris, (who would go on to design the Batmobile). Dean's Porsche was numbered 130 at the front, side and back. Apparently when Dean introduced himself to Alec Guinness outside of a restaurant on 23 September 1955, 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.”
On 30 September, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich set off from Competition Motors, where they had prepared the Porsche Spyder 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. At the last minute, Dean instead drove the Spyder, having decided he needed more time to familiarise himself with the car.
He was driving west on U.S. Highway 466 in California when a 1950 Ford Tudor, driven from the opposite direction by 23-year-old student Donald Turnupseed, attempted to take a fork in the road and crossed into Dean's lane without seeing him. The two cars hit almost head on.
Wütherich 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 5:59PM. His last known words, uttered right before impact, are said to have been: "That guy's gotta stop... He'll see us."
He was buried in Park Cemetery in Indiana and in 1977 a Dean memorial was built in California. It is composed of stainless steel and concrete and has been erected around a Tree of Heaven just 400 yards from where Dean crashed. The dates and hours of his birth and death as well as a handwritten description from Dean's close friend William Bast of a line from Dean's favourite book 'The Little Prince' are inscribed on the sculpture.
In 2005, the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 was named the James Dean Memorial Junction to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death. Contrary to reports of Dean's speeding, which persisted decades after his death, a policeman at the scene of the accident 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.
Dean is often considered to be an icon because of his "experimental" take on life, which included his ambivalent sexuality. There have been several accounts of Dean's sexual relationships with both men and women, although Dean's true sexual preference remains unknown. The first account came from screenwriter Bast the year after Dean's death called 'James Dean: A biography' in which Bast claimed to have been Dean's lover, stating that the actor had been bicurious. This was followed in 1976 by Bast's 'Surviving James Dean' in which he claims Dean would have entered a committed relationship with him if he hadn't died.
At the time of his death, Dean had signed on to appear in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' (1956) and 'The Left-handed Gun' in 1958 with Warner Bros. Paul Newman took these roles instead and helped make him a star. He had one of the most spectacularly brief careers of any screen star. In little over a year and in only three films, Dean became a widely admired screen personality and a personification of the restless American youth of the mid-50s.
Celebrate a cultural icon in print - James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton
This is the book that restarted the James Dean cult by celebrating him as the cool, defiant visionary of pop culture who made adolescence seem heroic instead of awkward and who defined the style of rock ’n’ roll’s politics of delinquency. The only book to fully show how deliberately and carefully Dean crafted his own image and performances, and the product of still unequalled research, vivid writing, intimate photographs, and profound meditation, James Dean: The Mutant King has become almost as legendary as its subject.
Witness a legendary talent - The James Dean Collection
A must-have for all James Dean fans, and for anyone who enjoys and appreciates great cinema, this six-disc DVD collection includes all three of Dean's landmark films and is jam-packed with extras. One short life - all three of his unforgettable films.