Written by Kate Morgan on October 28, 2019
James Dean was an American actor, born February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. He was an only child and his parents were Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson Dean.
In his early childhood years he lived with his parents, and his father was a dental technician. His mother wanted him to be a performer and James took tap dance lessons when he was 3, as well as learned to play the violin.
The family moved to Santa Monica, California several years later when James was 6. Sadly his mom died in 1940 from cancer, which was to affect James quite strongly his whole life. After that his dad sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in a rural Quaker environment in Fairmount, Indiana on a farm. He did well there and his hobbies were swimming, ice skating, cars, basketball, and he was on the debate and drama team in school.
James graduated high school in 1949 and then went to live with his father and stepmom for a time in Los Angles, California. He went to Santa Monica City College with a major in pre-law, but was already showing his acting talent. He then went to University of California in Los Angles. There, he became friends with James Whitmore, an actor, and got a role in a TV show called Hill Number One.
He caught the acting bug and dropped out of college. He went on every audition he could get, and ended up playing bit parts for a while during 1951. His first TV role was a part in a Pepsi Cola advertisement. He also worked on the game show Beat the Clock as a tester for their stunts in 1950.
The biggest role during that timeframe was a war movie called Fixed Bayonets, as well as a role during 1952 in a movie called Sailor Beware, that starred Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. A year later Lee Strasberg hired him to work for Actors Studio. That same year he also had a part in a movie called Has Anybody Seen My Gal.
He ended up being awarded Best Newcomer of the Year by Blum Theatre World for 1953 and 1954 due to a part in The Immoralist.
During March 1954 a director named Elia Kazan gave him a part in a movie called East of Eden. Later he was chosen to play a role in Rebel Without a Cause alongside Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood. June 1955 he started his filming of the movie Giant, with his costars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. After that movie, he was due to be in a play entitled The Corn is Green, but went on vacation prior to the start.
He is most known for his now iconic starring role, in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, and is famous for the red jacket he wore in the movie.
His Death and Legendary Stardom
As stated earlier, James loved cars. He had a new Porsche Spyder, that he wanted to use in car racing in Salinas, California. Sadly while racing it in practice sessions in Paso Robles, California he would be involved in a head-on car accident. He was killed in the accident by a broken neck on September 30, 1955 at age 24.
He was with his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich, who was badly injured but not killed. Every year a festival is held in his honor and thousands of people normally attend it. He driver of the car that he hit was Donald Turnupseed, who later died of cancer in 1995. He has said that he couldn’t swerve to keep from hitting James’ car.
His mechanic Weütherich, who was the passenger in James car when it crashed, was said to have fallen into a deep depression due to the incident. He later died in a different car crash in 1981.
Contrary to popular opinion at the time of the wreck, it was discovered James was not speeding as previously was thought. The well-known Failure Analysis Associates in Menlo Park, California, did an accident reconstruction of the wreck and said he was only going between 55 and 56 miles per hour. The rumor of him speeding was likely due to the fact he had gotten a speeding ticket only two hours and 15 minutes prior to the fatal crash.
A strange thing happened shortly before the accident. James had recorded a interview along with Gig Young to play in the ABC show “Behind the Camera.” In it he talked about taking chances on the road unnecessarily, but said he didn’t do that any longer and gave the advice for young drivers to take it easy on the road as the life they save could be his. Due to his death that interview never ran or was ever shown on TV.
James is buried in Fairmount, Indiana at Park Cemetery and at least 3,000 folks came to the funeral held October 8, 1955. His tombstone has been stolen twice, but was recovered.
Symbol for Youth, Other Honors
James became a symbol for the young generation and they worshipped him after his death. He ended up getting several posthumous awards, including in 1956 being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for parts in the films East of Eden and Giant, as well as the French Crystal Star, Japanese Million Pearl, and was the first actor nominated for an Academy Award after their death for his part in East of Eden but didn’t get picked for it.
There are also lots of James Dean fan clubs to this day. Some even started rumors that he was really alive and had been badly injured, but of course that was untrue. Since his death he has been the choice by Empire Magazine in 1995 as number forty-two of the top one hundred sexiest stars, as well as in 1997 chosen as number thirty-three by UKs Empire Magazine in the list of the top sexiest stars of all time. And Entertainment Weekly voted him as the 22nd Greatest Movie Star of all time as well as Premiere magazine voted him as the 30th Greatest Movie Star of all time.
Plus he has been the topic of several songs, and was on a 32¢ US commemorative postage stamp from the Legends of Hollywood series, issued June 24, 1996.
All in all, he was and is very famous for his short successful, yet tragic career.