From his humble small-town beginnings to his tragic death at 24, James Dean was an unlikely star whose demise forever burned the phrase “live fast and die young” into our collective memory. Because he was killed before his career matured or his celebrity had tarnished, Dean became a permanent symbol of youthful defiance, and one of the most unforgettable figures in Hollywood history.
Born in 1931 in Fairmont, Indiana, Jimmy Dean moved to California when his father, a dentist, was transferred to a hospital in Santa Monica. Dean moved back to Indiana for high school, where he performed in several plays, but after graduation returned to Santa Monica to attend college and focus on a career in theater. Two years later, Dean dropped out of UCLA and moved to New York against his father’s wishes, where he played various bit parts until scoring a starring role in “See the Jaguar” on Broadway.
Though the play only ran for five performances, it was enough to help Dean land a successful audition at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. There Dean would work with skilled dramati...
In 1954, director Elia Kazan noticed the impressive critical response to Dean’s supporting role in “The Immoralist” on Broadway, and soon cast the young actor as Cal Trask for his next film, “East of Eden.” Dean signed a contract with Warner Brothers for $1,200 a week, guaranteeing a minimum of ten weeks work. One of the first wide-screen CinemaScope features, “East of Eden” received several rave reviews, and Cal’s intense sensitivity garnered Dean an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Before “East of Eden” was even completed, Warner Brothers had extended Dean’s contract and announced he would star in Nicholas Ray’s upcoming film, “Rebel Without A Cause.” Newly flush with cash, Dean purchased his first Porsche and started entering road-race competitions in 1955.
“Rebel Without A Cause,” follows a cast of misfit teens as they seek honest relationships in an increasingly cruel world. Dean’s distinctive tousled hair and moody eyes perfectly evoked the delinquent angst of his character, Jim Stark. As one of the first films to realistically show the difficulty of teenage existence, “Rebel Without A Cause” struck a chord with young viewers, and has continued to do so for generations.
After “Rebel Without A Cause” wrapped, Dean moved straight into the production of “Giant,” joining co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Based on the best-selling Edna Ferber novel, “Giant” follows the strained relationships between a Texas oil baron, his young trophy wife, and their difficult ranch-hand who strikes out on his own. “Giant” was a high-budget Hollywood production in the vein of “Gone With the Wind,” thriving on melodrama and heightened stereotypes. Yet Dean’s depiction of the untamed Jett Rink was regarded as a remarkable performance, showcasing the subtleties of his dramatic skill and earning him a second Oscar nomination, although this one was posthumous.
By the time filming began on this final work, Dean had developed a public reputation as an introspective loner, which he didn’t discourage; in fact, he frequently declared his neuroticism and offbeat personality in press interviews. Though there are mixed reports of his egotism on set during each of his three films, Dean’s temperamental reputation had more to do with the sullen, tormented characters he portrayed so well onscreen.
On September 30, 1955, a mere eight days after the principal photography for “Giant” was completed, Dean collided head-on with another car while driving his Porsche 550 Spyder to a race in Salinas, California. Dean was pronounced dead shortly after reaching the hospital, and his fate as a legend was sealed.
While on the set of “Giant,” Dean had filmed a promotional short for Warner Bros., in which he ad-libbed a segment about the importance of safe-driving. The interview, which wasn’t released until after his fatal crash, ended with Dean telling young viewers, “The life you save may be mine,” providing a poignant postscript to his story.
Only after his death did James Dean become the sensation we know today. When he died in 1955, only “East of Eden” had been released. Though already turning into a popular teen-idol while alive, Dean’s tragic car accident made front-page news across the globe and inspired scores of new fans to dote over the lost star. Griffith Park, where the climactic scenes in “Rebel Without A Cause” were filmed, became an overnight tourist destination, and clothiers immediately received thousands of orders for red windbreaker jackets identical to the one Dean wore in the film. Within a year, musicians released tribute songs like “His Name Was Dean” and “Ballad of James Dean,” as well as covers of the themes from his final films. Even Elvis Presley was obsessed with him, going so far as to court Dean’s "Rebel" co-star, Natalie Wood, in the hope of uncovering more about the mysterious young actor.
Dean’s early death made him a magnet for collectors, given his enigmatic personality and the limited supply of movie memorabilia and personal mementos. Original lobby cards, posters, and film stills featuring Dean’s image are highly sought today. His short life would also be the subject of numerous biographies and documentary films, as well as novels and plays for generations to come. Today, objects with James Dean’s iconic image, like ashtrays, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and calendars are issued only through an official licensing company.
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