Actor James Dean (1931-1955) had a short-lived but intense acting career that began in 1952 and ended tragically in his death in September 1955. After his death he became a cult figure, and fans have marveled for decades at his ability to duplicate their adolescent agony on screen.
Born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, James Byron Dean was the only child of Winton and Mildred (Wilson) Dean. Winton, a farmer-turned-dental-technician, moved his family to Santa Monica, California. when Dean was six years old. Receiving a lot of attention from both parents, he was particularly close to his mother. James Byron, as she called him, entered first grade in 1937 at the Brentwood Public School. He took violin lessons, playing well for a young child although his school friends taunted him about this activity.
In July 1940 his mother died of cancer. His father sent him, then nine, back to Indiana to live with Marcus and Ortense Winslow, his sister and brother-in-law. In Fair-mount Dean grew up in the rural Quaker home, helping with farm chores and enjoying a reasonably carefree existence. Underneath, however, he harbored great pain. "My mother died on me when I was nine years old. What does she expect me to do? Do it all alone?" Dean was later to say.
Still, he got along well, riding his motorcycle with friends and playing guard on the high school basketball team. He excelled at debate and drama, coached and trained by teacher Adeline Nall. He won several state titles for his abilities, and on April 14, 1949, the Fairmount News read, "James Dean First Place Winner in Dramatic Speaking."
After graduating in 1949 he left for Los Angeles, where he lived briefly with his father and stepmother and entered Santa Monica City College, majoring in pre-law. But it was drama in which he shone: he received Cs and Ds in law classes, As and Bs in acting. He transferred the following year to the University of California, Los Angeles, pledging Sigma Nu fraternity. Befriended by actor James Whitmore, Dean obtained a small part in a television drama, Hill Number One.
Soon Dean quit school, living precariously as a parking lot attendant and chasing auditions wherever they were available. In 1951, after landing only bit parts and a small role in Fixed Bayonets, a war picture, he left Hollywood for New York. There, in 1953, he landed a spot in the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg.
He obtained a small part in See the Jaguar which opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway on December 3, 1952. After this his career took off. He did television plays and several more Broadway productions and developed a reputation as "difficult." Despite this he won the Daniel Blum Theatre World Award for "best newcomer" of the year for his role in The Immoralist.
In March 1954 Elia Kazan, who knew Dean from Actors Studio days, offered him a Warner Brothers contract. The film was East of Eden. The film's New York preview was March 10, 1955, but Dean declined to attend. "I can't handle it," he said, and flew back to Los Angeles.
Dean finished filming Rebel Without a Cause (with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood) in June 1955 and began work on Giant. He co-starred in this with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Completing Giant in September of that year, Dean was to start rehearsing for The Corn Is Green, a play for the National Broadcasting Company. But Dean had a few days free time in which he decided to do some car racing.
Intrigued with fast automobiles, Dean had bought a $6,900 Porsche Spyder which he planned to race at Salinas, California, in September. On September 30th, he and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were involved in a head-on collision at Paso Robles, California. The Porsche was crumpled, Rolf suffered a smashed jaw and leg fracture. James Dean, dead at the age of 24, was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, on October 8, 1955. Three thousand people attended his funeral.
Less than a month later, Rebel Without a Cause opened in New York City, and the Dean legend began. Warner Brothers received landslides of mail—fans were obsessed with the curt, swaggering Dean. In February 1956 he was nominated for a Best Performance Oscar for his role in East of Eden. He also received numerous foreign awards, including the French Crystal Star award and the Japanese Million Pearl award. By June 1956 there were dozens of fan clubs, and rumors flourished that Dean was not dead, only severely injured.
Dean, interviewed in March 1955, commented on his craft, offering this curiously fatalistic view of life: "To me, acting is the most logical way for people's neuroses to manifest themselves. To my way of thinking, an actor's course is set even before he's out of the cradle."
Further Reading on James Dean
Although countless articles appeared about James Dean during his short career and following his death, there are only a few substantial biographies. They include: William Bast's James Dean (1956), written by a former roommate and close personal friend; James Dean: The Mutant King (1974) by David Dalton; James Dean, A Short Life (1974) by Venable Herndon; and Dennis Stock's James Dean Revisited (1978).