James Dean - Actor
Created | Updated May 28, 2008
What I remember most about him was the little boy quality shining forth at you from behind those thick glasses of his, tearing at your heart. He had that extreme and touching idealism of youth which made you wish that he would never have to be disillusioned. Now he won't be.
- Louella Parsons
American James Byron Dean, otherwise known as Jimmy Dean, became an actor during the 'silver screen' era of film. Dean was born on 8 February, 1931, in an apartment called 'The House of the Seven Gables' in Marion, Indiana, to Winton and Mildred Dean.
In 1935, Dean's father's job, as a dental technician, prompted a move from Indiana and to Los Angeles, California. Dean and his mother were very close and she encouraged him in his pursuits. However, on 14 April, 1940, she died of cancer leaving her eight-year-old son wondering why she had left him.
I never knew the reason for Mom's death, in fact it still preys on my mind.
Later the same month, Dean returned to Indiana by train to live with his aunt, uncle and cousin on a farm in Fairmount. Dean travelled to Indiana with his mother's coffin. In Fairmount Dean met a teacher called Adeline Nall who taught a number of subjects and inspired Dean to pursue a career as an actor. In 1947, he landed a part in Fairmount High School's production of Mooncalf Medford, The Monkey's Paw and An Apple from Coles County. Dean also had a passion for sport and played for Fairmount High School's basketball team, The Quakers, whom he led to victory in 1948.
Dean was to women what Monroe was to men — sexy, intelligent, shy and fragile. Edna Ferber, the author of Giant said:
[James Dean] was spectacularly talented, handsome in a fragile sort of way and absolutely outrageous. He was an original. Impish, compelling, magnetic, utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next. Definitely gifted.
Lew Bracker, Dean's close friend, said of him: 'Those who didn't know him misunderstood his shy personality and therefore were quick to dismiss him, which hurt him.'
He would be bothered when someone would say he was mean and disrespectful. Because actually, he wasn't. They took silence to mean he cared little or nothing for them. They didn't have the insight, or didn't care to exercise the insight, in knowing that he was a shy boy that just didn't know how to approach them. Instead of making an attempt to approach him, they just, well, they just wrote him off.
Another person who worked with him was Ronald Reagan who reported:
When I worked with him on TV, I found him to be an intelligent young actor who seemed to live only for his work. He was completely dedicated, and although a shy person, he could hold a good conversation on many wide-ranging subjects.
Following graduation in 1949, Dean returned to California to live with his father and stepmother. On 18 January, 1950, he became a freshman at Santa Monica Junior College where he majored in pre-law, but during the autumn of that same year, he transferred and majored in drama at UCLA, where he played Malcolm in Shakespeare's Macbeth. This transfer infuriated his father who didn't want Dean to become an actor and as a result father and son became estranged. Later that year, Dean obtained a part in an advertisement for Pepsi which contained the slogan 'Pepsi Cola hits the spot...' and featured people dancing to a jukebox.
He dropped out of college entirely in 1951 with the desire to concentrate on a career as an actor full time and joined James Whitmore's acting workshop. Whitmore saw potential in Dean and encouraged him to pursue an acting career in New York. Dean adhered to James Whitmore's idea and moved to New York on 1 September, 1951.
In New York, Dean became a member of Lee Strasberg's 'Actors Studio' and was so excited by this that he wrote a letter home calling it:
The greatest school of the theatre. 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.
His membership elevated his career success and led to appearances in television commercials, television shows and a role in a Broadway play called See the Jaguar, in which he played a sixteen-year-old-child that had been kept in an icehouse because of his mother. Although the play only ran for three days, it helped Dean become noticed. In 1954, Dean played an Arab boy in The Immoralist alongside Louis Jordan and Geraldine Page, which led to Elia Kazan offering Dean a Warner Brothers contract with the film East of Eden. Dean accepted the offer before moving on to play the young rebellious character Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and Jett Rink in Giant. Dean played the character Rink so well that nobody would have guessed that the young star couldn't lasso until filming had started commencing. 'Even his lines were uttered as if he'd always known them,' reflected work colleague Jim Backus.
He had the greatest power of concentration I have ever encountered. He prepared himself so well in advance for any scene he was playing, that the lines were not simply something he had memorized - they were actually a very real part of him.
A few days after the completion of Giant Dean was to start work on The Corn Is Green, but fate took him in another direction.
Despite the fact the camera showed him fitting in with those around him off screen, Dean felt very alone and felt he wasn't as macho as his heroes Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart. Stevens was also unhappy with Dean, as Dean wanted to embellish his role, while Stevens wanted to rein him in. Affected by this and the fact that his contract did not allow him to take part in car racing1, Dean started to show up when he felt like acting, which annoyed Stevens so much he gave him a dressing down in front of the whole cast and crew.
During the filming of Giant, Dean stayed in Sherman Oaks apartment at 14611 Sutton Street, Hollywood. Dean entertained guests there; but, on many occasions when not entertaining, he engaged in heated arguments with his lover, Ursula Andress2, clearly audible to those outside. Soon after, Andress met John Derek, putting an end to her relationship with Dean. However, Dean wasn't prepared to give her up without a fight. He would show up wherever Derek wined and dined with Andress. Then he met another European actress, Leslie Caron. Dean later remarked that he was won over by European women.
Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today.
During the filming of Giant Dean met three mechanics and fell in love with a Porsche 550 Spyder, which he bought and was keen to enter into races as soon as he had finished filming. Just before he was to enter his car into a race in Salinas, California, disaster struck. On 30 September, 1955, Dean suffered terminal injuries in a head-on collision with another car, 30 miles (48 km) east of Paso Robles. Dean's passenger, mechanic Rolph Wutherich, was admitted to hospital with serious injuries. However, Dean was announced dead on arrival at hospital. Ironically, just before his death, Dean had appeared in an interview for the National Highway Committee telling people drive safely on the roads.
Since His Death
Since the crash those refusing to believe he could have died started a rumour that he was alive, but deformed, in hospital and he has achieved cult status, even influencing fellow thespians like Johnny Depp, as Depp reveals:
When I read that Dean was also from 'The Method' school, it all sort of came together for me. So that was a really important period for me, about three or four years before I decided to become an actor – and James Dean was the catalyst.
Depp also points out that the rebellious youthful image Dean portrayed also influenced The Beatles and the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.
Elvis was a huge fan of James Dean. When Elvis met Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray, he knelt down on his knees and began to recite pages of Dean's dialogue from Rebel and told the director he had watched the movie dozens of times to learn the lines.