More than six decades after his untimely death, James Dean remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring and enigmatic icons.
It’s been more than 60 years since his tragic death and still Hollywood is looking for “the next James Dean.” The young actor made only three movies in his career – East of Eden (1955) where he played the bad boy brother in the “Cain and Abel” retelling, his signature role as an angst-fueled teen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956) where he stepped into the cowboy boots of a nonconformist ranch hand. All of his movies became Hollywood classics, but he only saw one, East of Eden, completed.
He was only 24 years old on September 30, 1955, when he was driving down Route 466 in his Porsche 550 Spyder and a car collided with his, killing him almost instantly. The young star’s life and career was cut short, but his premature death contributed to the legend he would become. Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released posthumously, and Dean came to epitomize the sensitive, troubled rebel who fans still connect with today. Who was the man behind the brooding Hollywood sex symbol? Here are 7 revealing facts that might give you a clue.
He had family issues
Dean was born in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931. Dean’s father Winton left farming to become a dentist and moved the family to Santa Monica, California. But when Dean’s mother died from cervical cancer when he was 9, the family broke apart. His father sent him back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle’s Quaker farm, and this was the beginning of an estrangement between father and son that would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Dean had some dirty habits
He was the symbol of sexy cool onscreen, but off-camera the 5’8,” 135-pound star had some quirky and dirty (as in unwashed) habits. Dean supposedly didn’t care much about his public appearance and went for the disheveled look. At one formal luncheon, he showed up barefoot and in filthy jeans and was known to appear at rehearsals in pants held together with safety pins. He was also known for having pretty extreme mood swings, according to friends, who said he also had the habit of calling or visiting them late at night. “He’d be up one minute, down the next. He was uncomfortable in his own skin,” one of them said.
He looked up to Marlon Brando
Dean respected another brooding actor of the day, Marlon Brando. While Dean was just emerging in Hollywood, the slightly older Brando had major success as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), his iconic role as a motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One (1953), and he won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954). Dean attempted to call Brando and see him socially, but Brando rebuffed his attempts at a friendship. “I gave him the name of a [psycho]-analyst, and he went. At least his work improved,” Brando said.
Dean wanted to be Billy the Kid
In his short career, Dean played fictional non-conformists who played by their own rules, but if he had lived he may have taken on the role of a real-life outlaw. He read and re-read the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid and frequently spoke of wanting to portray the Wild West gunslinger in a film.
He confused Ronald Reagan with his acting method
Before he made it in the movies, Dean worked a lot on live television. A fan of improvising, he went off-script on one show and threw a few ad-libs at one of his co-stars, actor and future president Ronald Reagan, who was totally confused by Dean’s acting method. Reagan wasn’t the only one who disliked Dean’s spontaneity. “Just make him say the lines as they’re written,” one actor said once.
His sexuality has been a matter of debate
Although Dean was briefly engaged to actress Pier Angeli, his sexuality has been a matter of debate. A number of biographers doubt his relationship with Angeli was a physical one. Some biographers believe he was bisexual; others characterize him as a homosexual who had one or two brief affairs with women. It was rumored that his first sexual experience occurred as a teenager when a local minister seduced him.
Dean liked to perform magic tricks
When he wasn’t acting or racing cars, Dean liked to practice magic tricks. A smoker, who was often photographed with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Dean put a magical spin on his tobacco habit: he would put an unlit cigarette and a flaming match into his mouth and then pull out a burning cigarette. Another reason why Dean was smoking hot.
James Dean’s Death: Inside His Tragic Passing at Age 24
Though he only released one film before his dying in a car crash, the actor became a lasting figure in pop culture.
At the time of his sudden death on September 30, 1955, at age 24, James Dean had starred in only one motion picture released in theaters. He would become a cultural icon to generations and a touchstone for the burgeoning youth movement of the era, due largely to his shocking demise in a car accident that would make international headlines in a pre-digital world, and the subsequent movies that would be released posthumously in which he portrayed inward-looking, disaffected adolescents on the verge of adulthood.
When the word “teenager” was still in relatively new usage, Dean’s brief life — on- and of-screen — and sudden death from injuries sustained in a car accident would come to represent a symbol of modern masculinity in the mid-to-late 1950s, a precursor to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Jimmy represented something that was happening in the States after the Second World War. Until that moment in time, grown-ups — adults — set the style for clothing, set the styles for music, set the styles for everything that was going on,” Dean’s acting contemporary Martin Landau once saidof his friend’s cultural legacy.
Dean got his start acting in commercials and TV shows
Born James Byron Dean on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, his father was a farmer-turned-dentist father who moved his family to Santa Monica, California, where his son attended Brentwood Public School. An only child, Dean’s adored mother died of cancer when he was age 9 and he was sent to live on his aunt and uncle’s Quaker farm. He returned to California after graduating high school, studying theater at the University of California, Los Angeles.
After dropping out of college, the aspiring actor first appeared on television in a Pepsi advertisement followed by uncredited parts in minor Hollywood pictures before heading to New York City in 1951, where he studied at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg. Television roles followed in Danger, Omnibus and General Electric Theater and he appeared on Broadway in See the Jaguar and The Immoralist before Hollywood took notice of his talent and brooding good looks.
He filmed his three most-famous films shortly before his death
Dean was soon cast as Cal Trask in the 1954 film adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden. It would be the only film released prior to the actor’s death and for which he would be nominated posthumously for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the 1955 Academy Awards. As misunderstood, rebellious Cal, the role foreshadowed Jim Stark, the late-adolescent, angst-ridden character he portrayed in Rebel Without a Cause(1955) alongside Natalie Wood, which would become a teen favorite of the era and forever be identified with the image and legacy of Dean, the tragic movie star.
Fearing he would be typecast as an angry, rebellious teen, Dean’s next role was as a rags-to-riches Texan ranch hand in Giant (1956), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. It would be his final film and would garner him another posthumous Academy Award nomination, making him the only actor ever to be nominated twice following death.
It was soon after wrapping shooting on Giant that Dean returned to his other love – motorsport, in which he first competed professionally prior to filming Rebel Without a Cause. With reported ambition of one day competing in the Indianapolis 500 race, Dean’s financial success from East of Eden had allowed him to purchase a Triumph Tiger motorcycle and Porsche 356 speedster, the latter he traded in on the more powerful convertible Porsche 550 Spyder.
Dean was ticketed for speeding hours before his deadly crash
German Porsche-trained mechanic Rolf Wütherich encouraged Dean to drive the Porsche from Los Angeles to Salinas to get a feel for the new automobile, rather than tow it on a trailer behind the Ford station wagon in which he originally planned to make the journey. Dean was ticketed for speeding at 3:30 p.m., just over two hours before his untimely death.
Dean was killed when the 550 Spyder he was driving collided with a Ford Tudor sedan along then-U.S. Route 446 near Cholame, California. The Ford, driven by 23-year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, was turning at an intersection when the two cars hit almost head-on, resulting in massive damage to Dean’s Porsche. The actor died almost instantly while his passenger, Wütherich, was badly injured but survived.
His left foot crushed between the clutch and brake pedal, Dean’s neck was broken and he suffered massive internal injuries. Along with Wütherich, he was transported to the Paso Robles War Memorial hospital 28 miles away where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. As well as a broken neck, both his arms were broken, he had fractures of the upper and lower jaw and massive internal injuries. Wütherich suffered a fractured jaw, fractured hip and body lacerations. Turnupseed received only minor injuries and after being interviewed by attending California Highway Patrol officers at the scene, was released.
Dean’s legacy has grown in the decades since his death
An inquest into the crash in the days following found Dean at fault due to speeding, though a 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times cited an attending Highway Patrol Officer who recalled the wreckage and position of Dean’s body indicated a speed around 55 mph, not the 90 mph that had been widely reported.
Following the tragic collision, rumors spread over the years and decades that Dean had not really died but was living a secret, hidden life; that he was a closeted homosexual; that the Porsche in which he was driving on that fateful day was cursed. Alongside such rumors, the myth of Dean — the man and the actor — only grew as the years passed. “An actor must interpret life,” Dean once said. On screens and in photographs he remains forever on the cusp of adulthood, a representation of anti-establishment teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, an enduring representation generations have looked to as an interpretation and projection of their own inner lives.
- 7 Little-Known Facts About James Dean, Biography, 29 September 2014, by Biography.com editors https://www.biography.com/news/james-dean-facts
- James Dean’s Death: Inside His Tragic Passing at Age 24, Biography, 28 September 2020, by Colin Bertram https://www.biography.com/news/james-dean-death?li_source=LI&li_medium=bio-mid-article&li_pl=208&li_tr=bio-mid-article