By the age of 24, James Dean had starred in three major Hollywood films, but his career ended after his tragic death 61 years ago this month.
Growing up on a farm, Dean spent his time being around animals, which helped him pretend scenarios. In his first press release, he said the farm animals taught him about acting: “Working on a farm gave me an insight on life which has been of tremendous help to me in my character portrayals.”
The life of James Byron Dean began on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. His family then moved to Fairmount — a Quaker community founded by Joseph Winslow, one of his uncle’s ancestors. Dean’s middle name, Byron, is thought to have been chosen because his mother loved the arts, especially poet Lord Byron.
Dean and his family moved to California when his dad’s government work transferred him to Santa Monica. Dean’s mom passed down her interest in the arts to her only son, enrolling him in violin lessons and dance classes. Nine-year-old Dean was sent back to a Fairmount farm to live with his Aunt Ortense when his mom died.
Dean was a well-rounded student; he played baseball and basketball in high school, and he appeared in the play Macbeth while studying at UCLA. After his appearance in the college play, an agent had offered to represent him. His first paid acting part was in a 1950 Pepsi Cola commercial, followed by small Hollywood roles in Sailor Beware, Fixed Bayonets, and Has Anybody Seen My Gal?
Soon he made auditions and dropped out of UCLA, but with the little work he found, Dean traded Hollywood for the New York theater. There he became a member of the Actors Studio, where he proceeded with his interest in method acting (based on instinct and emotion).
While in New York, Dean appeared in the Broadway play See the Jaguar at the end of 1952, which later helped him receive TV parts and further work throughout 1953. He played a homosexual in the Broadway play The Immoralist — which was a seductive and “riveting” performance that shocked audiences. According to author Marie Clayton, Dean quit that day because he had been offered his first major film role in East of Eden.
Back in California, the rising star was to work on the film based on John Steinbeck’s book East of Eden. The character he portrayed was similar to him, feeling unloved by his dad. Another role Dean related to was Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. The 23-year-old was chosen to play a 17-year-old who wanted to escape from the arguments between his parents and the lack of love he felt from his dad. The character he portrayed was not a rebel because of poverty but a teen with a troubled home. The character Jim appears arrogant, but in reality he’s insecure and vulnerable with pain and anger that leads him to trouble. Rebel Without a Cause related to many teenagers when it was shown in theaters in 1956, and it is the movie and the character Jim Stark that most people remember when they think of James Dean.
Dean was kind to his cast members and often gave them advice or acting tips; one of the recipients of his advice was actually his Rebel Without a Cause co-star Sal Mineo, who was 16 at the time. Mineo idolized Dean, just like his character does in the movie.
Natalie Wood and James Dean had appeared in the TV drama I’m a Fool, and it was Dean who gave Wood her first on-screen kiss. Enjoying the Hollywood acting experience and observing the process of filming and the way other actors did their scenes sparked Dean with an interest of directing his own movie one day, according to Marie Clayton.
The third and final film in which James Dean starred was Giant alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. He played the tough juvenile delinquent Jett Rink who years later becomes rich. According to James Dean: A Life in Pictures, Dean made the character “sympathetic, [and] a man damaged by poverty and rejection but with an essentially good heart.”
Despite being a rising star, the farm boy turned Hollywood actor was not fond of publicity. In his publicity photos, he didn’t look like the typical male movie star: charming and handsome. Instead he appeared “wild and dangerous.” He wanted to be judged by his acting, not by how he promoted his work or by his dates with actresses Pier Angeli and Ursula Andress.
Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released in 1956, more than a year after he died. In 1955, James Dean had bought a 1500cc Porsche Super Speedster Convertible, which he raced, coming in second and third place on two occasions. Ironically, during the filming of Giant, he filmed a commercial for safe driving for the National Safety Council. He died in a tragic car accident while driving a Porsche on the California highway on September 30, 1955.
After his death, Dean was nominated for Best Actor for his work in Giant, but the Academy thought his small role was not large enough. If he had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, he would have had a higher chance of winning.
Since his death, the movies James Dean starred in have been re-released in theaters, documentaries and films have been made about him, and Los Angeles has declared September 30th as James Dean Day.
James Dean had a career that began quickly — rising the Indiana native to Hollywood stardom with only three major movies by the age of 24 — but just like that, it ended. If James Dean had not died, would he have the legacy we remember today? Could he have become a bigger star who would have resonated with us or inspired us with his movie storytelling? One thing is for certain. He left us with three great works and this daily reminder: “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”