James Byron Dean was a cultural icon in the 50s. People were recovering from the destruction that the second world conflict had placed on the United States and needed a strong role model like Dean. As a result, he had a powerful social and cultural impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Many people believe that had he lived a longer life, he would have been amongst the most successful actors of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the world will never know of James Dean’s true potential as a thespian, but his loveable quirks and tumultuous past continue to enchant us to this day.
To the Coast and Back
James Dean had an incredibly challenging childhood. He was especially close to his mother, Mildred. However, she passed away from cancer when James was only nine years old. His father, Winton, had initially moved the family to California so that he could become a dentist, but once his wife had passed, he sent James to live in Indiana.
He believed that James would be more comfortable being closer to home, and so he ended up living with his aunt and uncle. Though they treated him well, Dean missed his mother tremendously. As a result of his anguish, he broke down in tears one day in school.
A Nasty Argument
James Dean lived on his aunt and uncle’s farm. Their family were Quakers and tried to impose their beliefs on him, which he did not take very well too. He and his father would become estranged because of of a nasty argument, and they would not speak for years.
James did, however, stay with his father for a short while he was studying at Santa Monica City College, but then transferred to UCLA in 1950. This was the best decision at the time as he simply couldn’t stand being around the man who had left him to be raised by Quakers.
Even though Dean had lousy eyesight and needed strong glasses to do anything at all, he was a terrific athlete. Track was among his favorite sports, but he was generally a well-rounded athlete. He played both basketball and baseball, though he was most successful at pole vaulting.
He even won a county record in vaulting while he was still in high school. His basketball coach called James an “all-American type boy,” saying that he was a “heady player and a good competitor.” This is quite funny given the role that Dean would become most well-known for.
Crying For Attention
Already cheeky from a young age, James Dean was part of the debate team in high school and partook in egregious behavior. He was known to invent his sources in order to ensure his success in the competitions.
The thing of it was, he got caught and was severely punished. This did not deter him from being part of the team, and he shrugged off the repercussions of the taken actions. James Dean enjoyed being the center of attention, which may be part of why he held himself in the way that he did.
A Budding Mechanic?
The soon-to-be actor loved tinkering with his bicycle as a young child. He put bikes in real danger of becoming dysfunctional by disassembling and reassembling them for hours over and over again.
The young boy would be kept occupied for hours on end playing with tools and getting himself covered in bicycle grease. His family would reprimand him for coming home with ruined clothes, but this did nothing to stop him from pursuing his current interest. His loved ones were well aware that James tended towards becoming extremely engrossed in certain activities.
No Socks No Shoes
As expected from his tendency to walk around in dirty pants as a child, James had no interest in his appearance. He would show up to a formal dinner without socks or shoes! His jeans would often be dirty and overly worn out given the occasion, or indeed any occasion.
This happened more than once, but James was completely shameless and refused to be bothered by such social etiquette. These types of incidents happened regularly: on one especially memorable occasion, he showed up wearing pants that were held up by safety pins.
A Cranky One
Like all great artists and actors, James Dean was reported to have a difficult temperament. His friends even confirmed that he had constant mood swings, his best friend even saying that he would be “up one minute, down the next.” Dean was also referred to as being “uncomfortable in his own skin” by several people in his surroundings.
He could also be random in his behavior, showing up at people’s houses at anti-social hours or calling them late at night. This was not something that was so unexpected being as he suffered from severe insomnia.
Dean worshipped fellow actor Marlon Brando. The problem was, Brando was not at all interested in pursuing a friendship with an emotionally unstable young actor. Instead, Marlon Brando gave James the name of a psychoanalyst. Surprisingly, Dean attended a few sessions.
Brando was just as taken aback but was pleased to see that his work improved. No one really knows if it was the sessions that helped or the motivation to impress Brando that pushed Dean to become a better actor, but it regardless triggered a positive development. Rumor has it that Dean and Brando would later become extremely close.
James Dean is an incredibly famed actor, but the number of films he starred in is completely disproportional to the recognition he receives. James was only in three movies throughout his entire acting career, which in all fairness was quite short to begin with.
Dean played lead roles in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. Incidentally, the latter wasn’t released until his passing in 1955. But he never got to play his dream role. Dean was a huge fan of the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, but would not be able to play the real-life outlaw.
Invisible to the Eye
The now acclaimed actor had excellent taste in music and books. His favorite piece was The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a brilliant novel about a child who reigns over a planet and takes great pride in owning a rose.
This book, though unpopular at the time of its release, is now a classic read by children and adults alike all over the world. James Dean’s favorite song was When Your Lover Has Gone, by Billie Holiday. This rather morose tune suited Dean, who typically enjoyed more depressing works and frowned upon overly cheerful behaviors.
His first acting job was quick and painless. He worked on a Pepsi Cola commercial but was only paid ten dollars for it. He received the role when one of his fraternity brothers at UCLA had dragged him along to auditions after Dean had performed beautifully in the college’s production of Macbeth.
This commercial opened doors for him, and the producer included James on his TV project, Hill Number One. James had a small part that nonetheless built him a fan club.
Tap Shoes and Pirouettes
James Dean was reasonably musically inclined. He was lucky enough to have received music lessons from his mother but especially enjoyed playing the bongos.
He found great stress relief in banging on his drums. His mother continued to influence his rhythm by enrolling him in tap lessons when he was only three years old. James even enjoyed more classical dancing and decided to take ballet lessons as an adult. This was fairly controversial at the time, but he wasn’t bothered.
The Tragic Accident
Dean found his demise in an atrocious car accident. This snafu happened on September 30th, 1955. The iconic Spyder collided with a Ford Tudor at the intersection of highways 41 and 46.
James was in bad shape after the wreck and ended up passing as soon as the ambulance arrived at the hospital. He had suffered terrible internal injuries and a broken neck. After an investigation, no one was able to determine whether or not Dean had been speeding, and it was simply ruled as an accident.
James Dean posthumously made waves when he was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for this role in East of Eden. This was, however, not his doing as he had already been in the collision when the film was released. Dean was the first actor to whom this had ever happened.
Incidentally, this also occurred when Giant was released, but he did not win the award. The same thing happened to Heath Ledger as he was already deceased when he was nominated for his role in The Dark Night.
A Disregard For Personal Hygiene
Calling his friends at odd hours was not the only type of strange behavior that Dean exhibited. He also had distasteful habits that came out while he was filming Giant.
He was known to wear the same filthy t-shirt for up to two weeks in a row. If that wasn’t bad enough, James was often late to set, causing significant delays in the filming process. As a real kicker, Dean often urinated in front of people.
Yet Another Collision
Dean was around in the days before top quality orthodontia and suffered from it as a result: because of a horrific trapeze incident in the family barn, Dean lost his two front teeth.
He ended up wearing false teeth for the rest of his life and amused himself by taking them out in front of people while in conversation. James lied and said that he’d lost his teeth in a motorcycle accident, which no one believed.
A Hypocritical Interview
During an interview with Gig Young on ABC, Dean worked to promote Rebel Without a Cause. He spent half the interview talking about safe driving, being quoted as having said, “I used to fly around quite a bit, you know, I took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highway.
Now when I drive on the highway, I’m extra cautious. ” The interview was ended by Dean telling everyone to drive safe. After all that effort, the interview was never aired.
“This Guy’s Gotta Stop”
Dean’s reported last words just seconds before the crash were chilling. Dean’s passenger Rolf Wütherich didn’t actually remember the moments before the crash as they were quite traumatic, when he was interrogated in the coroner’s deposition, it was said that,
“That guy’s gotta stop…He’ll see us”. This was right before he crashed into a car crossing over the centerline. This just goes to show that Dean was very wrong to trust this stranger.
Obsessed with Origin
James Dean is about as Anglo-Saxon as it gets. His ancestry is primarily English, though no one knows exactly from where. He is also partly Scottish, German, Irish, and Welsh. Like many Americans, however, Dean’s family origins are blurry.
The actor lived far before the extensive ancestry tools that are available today but was still interested in knowing where he came from. This became a bit of an obsession with him, most likely because his family was so shattered.
Beat the Clock
Dean’s other job was as a tester on a popular game show. He spent time on the set of Beat the Clock but was quickly fired because he was too effective at performing the stunts.
It is assumed that he was let go because he set the bar too high for other contestants. Beat the Clock requires participants to perform a variety of antics in order to win a selection of prizes. It first premiered in 1950.
My Life With James Dean
One of the women (of many) that James Dean dated was actress Liz Sheridan. Best known for her role as Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld, she even wrote a book about her experience as the now ex-girlfriend of the famed actor.
The book was called Jimmy: My Life with James Dean: A Love Story and told a rather dubious version of what happened between the two of them. Sheridan claims that they met in New York in 1951 and that they were engaged to be married.
Please Step Out of the Vehicle
On the same day of his renowned car crash, Dean was driving to a road race in Salinas, California. While rushing down the freeway in his brand-new Porsche Spyder, a police officer ticketed him for going 65 miles per hour in a 55 zone.
Just two hours later did a Ford Tudor sedan collide with him 80 miles from Bakersfield. The ticket did nothing to subdue James, who was a huge fan of adrenaline.
Pull the Rabbit Out of the Hat
James Dean was more than an actor or an avid car racer. He also loved practicing magic tricks, his favorite trick being to light a match and place it in his mouth along with an unlit cigarette. A lit cigarette would then emerge!
Dean was well-known for his smoking habit, something that would be highly frowned upon today. But the cigarettes helped shape his image, so he happily dealt with the consequences.
“Make Him Read the Lines”
Prior to establishing a good career, James Dean worked at CBS as a parking lot attendant. This is where he met the director of the radio Rogers Brackett.
They became very close, and Brackett helped James with support, career guidance, and a place to stay. These humble beginnings just go to remind ourselves that everyone has to start somewhere and that knowing the right people has the potential to put us in the right place in life.
A lover of speed, Dean used part of his East of Eden advance to purchase both a red convertible and a motorcycle. By March 1955, he’d started competing in road races.
He even took his white Porsche Super Speedster to second place in his debut in Palm Springs. While he was working on Giant, the studio barred him from racing. But his hardly stopped James, and as soon as the film was finished, the Speedster was traded in for a Porsche 550 Spyder.
The Real Speed Racer
Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, met with Dean at a Hollywood restaurant just after Dean had bought the Spyder. Guinness let his friend know that he had had a premonition and told him to stay away from the car.
Guinness told him that if he got in the car, he’d be found deceased in it by the following week. James Dean ignored the warning, but the premonition was to come true.
The Car is Cursed
It is unclear where the notorious Spyder is today, but auto customizer George Barris purchased it after the accident and established that the car was cursed.
He justified this idea because as soon as the car arrived in his shop, the car rolled off a trailer and crushed an employee’s legs in the process. A thief also broke in the shop to try to steal the steering wheel but broke his arm trying to do so.
Good Company and Conversation
When Dean was in New York and was still in an unstable place financially, he started eating for free at a restaurant on Sixth Avenue at 54th Street called Jerry’s Bar.
Jerry Lucci did not pity James but instead fed him because he enjoyed his company and conversation. It was a popular place, and so when the restaurant was full, James would eat in the kitchen.
James Dean was studying at UCLA but ended up dropping out because he knew he wanted to be an actor. He wound up moving clear across the country to New York and stared in a few Broadway musicals and several television shows.
He met John Steinbeck, the author of East of Eden, and was directly approved of Dean starring in the movie adaptation.