Original footage of James Dean's screen test for 'Rebel Without A Cause'
(Credit: Pixabay)

The story of a cultural icon: James Dean

Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” – James Dean

One of the biggest cultural icons of the 1950s, it has been 65 years since the untimely demise of American actor James Dean. Dean only starred in three films in his career but his influence can still be observed in frequent references of contemporary pop culture. He was just 24 when he died in a tragic car crash but his legacy has stood the test of time.

Born in Marion, Indiana, Dean was an only child and was especially close to his mother who died of uterine cancer when he was nine. The family had moved to Santa Monica but after the death of his mother, Dean’s father sent him back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle’s Quaker farm and this separation started the lifelong estrangement between Dean and his father. The actor was an exceptional student with varied interests, he played on the baseball and varsity basketball teams, studied drama, and competed in public speaking. Although he majored in pre-law from Santa Monica College, he transferred to UCLA for one semester where he changed his major to drama. Dean’s father did not approve of his decision, further reinforcing their disconnect. UCLA marked the actual beginning of Dean’s acting career. He was chosen from a group of 350 actors to portray Malcolm in a college Macbeth production.

While at UCLA, he was also a part of celebrated American actor James Whitmore’s workshop. In 1951, Dean finally made up his mind about his future. He dropped out of UCLA to pursue his acting career: “I wasn’t happy where I was. I was studying a field I didn’t like, so I transferred to U.C.L.A. for a drama major. I figured I might as well pursue this dream now, cause you’ll never know if you’ll have time to do so later.”

It was when Dean first appeared in a Pepsi cola commercial that he was seriously seen on people’s television screens. Following that, he was handed his first speaking part in an Easter television special called Hill Number One. Initially, proper roles were hard to come by. That said, he did manage to score three walk-on parts in films like Has Anybody Seen My Gal? and Sailor Beware. Out of necessity, Dean started working as a parking lot attendant at CBS studios where he met an advertising executive called Rogers Brackett. It was Brackett and Whitmore who encouraged Dean to move to New York City in order to further his career which proved a pivotal moment. While he started out by working as a stunt tester for game show Beat the Clock, before they fired him because he allegedly finished the tasks too quickly, Dean went on to mack appearances in various CBS television series but the actual next step for him was when he was admitted to the famed Actors Studio and studied method acting under Lee Strasberg. He was proud of being a part of such a reputed institution, writing about it in a letter to his family: “The greatest school of the theatre. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock, Eli Wallach… Very few get into it … It is the best thing that can happen to an actor,” he once wrote. “I am one of the youngest to belong.”

In 1952, he also added a non-speaking bit part as a pressman in the film Deadline – U.S.A. (starring Humphrey Bogart) to his growing CV. It was around this time that he started working a lot more in early 1950s television shows such as Kraft Television Theatre and Danger. Dean would often go off-script and improvise, a factor which separated him from others. In one show, he managed to confuse his co-star, actor and future president Ronald Reagan with his unique acting method but, in truth, his colleagues disliked his spontaneous performances. While speaking about Dean’s work, one of his co-stars once said, “Just make him say the lines as they’re written.” His television career also offered a glimpse of his future potential before Dean went on to play a disillusioned youth in one of his early roles for CBS show Omnibus, a character very similar to the one he immortalised in his magnum opus Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Later though, Dean finally got his Hollywood call-up in 1953, a time when Elia Kazan was on the lookout for a talented actor to play the role of Cal Trask in screenwriter Paul Osborn’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden. Kazan had mentioned that he had wanted “a Brando” for the role but Osborn wanted to cast the relatively unknown Dean. That said, Steinbeck met with Dean but he did not like the young, brooding actor. However, in the end, he felt that Dean was perfect for the part. A large portion of Dean’s performance in East of Eden was unscripted, the most famous improvised sequence being the one where Cal’s father (played by Raymond Massey) refuses to take money from his son. The script demanded that Cal run away from his father but Dean instinctively turned to Massey. In a moment of acting brilliance, he lunged forward and embraced his father, crying and it was that moment in which Kazan decided to use this and Massey’s shocked reaction in the film and, it is work like that, which led to Dean being nominated posthumously for the 1956 Academy Awards as Best Actor for his work in East of Eden. This was the first official posthumous acting nomination in the history of the Oscars and East of Eden was also the only one of Dean’s major works to be released during his lifetime.

The rising star followed up with what has probably become his best-known work of all time, the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause. It became very popular with teenagers because they felt it was an accurate representation of teenage angst and the fight against ennui. When asked about his favourite personal work, Dean said:

“I’d have to say Rebel Without A Cause. I find it absolutely exhilarating how well that film relates to a wider audience, not just my regular demographic, but also to teens who feel like they are in the same position as Jim Stark in the movie.”

Despite all the acclaim, Dean did not want to keep playing the rebellious teenager in films. His last project, the 1956 Western epic Giant, offered him a deviation from the kind of roles he was used to playing. He starred as a Texas ranch hand who becomes an oil magnate by accident and Giant was released posthumously and for his wonderful performance, Dean earned his second posthumous Best Actor Academy Award nomination. The actor was slated to work in upcoming projects like Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and was also supposed to reunite with the director of Rebel Without A Cause, Nicholas Ray, on a film called Heroic Love. Dean’s tragic death put an end to it all.

After the unprecedented commercial success of East of Eden, Dean purchased multiple sports cars, including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356 as his fame grew to astronomical lengths. He often discussed his desire to build a career in motorsport and even competed in professional events, the first being Palm Springs Road Races, which was held in Palm Springs, California on March 26–27, 1955. He won podium finishes in both the novice category and the main event. It was his dream to be able to participate in the Indianapolis 500 but he was too busy. His brief racing career was put on hold by Warner Brothers who asked him to prioritise his work in Giant but they couldn’t keep him away for long. Shortly after, Dean entered the Salinas Road Race event with his new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and, along with stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, Collier’s photographer Sanford Roth, and German mechanic Rolf Wütherich, Dean set out for the race but he never made it because of a gnarly accident at an intersection. The actor was trapped in his car and sustained severe injuries, including a broken neck. His funeral was attended by 600 mourners and another 2,400 fans gathered outside of the building.

James Dean was one of the formative influences of the teenage culture of the mid-1950s and misunderstood teenagers all over the world identified with his “rebel without a cause”. Several music researchers also noted Dean’s singular influence on rock and roll, including the works of Elvis Presley. It is disheartening to know that a future as bright as Dean’s was cut short so abruptly but his legacy still lives on. 65 years after his death, he is still remembered by fans of his work and the people in his life. In an interview, Dean had this to say when he was asked about what advice he would give to aspiring actors:

You don’t have forever to live, if you have a dream, follow it. Nobody should tell you that you’re not good enough to do what you want to do.

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