James Dean (1931-55)

James Dean
James Dean
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James Dean has one of the most unusual histories of any of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, in that, before his early death he appeared in only three starring roles in the space of little over a year, and yet very quickly became, and still is, a worldwide cultural icon, the very symbol of teenage disillusion and rebellion.

He was voted at number 18 in the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Screen Legends.


He was born James Byron Dean on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. (His middle name was derived from a relative, Byron Dean, not from Lord Byron.)

His father was a farmer who became a dental technician and moved the family to Santa Monica, California, when James was still very young. His mother died from cancer when James was just nine and he was sent by his father to live with his father's sister, Ortense, on a Quaker farm near Fairmount, northeast of Indianapolis. He proved to be a lacklustre student at Fairmount High School but took part in several school plays which fuelled his initial interest in acting.

In 1949, Dean graduated from high school and moved back to California to study law at Santa Monica College, but eventually transferred to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study his new interest: drama. His career choice was was made easier when he was selected from a pool of 350 acting hopefuls to play Malcolm in Shakespeare's 'Macbeth.' He also received acting lessons and advice at the James Whitmore acting workshop in Hollywood. In January, 1951 he made the decision to make acting his full time career and he dropped out of his course at UCLA.

Acting Career

Dean's first professional acting job was in a Cola television advertisement in 1951, handing out bottles to teenagers at a fairground.

For the next 2 years he found work hard to come by and after some more limited TV commercial work and three uncredited roles in movies, 'Fixed Bayonets!' in 1951, and 'Sailor Beware' and 'Has Anybody Seen My Gal?', both of which were released in 1952, he moved to New York to try to further his career.

More television work followed his move, as he became better known. He worked for a while as a games tester on the game show "Beat the Clock" and he appeared in small roles in several television series such as 'The Web', 'Studio One' and 'Lux Video Theatre'. He joined the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio and gradually became more confident in his ability, performing in several stage plays and continuing with his television work.

During the early 1950's Dean appeared in numerous episodes of such television shows as 'Kraft Television Theatre', 'Robert Montgomery Presents, 'Danger', 'General Electric Theater', and numerous others.


In 1954 he played an Arab boy in 'The Immoralist', adapted for the stage from André Gide's novel, and he won the Bloom Award as "Best Newcomer" for his performance. He also attracted the interest of Hollywood. Director Elia Kazan was looking for a young actor to play the difficult role of Cal Trask in 'East of Eden', the movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel. Dean was chosen after meeting with Steinbeck, who did not like him personally, but thought him ideally suited for the role. In April, 1954 Dean left New York and moved to Los Angeles to begin his new life.
'East of Eden'
In a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Dean played Cal Trask, a wayward, misunderstood son who competed for his father's love with his favored twin brother, played by Richard Davalos.

Many of his scenes in the film were emotional, unscripted improvisations. He would eventually be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this role, making him the first actor in history to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.
'Rebel Without a Cause'
Dean quickly followed up his success in 'East of Eden' with a starring role in 'Rebel Without a Cause', a film which remains by far the best film of that era dealing with the then new phenomenon of teenage delinquency. It is also the film which best showcases Dean's acting talent.

Jim Stark, a speed-obsessed teenager, played by Dean, feels let down by his family, his teachers, the cops, and most of his peers. Together with other teenage outcasts, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), he tries to establish his own alternative family, one based on mutual understanding and united by idealistic notions of "sincerity". They move into a derelict and isolated mansion in the Los Angeles hills, where the film's dramatic climax occurs. The movie was an immediate hit when it was released in October 1955, less than 1 month after Dean's death.
Dean was now a major Hollywood star but in his next film, 'Giant', he played the supporting role of cowhand Jett Rink who becomes suddenly rich when he discovers oil. His costars were Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and his role was unusual in that he dyed his hair grey and shaved some of it off in order to portray an older version of his character in one scene.

'Giant' would be Dean's last film. He received a posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination for it, his second consecutive posthumous nomination.


In mid 1955 Dean signed a nine picture contract with Warner Brothers. He was due to appear in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me', and 'The Left Handed Gun', but both parts were later taken by Paul Newman. Dean had already taken a role from Paul Newman - Cal Trask in 'East of Eden'.

On September 30, 1955 Dean was driving his Porsche Spyder west on U.S. Highway 466 in California when a 1950 Ford Tudor, driven from the opposite direction by 23-year-old student Donald Turnupseed, attempted to take a fork in the road and crossed into Dean's lane without seeing him. The two cars hit almost head on.

Dean's passenger, Porsche motor mechanic Rolf Weütherich, was thrown from the car, but survived with a broken jaw and other injuries. James Dean was killed almost immediately from the impact from a broken neck. Dean was taken to the local Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

He was buried in Park Cemetery, Fairmount, Indiana. He was 24 years old.

James Dean Academy Awards

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... East of Eden (1955)
Best Actor ... Giant (1956)


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James Dean Filmography

Fixed Bayonets!
Sailor Beware

Deadline - U.S.A. (unconfirmed, uncredited)
Has Anybody Seen My Gal
Trouble Along the Way
East of Eden
Rebel Without a Cause