Birth: February 8, 1931
Indiana, United States
Death: September 30, 1955
California, United States
James Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Indiana and was called Jimmy by his family and friends. Although the pregnancy was not planned, his mother Mildred was absolutely smitten with him. His father Winton was a distant and reserved man. Mildred soon discovered that her son was creative and she encouraged him in every way. James studied violin and tap-dance and his mother would read poetry to him. The family moved to Los Angeles when James was six.
James was a happy kid, but this changed when he turned nine. His mother, who he had been so close to, passed away of cancer. It was decided that James would be sent to live with his aunt Ortense and his uncle Marcus in Indiana. Ortense and Marcus did their best to make the heartbroken James feel at home and after a while he settled in. He was still very creative and spent a lot of time drawing, sculpting and painting. It was during this time that he started to tell people that he wanted to become an actor when he grew up. In his teens James started to develop an interest in sports and motorcycles, but he did not forget his intentions of becoming an actor. He took speech lessons and played in highschool productions. In an essay he made during his senior year James wrote that his life would probably be devoted to art and theater. During his graduation he received prizes for his dedication in theater, art and sports.
He then decided to go back to Los Angeles and study pre-law. He tried to reconnect with his father Winton, who had remarried, but they fought a lot because Winton did not agree with James’ dream of becoming an actor. Meanwhile James got a part in the university’s production of Macbeth and his performance made enough of an impression for an agent to sign him. James was over the moon and soon enough he left school to pursue acting fulltime. Although he started with high hopes, James faced a lot of rejection and only landed small parts in film and television. Frustrated, he decided to try his luck in New York.
According to several sources James was either gay or bisexual and had relationships and sexual encounters with men. Since this was the 50’s and James wanted to be an actor, this was a part of his life he only shared with a few friends. While in New York he was accepted into the famous Actors Studio, where his role models Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift studied acting as well. He got some small parts in TV and film again. But his big break came when he was just starring in the Broadway production The Immoralist. Successful director Elia Kazan, founder of the Actors Studio, was so impressed with his performance that he offered him the leading role in his new film East of Eden. So James resigned from The Immoralist after only a few performances and followed Kazan to Los Angeles.
When he signed his contract with Warner Bros. he celebrated by buying a sports car, the first of four he would buy in the next eighteen months. During filming, Warner Bros. decided they wanted to present their new star to the public as a macho heartthrob. This was easy since James had started going out with their other new star: actress Pier Angeli. It is said that they were in love and that they planned to get married. But her Catholic mother did not approve of James and therefore Pier broke up with him.
Others say that they were merely good friends and that their romance was a publicity stunt. After filming East of Eden James started promoting the film, and himself, by doing various interviews and photo shoots. Magazines like Look, Vogue and Cosmopolitan dubbed him the next big thing and he was often compared to his idol Marlon Brando. When East of Eden premiered it was a big success and James was the star of the film. In the meantime he had found a new hobby that gave him a thrill and worried some of his friends: car racing. His next film project was Rebel Without A Cause, which was an unimportant B-movie project for Warner Bros., but when James turned out to be so popular it was promoted to A-movie status. He was the center of attention during filming and earned a lot of respect from his co-stars for his dedication to his work.
Next, James landed a coveted role in the film Giant. It had an all star cast with people like Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. Filming started in May 1955, immediately after the filming of Rebel Without A Cause. He became good friends with Elizabeth Taylor, but clashed with Rock Hudson and director George Stevens. Stevens did not like James’ Method Acting, which he had perfected during his time with the Actors Studio. But James was in hot demand and his agent was negotiating a new and better contract for him with Warner Bros..
After shooting Giant, James bought something he was incredibly excited about: a Porsche Spyder 550. He named it ‘The Little Bastard’ and had it painted on the side of the car. He was set to play in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film about boxer Rocky Graziano. But he had some time off before filming started and decided to enter a race in Salinas with his new car. He had a physical exam and the doctor concluded that he was in excellent shape to enter the race.
On September 30th 1955 James was driving to Salinas for the race. A mechanic he had befriended, Rolf Weuterich, would accompany him in the Porsche. Bill Hickman, a stuntman, and Sandy Roth, a photographer who was taking pictures for a magazine article, would follow them in a station car. Before their drive, James showed his car to his father and uncle and had lunch with them. He tried to convince them to go with him to Salinas but they both declined. About two hours after they left, James and Hickman were stopped by the police and given a ticket for speeding.
About an hour and a half later James was driving west on U.S Route 466, later State Route 46, when a Ford driven by 23-year old Donald Turnupseed came from the opposite direction, moved to take the fork onto State Route 41 and crossed into James’ lane. According to Rolf, James’ last words were: ‘That guy’s gotta stop, he’ll see us’. But according to Turnupseed he had not seen the Porsche coming. James made an attempt to swerve out of the way, but the crash was unavoidable. Dean was killed almost instantly from a broken neck caused by blunt force trauma. Rolf was thrown out of the car and had severe injuries but survived. Although reports swirled that James was speeding, patrol officers who investigated the crash say that this is untrue. James was buried in Fairmount, Indiana where he had lived with his aunt and uncle.
Less than a month later Rebel Without A Cause was released and became an instant classic. Giant was released a year later and is one of the most acclaimed films in movie history. James got a lot of praise for his performance in both films and became an icon.
See his life in pictures in the James Dean Gallery.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
East of Eden (1955)
Trouble Along the Way (1953)
Football Spectator (uncredited)
Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)
Youth at Soda Fountain (uncredited)