Why the world still remembers James Dean | DW | 08.02.2021
Although the exact circumstances of James Dean's fatal car accident are unclear, what is certain is that on September 30, 1955, the 24-year-old movie star lost his life and became a timeless cultural icon.
On the day of the accident, Dean was traveling across California with a friend, German mechanic and race car driver Rolf Wütherich. The pair were on their way to a car race — Dean was an avid racing fan.
In the twilight of the early evening, a car coming in the other direction turned in front of his Porsche, cutting him off. Dean, who had already been warned by the police for speeding earlier in the afternoon, was driving too fast and unable to swerve harm's way. He hit the other vehicle nearly head-on and died immediately, his neck broken.
Tragic end of a career: James Dean's Porsche after the accident
Wütherich was thrown the vehicle but survived. The actor's prized silver Porsche Spyder had been reduced to a pile of scrap metal.
The dream of becoming an actor
James Byron Dean, born on February 8, 1931, spent his early years on a farm in the US state of Indiana. As a child, he loved art and music, played the violin, made pottery and even tried tap dancing. Yet he had only one dream: to be an actor.
Dean began his acting career in Broadway theater
His family moved to California and his mother died of cancer when Dean was only nine. His father sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in a Quaker household back home in Indiana. Deeply unhappy, Dean sat for hours alone in front of a radio, taking refuge in stories that took him to faraway places. In high school, he became involved in his school's theater group.
Yet the soon-to-be star had an even greater passion: driving. At the time, he was fascinated by motorcycle racing, although he didn't even have his driver's license yet. «My hobby, or what I do in my spare time, is motorcycle,» he told his school principal. «I know a lot about them mechanically, and I love to ride. I have been in a few races and have done well.»
A fresh start in NYC
After high school, Dean moved back to California to live with his father. The cinema industry, movies, and the studios in nearby Hollywood all interested him ardently.
In 1949 he enrolled at Santa Monica College in California, choosing to study pre-law at his father's request. However, law wasn't his thing. He preferred instead to take up acting classes and workshops at UCLA in order to major in Drama.
But Dean wanted to pursue a more serious acting career and so moved to New York City, feeling magically drawn to the East Coast metropolis.
His first big hit: James Dean (middle) in «East of Eden» (1955)
The reality of being an actor in the megacity was difficult and laborious. Dean caught a break when he landed a spot in the storied «Actor's Studio» of method actor Lee Strasberg, considered the nation's most prestigious acting school at the time. Encouraged, Dean made ends meet by acting in television shows and theater productions.
A starring role
Dean was given his major role by Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan who cast him as the angst-ridden brother Cal in East of Eden, an adaptation of the 1952 novel by John Steinbeck.
Casting the inexperienced young actor in the film was a big risk for Kazan, but it paid off. Dean dashingly played a young man in America trying to find his own way in the world, and the topic struck a chord with the youth of the time, who were eager to find ways to rebel against authority. The role made him a star overnight, earning him an Oscar nomination.
ames Dean takes a break during filming the filming of «Giant»
The rebel myth lives on
Dean saw further success with his second film Rebel Without a Cause (1955) about a sensitive high-school misfit. In 1956 he shot Giant, which further cemented him as a poster child of rebellious youths in the 1950s.
Yet, Dean only lived to see the success of his first film. His accident took place before the second and third films were released. At the age of just 24, he became a posthumous pop-culture icon. His casual, cool way of dressing, haircut and defiant gaze appeared again and again in photography and fashion.
Dean was buried in his home state of Indiana. After his death, the roles he had been scheduled to play were taken over by the young Paul Newman, who, Dean, had also been influenced by Strasberg's method acting. He too became a star.
The idol for a generation: James Dean
Although Dean died 65 years ago, he has not been forgotten. Today, a small museum in Indiana commemorates the world-famous icon. The intersection where his fatal accident occurred was renamed James Dean Memorial Junction. Decades after his death, fans still place flowers there in honor of the «rebel without a cause.»
Adapted from German by Sarah Hucal
James Dean starred in the film adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, for which he received a posthumous Oscar nomination.
Dean's next starring role as an emotionally tortured teen in Rebel Without a Cause made him into the embodiment of his generation.
In early autumn 1955, Dean was killed in a car crash, quickly becoming a film icon whose legacy has endured for decades. His final film, Giant, was also released posthumously.
James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. Dean's father left farming to become a dentist and moved the family to Santa Monica, California, where Dean attended Brentwood Public School.
Several years later, Dean's mother, whom he was very close to, died of cancer, and Dean's father sent him back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle's Quaker farm. During this time, Dean sought counsel from his pastor, the Rev. James DeWeerd, who influenced his later interest in car racing and theater.
The two formed an intimate relationship that is rumored to have been sexual.
In 1949, Dean graduated from high school and moved back to California. He attended Santa Monica City College for a time, but eventually transferred to University of California, Los Angeles, and majored in theater.
After appearing as Malcolm in the school's production of Macbeth, Dean dropped UCLA.
His first television appearance was in a Pepsi Cola commercial, while his first big-screen parts, uncredited, were in 1951's Fixed Bayonets! and 1952's Sailor Beware, a comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
To make ends meet, Dean worked as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios, where he met Rogers Brackett, a radio director who became his mentor, with the two also said to have been romantically attached.
In 1951, Dean moved to New York City and was later admitted to the Actors Studio to study under Lee Strasberg, though the two were reputed to not have gotten along.
Dean's career began to pick up, and he performed in such 1950s television shows as Kraft Television Theatre, Omnibus and General Electric Theater, with a high school fan club formed after his appearance as a contemporary John the Apostle in 1951's Hill Number One: A Story of Faith and Inspiration. The fledgling actor was also garnering a reputation for being unstructured in his technique, though the work continued to come.
After a Broadway role in the short-lived 1952 drama See the Jaguar, Dean's success as an Arab boy in 1954's The Immoralist led to interest from Hollywood.
'East of Eden'
Over the ensuing months, Dean starred in three major motion pictures, beginning with the 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden.
Director Elia Kazan chose Dean after the actor met with Steinbeck, who thought him perfect for the part. Many of Dean's scenes in the film were unscripted improvisations.
He would eventually be nominated for an Academy Award for the role, making him the first actor in history to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.
'Rebel Without a Cause'
In his next film, Dean starred as the agonized teenager Jim Stark in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, a part that would define his image in American culture. He co-starred in Rebel with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, with the film focusing on the emotional alienation of three youngsters and the devastating drama that ensues from adolescent rivalry.
Dean then landed a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the epic, intergenerational family saga Giant, with Hudson playing a well-off, racially prejudiced ranch owner to Dean's impoverished, racially prejudiced ranch hand.
Giant, which was Dean's last film, had a running time of more than three hours and saw the actor portray a character whose fortunes change over the decades. He died before production was complete, with Giant ultimately released in 1956.
Dean received an Academy Award nomination for this role as well, making him the only actor in history to receive more than one Oscar nomination posthumously.
In late 2019, it was announced that a CGI version of Dean would return to theaters in the Vietnam War-era film Finding Jack, a novel by Gareth Crocker.
While some prominent actors Captain America star Chris Evans expressed their displeasure with the idea of using a digitized Dean, Finding Jack co-director Anton Ernst defended the choice by noting there were «still a lot of James Dean fans worldwide who would love to see their favorite icon back on screen.»
When Dean wasn't acting, he was a professional car racer. On Friday, September 30, 1955, Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, drove Dean's new Porsche 550 Spyder to a weekend race in Salinas, California. At 3:30 p.m., they were stopped south of Bakersfield and given a speeding ticket.
Later, while driving along Route 466, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed, after turning at an intersection, collided with Dean's Porsche. The two cars hit each other almost head-on, with the Spyder devastated from the impact.
Wuetherich was seriously injured but survived, while Dean was killed almost immediately. He was 24.