Nationality: American. Born: James Byron Dean in Marion, Indiana, 8 February 1931. Education: Attended Santa Monica City College (1949–50); attended University of California, Los Angeles approximately one semester (fall 1950); studied at the Actors Studio, New York. Career: 1950—appeared in Pepsi-Cola TV commercial; 1951—attended James Whitmore's acting workshop in Los Angeles; first role in a nationally broadcast TV program; bit parts in three Hollywood films; moved to New York City; 1952—between 1952 and 1955 appeared in more than two dozen TV programs, beginning with bit parts and graduating to starring roles; at 21 years of age, the youngest actor (at the time) to be admitted to Actors Studio in New York; Broadway debut in the short-lived play See the Jaguar; 1953—appeared in significant roles in numerous TV programs; especially noteworthy: "Bells of Cockaigne" (Armstrong Circle Theatre, NBC), "Harvest" (Robert Montgomery Presents, NBC), and "Something for an Empty Briefcase" (Campbell Soundstage, NBC); 1954—important TV roles continued; received critical acclaim for second Broadway role as the provocative homosexual houseboy in André Gide's The Immoralist, but gave notice almost immediately to star in Elia Kazan's film of East of Eden; signed first contract with Warner Bros.; began amateur career as sports car racer; 1955—completed starring roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant; cast as Rocky Graziano in MGM's Somebody Up There Likes Me; negotiated nine-film, six-year contract with Warner Bros. Died: 30 September 1955 in automobile accident while en route to a sports car race, just weeks before the release of Rebel Without a Cause and a year before the release of Giant; buried in Fairmount, Indiana.
Films as Actor:
Fixed Bayonets (Fuller) (bit role as soldier cut from film)
Sailor Beware (Walker) (uncredited bit role as sailor); Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (Sirk) (uncredited bit role as soda shop customer)
East of Eden (Kazan) (as Cal Trask); Rebel Without a Cause (Ray) (as Jim Stark)
Giant (Stevens) (as Jett Rink)
By DEAN: article—
"Another Dean Hits the Big League," interview with Howard Thompson in New York Times, 13 March 1955.
By DEAN: book—
St. Michael, Mick, James Dean: In His Own Words, London, 1989.
On DEAN: books—
Bast, William, James Dean: A Biography, New York, 1956.
Salgues, Yves, James Dean ou le mal de vivre, Paris, 1957.
Ellis, Royston, Rebel, London, 1962.
Tysl, Robert W., Continuity and Evolution in a Public Symbol: An Investigation into the Creation and Communication of the James Dean Image in Mid-Century America, Michigan State University Ph.D thesis, Ann Arbor, 1965.
Ciment, Michel, Kazan on Kazan, London, 1973; New York, 1974.
Dalton, David, James Dean: The Mutant King, San Francisco, 1974.
Herndon, Venable, James Dean: A Short Life, New York, 1974.
Gilmore, John, The Real James Dean, New York, 1975.
Howlett, John, James Dean: A Biography, New York, 1975.
Martinetti, Ronald, The James Dean Story, New York, 1975; 1995.
Stock, Dennis, James Dean Revisited, New York, 1978; San Francisco, 1987.
Whitman, Mark, The Films of James Dean, London, 1974; St. Paul, Minnesota, 1978.
Schatt, Roy, James Dean: A Portrait, New York, 1982.
Bourget, Jean-Loup, James Dean, Paris, 1983.
Morrissey, Steven, James Dean Is Not Dead, Manchester, 1983.
Roth, Beulah, and Sanford Roth, James Dean, Corte Madera, California, 1983.
Dalton, David, and Ron Cayen, James Dean: American Icon, New York, 1984.
Beath, Warren Newton, The Death of James Dean, London, 1986.
Devillers, Marceau, James Dean on Location, London, 1987.
Hoskyns, Barney, James Dean: Shooting Star, London, 1989.
Adams, Leith, and Keith Burns, editors, James Dean: Behind the Scene, New York, 1990.
Riese, Randall, The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z, Chicago, 1991.
Hyams, Joe, James Dean: Little Boy Lost, New York, 1992.
Alexander, Paul, Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean, New York, 1994.
Schroeder, Alan, James Dean, New York, 1994.
Holley, Val, James Dean: The Biography, New York, 1995.
Hofstede, David, James Dean: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut, 1996.
Spoto, Donald, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean, New York, 1996.
Cohan, Steven, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, Bloomington, Indiana, 1997.
Loehr, David, and Joe Bills, The James Dean Collectors Guide, Gas City, Indiana, 1999.
On DEAN: articles—
"Portrait de l'acteur en jeune homme," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 66, 1956.
Cole, Clayton, "The Dean Myth," in Films and Filming (London), January 1957.
Dos Passos, John, "The Death of James Dean," in Esquire (New York), October 1958.
Bean, Robin, "Dean, Ten Years After," in Films and Filming (London), October 1965.
Truffaut, François, "James Dean est mort," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), November 1975.
Thomson, David, "James Dean: Youth in Bold Rebellion," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Pettigrew, Terence, "James Dean: The Rebel Saint 30 Years On," in Films and Filming (London), September 1985.
Zahn, Debra, "James Dean: Rebel with an Agent," in Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1985.
Breen, Ed, "James Dean's Indiana: The Stage Along Sand Pike," in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Indianapolis), Fall 1989.
Nall, Adeline (as told to Val Holley), "Grant County's Own," in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Indianapolis), Fall 1989.
Dalton, David, "James Dean: Osiris Rising," in Gadfly (Charlottesville), May 1998.
On DEAN: films—
The James Dean Story, documentary, directed by Robert Altman, 1957.
James Dean: The First American Teenager, documentary, directed by Ray Connolly, 1976.
James Dean, television movie, directed by Robert Butler, 1976.
September 30, 1955, feature film based on effect of Dean's death on American teens, directed by James Bridges, 1977.
Hollywood: The Rebels—James Dean, documentary, directed by Claudio Masenza, 1985.
Forever James Dean, documentary, directed by Ara Chekmayan, 1988.
Where Have You Been Jimmy Dean?, documentary produced for French television, directed by Dennis Stock, 1991.
James Dean: A Portrait, television documentary, directed by Gary Legon, 1996.
James Dean and Me, television documentary, directed by Ben Strout, 1996.
James Dean at High Speed, documentary on Dean's love of racing, produced by Lee Raskin and Brock Yates, 1997.
James Dean: Race With Destiny, feature film, directed by Mardi Rustam, 1997.
* * *
Ambition and talent took James Dean a very long way in a very short time. In the five-year period between 1950 and 1954, the Indiana farm boy transformed himself into a Hollywood movie star. Then he died. His accidental death at 24 sent the trajectory of his career path into another orbit altogether: through a series of cultural reactions James Dean was transmuted into a dead cult personality and ultimately into a full-blown American icon. While his films may appear dated today, Dean is never passé—neither the actor, the persona, nor the image. As the decades have passed the image has only gotten cooler and hipper; as a pop culture icon James Dean seems to have no expiration date.
In only three film roles Dean presented such a vulnerable image of adolescent alienation that conventional stereotypes of youth and masculinity came tumbling down. He struck a chord in the 1950s, and in each successive decade, with his unique capacity to portray the hero while simultaneously undercutting, questioning, and redefining traditional models of masculinity. James Dean was hero and anti-hero in one appealing package. When Al Pacino said, "I grew up with the Dean thing. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me," Pacino spoke for many of his generation. Dean's emotional and highly idiosyncratic film performances electrified generations of audiences and aspiring actors around the world.
Unknown to film audiences in 1954, Dean appeared to be an "overnight success" in his film debut as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan's production of East of Eden. But behind this exquisitely nuanced screen performance lay Dean's considerable experience in live television and Broadway productions during his "New York years." Rebel Without a Cause was, and still is, Dean's signature film, but his portrayal of the unloved son in East of Eden was virtually a self-portrait. It was not a stretch for Dean to play the son of an emotionally wooden father and an absent mother, for in truth, this was his own biography. Kazan gave the role to Dean not because he could play Cal Trask, but because he was Cal Trask.
Dean's next picture was Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray's study of middle-class juvenile delinquency seen from the adolescent perspective. Rebel began as a routine B-picture in black and white, but Warner Bros. quickly upgraded it to a CinemaScope A-production when reviews of East of Eden confirmed that they had a star in Dean. As Jim Stark, Dean created an unforgettable image of a confused misfit in rebellion—against his parents, who recoil from personal acts of courage, and against his teenage peers, who act out meaningless rituals of courage. Premiering one month after Dean's death, Rebel was a phenomenal hit with its powerful message and its charismatic dead star. Through this film James Dean entered the cultural imagination as the archetypal rebel hero and he has maintained this eminent position ever since.
For his next and last film Dean accepted a smaller role in an epic-sized picture—George Steven's production of Giant. Dean played a poor, resentful Texas ranch hand who strikes oil, only to become a rich, embittered oil tycoon. Requiring Dean to age about 30 years, the role of Jett Rink had more breadth than depth, but for Dean's introspective style of acting, this was not a good trade-off. He clashed with George Stevens over the interpretation and development of Jett Rink, and ultimately Dean lost his artistic battles with Stevens. But he won the war. By the time Giant premiered in 1956, Dean had been dead a year and Dean delirium had reached a peak. As far as America's teenagers were concerned, Giant starred James Dean in "his" final film. Upon his death, Dean seemed to eclipse the directors of each of his films: their films became known as "James Dean films."
As a pop culture icon Dean has been subjected to a relentless commercial life after death. Commercial exploitation of his image has been so persistent that the public's awareness of Dean's unique acting genius is often overwhelmed by the ready availability of his image. While a number of contemporary critics were quick to label Dean a Marlon Brando imitator, and a poor one at that, Dean eventually escaped Brando's shadow to leave an exceptional acting legacy in his own right. Writing as a film critic in the 1950s, François Truffaut succinctly assessed Dean's impact as an actor: "His acting goes against fifty years of filmmaking. Each gesture, each attitude, each mime, is a slap in the face of tradition." Dean revered Method mentors Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando and like his mentors was admitted to the Actors Studio, but unlike them he was extremely inhibited by Lee Strasberg's criticism and did little work there. Dean was a Method actor more by instinct than by formal training.
Nonetheless, many of Dean's colleagues and acquaintances considered him an "oddball" both professionally and personally. He was certainly a risk-taker. He preferred not to know his lines too well so that his performances would be spontaneous and natural, and he rarely played a scene exactly the same way twice. Dean's unconventional approach to acting—whether on television, the stage, or the screen—often threw his acting colleagues off balance. Raymond Massey, who starred with him in East of Eden, complained that he never knew what Dean was going to say or do. Massey hated this unpredictable quality in Dean's acting style; other actors (such as Julie Harris) were more appreciative and tolerant of Dean's unique approach to his craft. Besides acting, Dean's other consuming passion was sports car racing and he won several amateur races. Both racing and acting were vehicles of risk and exhilaration for Dean. The risks he took in acting paid off: he received Best Actor nominations (posthumously) for his performances in East of Eden and Giant. The tenacity of Dean's cultural impact and personal appeal is confirmed by the enormous quantity of biographies, memoirs, tributes, and documentaries produced during the 45 years since his death. In the 1990s alone, a book was published on Dean in every year of the decade, and almost half a dozen documentaries and films were released. Nor has interest waned: another television documentary ("James Dean: An Invented Life") is soon to go into production once the role of James Dean is cast.
Attempts to resolve the many contradictory facets of the James Dean persona into a single, homogenized, unambiguous icon are misguided. Labels do not fit Dean well. As soon as one is applied, its opposite seems equally appropriate: cool and emotional, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual, good boy and bad boy, nonconformist and self-indulgent, mixed-up kid and ambitious actor-hustler. Perhaps this ability to accommodate and radiate opposite qualities accounts in some measure for the Dean magic: the visceral power of his screen performances, the magnetism of his image, and the longevity of his legendary status. Or, as Andy Warhol put it: "[James Dean] is not our hero because he was perfect, but because he so perfectly represented the damaged but beautiful soul of his time."
—Cindy Lee Stokes
American actor James Dean had a short-lived but intense acting career that began in 1952 and ended tragically with his death in September 1955. After his death he became a cult figure (a legendary person), and fans have marveled for decades at his ability to duplicate their adolescent (teenage) agony on screen.
Born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, James Byron Dean was the only child of Winton and Mildred (Wilson) Dean. Winton, a dental technician (a person who creates dental appliances), moved his family to Santa Monica, California, when Dean was six years old. Dean was particularly close to his mother, who had dreams of him being a performer. She enrolled him in tap dance lessons at the age of three, and taught him violin.
In July 1940 Dean's mother died of cancer. This was a loss he would feel strongly all of his life. His father sent him back to Fairmount, Indiana, to live with Marcus and Ortense Winslow, Winton Dean's sister and brother-in-law. In Fairmount Dean grew up in his aunt and uncle's rural Quaker home, helping with farm chores and enjoying a reasonably carefree existence. He enjoyed swimming and ice-skating, and was interested in cars. He played guard on the high school basketball team and excelled at debate and drama.
First acting roles
After graduating in 1949, Dean left for Los Angeles, California, and lived briefly with his father and stepmother. He entered Santa Monica City College, majoring in pre-law, but it was drama in which he shone. The following year he transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles. Befriended by actor James Whitmore (1924–), Dean obtained a small part in a television drama, Hill Number One.
Soon Dean quit college and worked as a parking lot attendant, participating in auditions whenever they were available. In 1951, after landing only bit parts and a small role in Fixed Bayonets, a war picture, he left Hollywood for New York. There, in 1953, he landed a spot in the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg (1901–1982).
Dean obtained a small part in See the Jaguar, which opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 1952. After this his career took off. He did television plays and several more Broadway productions. He also developed a reputation for being talented but hard to work with. Television required precise coordination of cameras and actors. However, Dean was either unable or unwilling to repeat a gesture, move, or speech the same way. Despite this he won the Daniel Blum Theatre World Award for "best newcomer" of the 1953 to 1954 season for his role in The Immoralist.
In March 1954 director Elia Kazan (1909–), who knew Dean from Actors Studio days, offered him a role in the film East of Eden. Dean was picked for two more parts. He finished filming Rebel Without a Cause, with Sal Mineo (1939–1976) and Natalie Wood (1938–1981) in June 1955 and began work on Giant. He costarred in this movie with Elizabeth Taylor (1932–) and Rock Hudson (1925–1985). Filming of Giant was completed in September and Dean was to start rehearsing for a new play, The Corn Is Green. But Dean had a few days free time in which he decided to do some car racing.
Dean had bought a Porsche Spyder, which he planned to race in Salinas, California. On September 30, he and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were involved in a head-on collision at Paso Robles, California. Dean died in the crash. He was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, on October 8, 1955. Three thousand people attended his funeral.
Less than a month later, Rebel Without a Cause opened in New York City and the Dean legend began. Warner Brothers received mountains of mail. Young people all over the world considered Dean a symbol of their frustrations. In 1956 he was nominated for Best Actor Oscars for his roles in East of Eden and Giant. He also received numerous foreign awards, including the French Crystal Star award and the Japanese Million Pearl award. By June 1956 there were dozens of fan clubs, and rumors flourished that Dean was not dead, only severely injured.
Many who acted with Dean thought he had exceptional talent. Perhaps the most enduring part of James Dean's legend is the belief that beauty is ultimately destroyed by violence. That legend is kept alive by numerous books and a festival in Fairmount that more than fifty thousand people attend each year on the anniversary of his fatal accident.
For More Information
Alexander, Paul. Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean. New York: Viking, 1994.
Bast, William. James Dean. New York: Ballantine Books, 1956.
Dalton, David. James Dean: The Mutant King. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
Herndon, Venable. James Dean, A Short Life. San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1974.
Howlett, John. James Dean: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.
Actor James Dean (1931-1955) had a short-lived but intense acting career that began in 1952 and ended tragically in his death in September 1955. After his death he became a cult figure, and fans have marveled for decades at his ability to duplicate their adolescent agony on screen.
Born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, James Byron Dean was the only child of Winton and Mildred (Wilson) Dean. Winton, a farmer-turned-dental-technician, moved his family to Santa Monica, California. when Dean was six years old. Receiving a lot of attention from both parents, he was particularly close to his mother. James Byron, as she called him, entered first grade in 1937 at the Brentwood Public School. He took violin lessons, playing well for a young child although his school friends taunted him about this activity.
In July 1940 his mother died of cancer. His father sent him, then nine, back to Indiana to live with Marcus and Ortense Winslow, his sister and brother-in-law. In Fair-mount Dean grew up in the rural Quaker home, helping with farm chores and enjoying a reasonably carefree existence. Underneath, however, he harbored great pain. "My mother died on me when I was nine years old. What does she expect me to do? Do it all alone?" Dean was later to say.
Still, he got along well, riding his motorcycle with friends and playing guard on the high school basketball team. He excelled at debate and drama, coached and trained by teacher Adeline Nall. He won several state titles for his abilities, and on April 14, 1949, the Fairmount News read, "James Dean First Place Winner in Dramatic Speaking."
After graduating in 1949 he left for Los Angeles, where he lived briefly with his father and stepmother and entered Santa Monica City College, majoring in pre-law. But it was drama in which he shone: he received Cs and Ds in law classes, As and Bs in acting. He transferred the following year to the University of California, Los Angeles, pledging Sigma Nu fraternity. Befriended by actor James Whitmore, Dean obtained a small part in a television drama, Hill Number One.
Soon Dean quit school, living precariously as a parking lot attendant and chasing auditions wherever they were available. In 1951, after landing only bit parts and a small role in Fixed Bayonets, a war picture, he left Hollywood for New York. There, in 1953, he landed a spot in the Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg.
He obtained a small part in See the Jaguar which opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway on December 3, 1952. After this his career took off. He did television plays and several more Broadway productions and developed a reputation as "difficult." Despite this he won the Daniel Blum Theatre World Award for "best newcomer" of the year for his role in The Immoralist.
In March 1954 Elia Kazan, who knew Dean from Actors Studio days, offered him a Warner Brothers contract. The film was East of Eden. The film's New York preview was March 10, 1955, but Dean declined to attend. "I can't handle it," he said, and flew back to Los Angeles.
Dean finished filming Rebel Without a Cause (with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood) in June 1955 and began work on Giant. He co-starred in this with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Completing Giant in September of that year, Dean was to start rehearsing for The Corn Is Green, a play for the National Broadcasting Company. But Dean had a few days free time in which he decided to do some car racing.
Intrigued with fast automobiles, Dean had bought a $6,900 Porsche Spyder which he planned to race at Salinas, California, in September. On September 30th, he and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, were involved in a head-on collision at Paso Robles, California. The Porsche was crumpled, Rolf suffered a smashed jaw and leg fracture. James Dean, dead at the age of 24, was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, on October 8, 1955. Three thousand people attended his funeral.
Less than a month later, Rebel Without a Cause opened in New York City, and the Dean legend began. Warner Brothers received landslides of mail—fans were obsessed with the curt, swaggering Dean. In February 1956 he was nominated for a Best Performance Oscar for his role in East of Eden. He also received numerous foreign awards, including the French Crystal Star award and the Japanese Million Pearl award. By June 1956 there were dozens of fan clubs, and rumors flourished that Dean was not dead, only severely injured.
Dean, interviewed in March 1955, commented on his craft, offering this curiously fatalistic view of life: "To me, acting is the most logical way for people's neuroses to manifest themselves. To my way of thinking, an actor's course is set even before he's out of the cradle."
Although countless articles appeared about James Dean during his short career and following his death, there are only a few substantial biographies. They include: William Bast's James Dean (1956), written by a former roommate and close personal friend; James Dean: The Mutant King (1974) by David Dalton; James Dean, A Short Life (1974) by Venable Herndon; and Dennis Stock's James Dean Revisited (1978). □