James Dean: Stories Of The Legendary Actor You Haven't Heard Yet
James Dean driving a convertible with the roof down. 1950s (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)
Rakish and silent, James Dean was an actor who defined a generation with only a handful of roles. While he’s stellar in East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956), his most important role came in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the first film to really understand teenage life. Even though he was a heartthrob, there was more to the actor than his brooding good looks. Dean’s life was a series of attempts to escape, first from his tumultuous childhood and then from the star machine that he found himself in following his move to Hollywood. During his brief film career he rubbed elbows with cult celebrities like Vampira and stars like Alec Guinness while drag racing and trying his best to lead a regular love life.
Alec Guinness predicted Dean’s death
Long before Guinness was the wizened Obi-Wan Kenobi he was one of the most respected British actors of his time. James Dean was a huge fan of Guinness’ work, and on September 23, 1955, the young actor tracked him down on the sidewalk to show off his new car, a Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard.” Guinness explained:
There in the courtyard of this little restaurant was this little silver thing, very smart, all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet. I said, 'Have you driven it?' and he said, 'No. I have never been in it at all.’ And some strange thing came over me. Some almost different voice and I said, 'Look, I won't join your table unless you want me to, but I must say something: Please do not get into that car, because if you do' — and I looked at my watch — and I said, 'if you get into that car at all, it's now Thursday (Friday, actually), 10 o'clock at night and by 10 o'clock at night next Thursday, you'll be dead if you get into that car.'
A week later Dean passed away when he crashed Little Bastard while speeding down the highway.
His friends believe he was bisexual
This is one story that we’ll never know the truth about, but the rumors about Dean’s sexuality all lean towards the possibility that he was bisexual. After signing a contract with Warner Brothers the studio disseminated stories about the young star’s relationships with young actresses, most notably he was supposedly head over heels for Pier Angeli, but East of Eden director Elia Kazan wasn’t so sure about their relationship.
Dean was often written about as being an “eligible bachelor” who was too busy with his career to have a longterm girlfriend, similar to the way that closeted actors Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson were presented. After Dean’s death multiple biographies presented him as being gay or at the very least as someone experimenting with his sexuality.
He filmed a safe driving PSA shortly before his deadly accident
By 1954 James Dean hadn’t even appeared in his breakout role as Cal in East of Eden but he was already exhausted with the Hollywood machine. He was fascinated with racing and after he had some change in his pocket following the filming of East of Eden he went out and started buying fast cars like the Triumph Tiger T110 and the Porsche 356 so he could take them out on the track.
Dean was good enough to take part in professional events like the Palm Springs Road Races in 1955, but his final race occurred in Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, 1955. He blew a piston during the race and couldn’t finish. As he started production for Giant Warner Brothers barred him from racing until all of his scenes were in the can. On top of that they had him appear in a PSA about fast driving on the highway and how teens should make sure they stick to the speed limit. He ends the PSA with the line, “the life you say may be mine.”
Dean may have been sexually abused as a child
As genius as his work was, James Dean had a tortured childhood according to his friends. After he was sent to Indiana to live with his Quaker family he found himself under the tutelage of a local Methodist pastor. Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star on Giant, said that he confided in her that his pastor sexually abused him as a young man. She said:
When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. In fact, I know it did. We talked about it a lot. During Giant we’d stay up nights and talk and talk, and that was one of the things he confessed to me.
Dean improvised much of his work in “East of Eden”
After he was hired to play Cal in East of Eden, Dean committed himself to the character but wasn’t keen on giving a straight forward performance, which is one of the reasons that he’s so powerful in the film. His dance in the bean field, and the bear hug that he gives his father were two of the star’s major improvs that were kept in the film even though his off the cuff style could be frustrating. Co-star Julie Harris explained Dean’s acting style in an oral history of East of Eden:
Jimmy was an extraordinary young man and also an actor I enjoyed working with very much. He was very full of unexpected things, which delighted me. In rehearsal, we would work things out, but then it was free. I loved that kind of improvisational kind of thing. I always thought that if Jimmy had lived he would have had a very special career.
He could be seen at Googie’s cafe sipping coffee all night
Before his face was 40 foot high on the silver screen he was just another small time actor who spent his nights talking shop and dreaming about stardom at Googie’s cafe. Dean had a loose group of friends called the “Night Watch” who hung out at the all night coffee shop where Dean and the group would chain smoke, drink coffee and gossip. One member of his crew was Malia Nurmi, better known as Vampira. The two were supposedly friends because of his morbid streak, the first time the two hung out at his apartment Nurmi saw that he had a noose hanging from the ceiling.
He died in a car wreck on the way to a race
Dean's love of racing ended up bringing his life to a disturbing and early end. After his filming ended on Giant he went back to the “liberating prospects” of the race track and he happily unburdened himself of the Hollywood system to compete at an event in Salinas, California on October 1–2, 1955.
On September 30 he and stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, Collier's photographer Sanford Roth, and Rolf Wütherich traveled up U.S. Route 466, (currently SR 46) and as Dean sped Little Bastard down the highway he plowed into a 1950 Ford Tudor. Wütherich, Dean's passenger, was thrown from the car but Dean was trapped with a broken neck. The star didn’t survive the accident and was pronounced dead on arrival when he arrived at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m.
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