In Memoriam: James Dean

Dean and Wutherich departNo Wednesday Wardrobe today, instead I want to take time to reflect on an actor that defined a generation with only three films: James Dean

On this day, in 1955, James Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wutherich set out for a race in Salinas in Jimmy’s new Porsche Spyder that he nicknamed “Little Bastard” (the name and number 130 was painted by George Barris just days before). They had lunch with Jimmy’s father and a few hours later, just outside of Bakersfield, Jimmy got a speeding ticket – 65 in a 55 mph zone – it is the last time he will sign his name. Then at 5:45, at the intersection of routes 46 and 41 near Cholame, Jimmy collided with a Ford that is turning, it was driven by Donald Turnupseed, who walked away from the crash, Wutherich was thrown from the car, surviving, but Jimmy died instantly.

There have been many stories surrounding James Dean and his infamous Porsche. Some claimed the car was cursed, some say Jimmy had a death wish (while others strongly are against that claim, saying he was a young man who loved life). But there are many ironic events surrounding the time of Jimmy’s death. On September 17, while on the set of Giant, Jimmy did a commercial about driving safety for the National Highway Safety Committee. The last thing he said was “Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.” Additionally, the last scene that he filmed was the “Last Supper” scene for Giant.

Born on February 8, 1931 in Indiana, James Byron Dean was the only child of Mildred and Winton Dean. The family moved to California and in 1940, Mildred died of cervical cancer. Jimmy accompanied his mother’s body back to Fairmount, Indiana and Jimmy then lived with his aunt, Ortense and uncle, Marcus who owned a farm. During his growing up, Jimmy was involved with theatre, speech and debate, as well as being on the baseball and basketball teams in high school.

After graduating in 1949, he left for California were he attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, participating in theatre and lands his first “professional” acting job – a TV commercial for Pepsi, where he drops a coin into a player piano and he and claps his hands while singing “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot”. He receives $30.00.Jimmy did other theatre and TV movie specials while in California, but late 1951, on the advice of his acting coach, heads to New York.

On the set of GiantIn New York, Jimmy continued to do more bit parts for film and stage, including a Broadway production, See the Jaguar, which lasted three nights.Meanwhile he also auditions for and joins the esteemed Actor’s Studio. This is where he met fellow actor Martin Landau. In 1954, he took to Broadway again with The Immortalist, however he doesn’t spend much time there either, because he signs on for East of Eden, his first major role and heads back to California.The role will also earn him an Oscar nomination – the first ever posthumous nomination in Oscar history. In early 1955, he beagn shooting Rebel without a Cause, his most famous role and shortly after is signed for Giant, which earns him another posthumous Oscar nomination.

Jimmy’s road through Hollywood was also was tainted with his many difficult romances, most notably with Pier Angeli, whom many say was Jimmy’s true love.Angeli broke off the relationship due to much pressure by her mother, since Jimmy was not Catholic. Angeli married singer Vic Damone, and it is said that Jimmy went to the church where the wedding was being held and as the couple exited the church, he revved his motorcycle and sped off, though many friends, including Dennis Hopper believe Jimmy would not have done this. Additionally, many have claimed that Jimmy was a homosexual or at least bisexual, but others believe that any homosexuality that Jimmy may have been involved with was only to chalk up with experience for future acting positions.

A Young Atomic Redhead at the Dean MemorialMy fascination with James Dean began at an early age. I had for a long while already been interested in oddities such as Jack the Ripper, and the Titanic, along with my passion for the 50s and 60s. I think Jimmy fascinated me on the same level as the Titanic – each had such potential, each epic and their fates so ironic with their expectations and rumors surrounding them.When I was eight, we went to the James Dean memorial, which is located at the crash site, where I bagged some dirt at the location. The bag still sits on my bookshelf were I keep my Jimmy books (I own every biography of him published). He had such an air of mystery about him, along with being a fantastic actor of a time period I love and he raced cars and was damn attractive to boot.

Obviously, I could go on and on about Jimmy…but I’ll end on this: James Dean’s short life was filled with complications and rumor. Many who had brief encounters with him or actual relationships seem to enjoy embellishing upon them endlessly, each claiming to have know the “real” Jimmy. His short, yet explosive, career has made him the stuff of legend, and will forever remain iconic.

One thought on “In Memoriam: James Dean

  1. Pingback: Atomic Redhead | Happy Birthday, James Dean

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