Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper once saw James Dean as an obnoxious attention-seeker in the Marlon Brando vein (she abhorred Brando) and even labeled Dean “another dirty shirttail actor.”

Then she saw East of Eden, underwent an instant conversion, and enthused, “I couldn’t remember ever having seen a young man with such power.”

James Byron Dean was born in Marion, Indiana, on Feb. 8, 1931, the only child of Winton and Mildred Dean. The family moved to Santa Monica, California, where Winton worked as a dental technician.

Mildred died of cancer in 1940, and Winton sent his young son back to Indiana to live with his grandparents on their Fairmount farm.

At Fairmount High School Dean excelled in dramatics and public speaking and lettered in baseball and basketball. After his 1949 graduation he returned to California to live with his father and stepmother.

Dean considered becoming a lawyer but eventually pursued a stronger passion when he enrolled at UCLA to study drama.

Early in 1951 he left school to chase his acting dreams. He moved to New York, won some minor TV roles, and studied method acting in Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, where Dean’s idol, Marlon Brando, had once been a student.

In 1954 director Elia Kazan sought “a Brando” for the role of Cal Trask in Kazan’s forthcoming movie East of Eden, based on John Steinbeck’s novel.

Kazan hired the churlish actor, later allowing him to improvise a few East of Eden scenes. (Steinbeck had instantly disliked the sullen superstar-to-be when they first met.)

Two more Dean films followed. Rebel Without a Cause, his ticket to stardom, had him (at age 24) playing troubled adolescent Jim Stark. In Giant, Dean portrayed Jett Rink, a Texas ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes rich.

Away from the movie set, Dean nurtured a second passion: auto racing. On Sept. 30, 1955, he and Porsche mechanic pal Rolf Wutherich roared north from Los Angeles, bound for a race in Salinas, near the Bay Area. Dean was behind the wheel of his powerful new Porsche 550 Spyder.

That afternoon, at a deserted intersection near the central California village of Cholame, Dean ran his car into a 1950 Ford being driven by college student Donald Turnupseed, who had turned into the Porsche’s path.

Turnupseed and Wutherich survived the crash, but Dean broke his neck and died at the scene. His ironic final words to Wutherich: “Don’t worry, that guy’ll stop. He sees us.”

At the time, only East of Eden had been released, and Dean wasn’t famous yet. Rebel Without a Cause — his best-known work — premiered three days after his demise, and Giant wouldn’t open until 1956.

But his death created a tsunami of posthumous worship, and he remains to this day one of the iconic Tinseltown superstars of the 1950s.

James Dean once said, “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, I mean, if he can live on after he’s died, then maybe he was a great man.”


Although Randal C. Hill's heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at wryterhill@msn.com.

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