Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Remembering James Dean 60 Years On—And Busting Some Myths Along the Way

Sixty years ago today, a wildly gifted young actor was killed. And a one-dimensional legend was born.

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The brooding rebel in the leather jacket. Which summed up about one half of one percent of who James Dean was either as an actor or a person. Those who knew him, loved him and worked with him remember him as thoughtful, goofy, searching, sensitive, wry, funny, kind, open—and just getting started. Here he is mixing it up with Mary Astor on the set of a 1955 television drama, The Thief

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…and behind the scenes with Elizabeth Taylor on Giant

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…and on East of Eden, the only one of his three films he lived to see. Julie Harris compared him to “a kind of star or comet that fell through the sky and everybody still talks about it—they say, ‘Ah, remember that night when you saw that shooting star?’ That was it—he had that enormous appeal… and magic.”

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Here he is goofing around with Natalie Wood on Rebel Without a Cause, the film most responsible for the short-sighted James Dean legend:

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Shortly after Dean was killed, as the myth began to take shape, Humphrey Bogart said archly, “He would never have been able to live up to the publicity.” Oh, but to watch him try… wouldn’t that have been something.

Of the actors to whom he was most often compared, Dean was less fragile than Montgomery Clift and less cynical than Brando. The fire was there, the heart wide open, and he was still just finding his way.

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James Dean attending dance classes given by Katherine Dunham, New York City, 1955.

And despite the damn-it-all image he’s been shrouded in, Dean cherished his family and the Indiana farm he grew up on, raised by his aunt and uncle after losing his mother—who adored and understood him—when he was just nine. He returned there often:

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James Dean in his aunt and uncle's basement in Indiana, 1955.

Oh and while we’re busting myths, here goes a big one: Dean almost certainly wasn’t speeding that late afternoon in September 1955. The violent crash that broke his neck, crushed his limbs and claimed his life was entirely the other driver’s fault. Contrary to hasty initial reports, it’s since been proven through numerous accident reconstructions—and with the help of Ron Nelson, a highway patrol officer who was at the scene—that despite the actor’s penchant for speed, he was going about 55 MPH when a young man with the improbable name of Donald Turnupseed cut across his lane carelessly to make a last-minute turn onto an exit ramp, causing the crash.

What little we have in Dean’s own words also dispels the “bad boy” myth. In 1948, his high school principal, Roland Dubois, asked each senior to write a personal “case study.”

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In remembering James Dean and reflecting on all that might have been, let’s close with his own dreams for a life that was to end just seven years later:

I, James Byron Dean, was born February 8, 1931, Marion, Indiana. My parents, Winton Dean and Mildred Dean, formerly Mildred Wilson, and myself existed in the state of Indiana until I was six years of age. Dad’s work with the government caused a change, so Dad as a dental mechanic was transferred to California. There we lived, until the fourth year. Mom became ill and passed out of my life at the age of nine. I never knew the reason for Mom’s death, in fact it still preys on my mind. I had always lived such a talented life. I studied violin, played in concerts, tap-danced on theatre stages but most of all I like art, to mold and create things with my hands. I came back to Indiana to live with my uncle. I lost the dancing and violin, but not the art. I think my life will be devoted to art and dramatics. And there are so many different fields of art it would be hard to foul up, and if I did, there are so many different things to do—farm, sports, science, geology, coaching, teaching music. I got it and I know if I better myself that there will be no match. A fellow must have confidence. When living in California my young eyes experienced many things. It was also my luck to make three visiting trips to Indiana, going and coming a different route each time. I have been in almost every state west of Indiana. I remember all. My hobby, or what I do in my spare time, is motorcycle. I know a lot about them mechanically and I love to ride. I have been in a few races and have done well. I own a small cycle myself. When I’m not doing that, I’m usually engaged in athletics, the heartbeat of every American boy. As one strives to make a goal in a game, there should be a goal in this crazy world for all of us. I hope I know where mine is, anyway, I’m after it. I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Dubois, this is the hardest subject to write about, considering the information one knows of himself, I ever attempted.

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7 Comments

  1. Ana Roland

    Did you watch the other night on TCM when they showed his early days in TV theater? It was great to see him developing his craft. I went to Marfa, Texas for the 50th Anniversary of the film,”GIANT.” Met Earl Holliman and Jane Withers. Dennis Hopper and Elizabeth Taylor, the only other stars living from the film were not able to make it due to poor health. I highly recommend the PBS documentary, “Children of Giant.” A lot of in-sight into Dean, the film and the times in Marfa when the film was shot. I’m a huge fan of James Dean and your blog!

    • Thank you so much, Ana! And so fabulous that you went to the event for Giant!! Yes, I loved the Dean television episodes on TCM — I’m a huge Dean fan too, but I guess that shows!! 🙂

  2. Oh my god there is so much innocence in that “case study,” not to mention hope. Whatever Bogart said and whatever Dean’s image was, I think he was the kind of person who would have been a bigger legend if he survived. This article does indeed show an entirely new side of Dean. Thanks for sharing this!

    • I absolutely agree!! And yes, that case study breaks your heart…

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post, you lil ol’ mythbuster, you. I learned all kinds of things about him I never knew before.

    • Thank you, Martin!! Actually one of the reasons I started this site was to “rescue” people I love from the myths they’re trapped in! That and to just gab incessantly about old movies, of course!! 🙂

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