“You were too fast to live, too young to die”
This is how band The Eagles remembered today’s protagonist in their 1974 song.
In his lifetime, he only starred in three films, and only one was released while he was still alive. And yet, he became one of the most influential actors and pop culture figures of the 1950s and beyond.
On the silver screen, he set the template for the quintessential rebellious youth.
In his private life, he craved speed, he sought passion from both girls and boys, and he obsessively courted death.
But he also yearned for the love and affection of a regular family, took any occasion to learn everything on anything, to improve himself and to leave his mark on the acting world.
This is the story of James Dean, and how a Hollywood icon was made.
James Byron Dean was born February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana, seven months after the wedding of 19-year old Mildred Marie Wilson and 22-year old Winton A. Dean.
Winton had been a farmer in Indiana, but after taking a job as a dental technician, he relocated the family to Santa Monica, California.
When Jimmy was only eight, Mildred died of cervical cancer. Winton did not know how to cope with being a single father.
Winton’s mother Emma offered some advice: Jimmy could go and live with Winton’s sister, Ortense, who ran a Quaker farm in Fairmount, Indiana, with her husband Marcus.
Winton Dean agreed. It turned out to be the right choice: he was drafted into the Army 18 months later, and he wasn’t cut out to be a single father.
Plus, Ortense and Marcus turned out to be excellent parental figures for Jimmy. But as a result, James and Winton Dean never developed a close relationship, and the future actor would constantly seek surrogate parental figures.
Jimmy had an idyllic childhood in Fairmount. His uncle and aunt became ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, and he grew attached to his cousin Joan as the big sister he’d never had. When Joan got married during the war and rice was hard to come by, Jimmy toured all the stores in the county until there was enough to throw for the newlyweds.
Ortense and Marcus on their part did their best to encourage Jimmy’s artistic inclinations, as his mother Mildred had done before.
If you were a lazy casting director for an ‘80s comedy, you’d take a look at the kid and cast him as the stereotypical school nerd: he was short, awkward, and he wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and dental braces.
And yet Jimmy excelled in everything … except academic subjects. He played violin, bass horn, and drums; he tap-danced and painted; he excelled in both the high school basketball and baseball teams.
But his greatest passions were acting and motorcycling.
According to his Grandma Emma, the realization he should pursue acting came after his appearance in a church play, in which Jimmy played a blind boy.
“Well, I’ll tell you, I wished he wasn’t quite so good at it. I cried all the way through.”
Besides family members, Jimmy’s greatest influence in his teenage years was his pastor, Reverend James DeWeerd. A decorated WWII veteran and friend of Winston Churchill, the clergyman encouraged the young Dean to pursue his passion for the stage and for the racecourse.
DeWeerd also introduced Jimmy to philosophy, classical music and to the notion that he should seek his true self, beyond the physical and ethical confines of small-time America.
The older James taught the younger James that ‘conformity is cowardice’
… a concept which, ironically, Jimmy put in place by conforming to his mentor’s world view.
Like a psychic vampire, Jimmy absorbed every possible teaching from DeWeerd, to the point of adopting his convictions and mannerisms.
This was to become a recurring pattern in Dean’s life. Jimmy would cling onto a surrogate parent, or other mentor figure; he would then drain them of all the culture and knowledge they could offer; and then move onto the next provider of mental energy.
One of DeWeerd’s teachings drilled into Jimmy’s head like an ever-lasting diamond.
When the two talked about bullfighting and car-racing, the Reverend introduced the ever-present possibility of sudden death in such occupations.
But sudden death should not be feared, if one believed in personal immortality.
Sudden death followed by immortality; the future star’s fate had been sealed.
In 1949, Jimmy graduated from high school and moved back in with his dad Winton, in Santa Monica, California.
He enrolled in the local college, where Winton insisted that he studied law. But of course, he dedicated way more time to performing arts. One of his drama teachers, Mrs. Gene Nielson Owen took him under her wing. While his raw talent was undeniable, his poor articulation made him barely understandable.
Fellow students blamed this on the Indiana accent, but Nielson realized the problem was caused by the dental braces. Eventually, she helped fix the enunciation problem by having Dean read ‘Hamlet’ for a whole term.
Dean then transferred to University of California, Los Angeles, and majored in theater.
In his first months at UCLA, James Dean did not make an impression. He was withdrawn, awkward and did not mingle easily with any theatrical clique. Even his acting chops did not stand out against the average of the students. At that stage, he felt more at home with the ‘jocks’ and the ‘frat boys’, as he had joined a Greek fraternity.
His attitude changed when he joined the informal classes held by actor James Whitmore, who had studied in New York and had imported the more sophisticated east coast techniques to Hollywood.
It was during his classes that he had an epiphany: this was the style for him! A new, direct and realistic acting style heavily influenced by the ‘System’ of Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski.
This was an approach which required actors to plunge deep into themselves, to retrieve those memories and emotions which could match their character’s psychological state.
It was at Whitmore’s classes that Jimmy finally clicked with the clique of more promising acting students.
In particular, he got acquainted with William Bast, who would become one of his best friends – and lovers.
As Jimmy fell in with the acting crowd, he got estranged from his fraternity friends. One night, one of the frat boys made a snide remark against the thespian community, and Jimmy reacted badly. Very badly. The argument degenerated into a huge fistfight: Dean had to leave the frat house and moved in with Bast.
The two were so strapped for cash that they lived by candlelight, subsisting on oatmeal mixed with mayonnaise. Bast also learned to cope with Jimmy’s frequent and unpredictable periods of depression.
During those spells, he fell completely silent and it was best to avoid him completely. These ‘downers’ were followed by periods of intense, electric energy, during which Vampire Jimmy was able to learn new skills in a matter of days, clinging to one of his ‘psychic supplies’.
And in between those extremes, Dean appeared to most as an intense, awkward young man, goofy and endearing one moment, arrogant and dismissive the next.
During one of his restless periods, Dean landed his first paying acting jobs. After some TV commercials, he was cast as John the Baptist in an Easter TV special, called ‘Hill Number One’.
The reviews were quite good! So good, in fact, that Jimmy got an agent and some minor roles followed: mainly in radio and TV dramas, but he also scored non-speaking roles in “Sailor Beware,” with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and “Has Anybody Seen my Gal?” with Rock Hudson.
Jimmy was elated to find that he had to speak one line in the war drama “Fixed Bayonets!” – but the scene was edited out!
During this brief stint, James got a brief glimpse of Hollywood’s glitzy lifestyle. He had started dating young star Beverly Wills, daughter of noted comedienne Joan Davis. Through Beverley, James took to hanging out with a crowd of promising actors and artists around Sunset Strip.
This milieu initially excited Dean, as he was exposed to a whirlwind of contemporary art, literature, and music he’d never heard of.
As usual, he clung to mentor figures like a barnacle and became an instant expert in any new topic of interest.
When he could not find a viable human host, Jimmy turned to books.
Based on accounts from his close friends, it appears that he had some issues with readings. Although never explicitly stated, he may have suffered from dyslexia, that is why he preferred to absorb knowledge via conversations rather than the printed page.
But he developed an uncanny ability: he could skim over a handful of pages of a book to absorb the most complex concepts. He was then able to hold entire conversations about those topics, fooling people into believing he was a total expert on, for example, Platonic philosophy.
Dissected Like a Rabbit
Eventually, Jimmy and Beverly broke off, and he grew tired of the Sunset Strip mob. In fact, he was sick of Hollywood and LA as a whole.
Late in 1951, with a few possessions in his case, James Dean eschewed conformity and bravely moved to New York, looking for an edgier scene, and a more intense life.
On the East Coast, Dean resumed his routine of small bit parts on radio and TV. He even appeared on cheesy quiz shows, where his function was merely to have pies thrown in his face.
His new girlfriend was aspiring dancer Elizabeth Sheridan, known as ‘Dizzy’, the daughter of pianist Frank Sheridan.
The two moved into cramped lodgings and were soon joined by William Bast. The trio took to hanging out with a circle of young radio, TV and Broadway professionals and Jimmy became friendly with producer Rogers Brackett.
Brackett later stated that their relationship was actually of a sexual nature, to the benefit of both. Rogers in fact was happy to introduce Dean to the ‘Who’s who’ of the New York theatrical milieu. And it was thanks to him that Jimmy met Lem Ayers in the summer of 1952, a producer working on the staging of ‘See the Jaguar’, a new play by N. Richard Nash.
Dean had cast his eyes on the heart-rending role of a teenager, locked for years in a smoke house by an overprotective mother.
But production did not progress, so he turned his attention to further honing his craft. It was during this period that James entered the legendary Actors’ Studio.
This is where acting coach Lee Strasberg, inspired by Stanislavski’s teachings, had honed the method simply known as, well, ‘The Method’. This is the school that would forge the talents of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, Marylin Monroe and later Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.
At the age of 21, Jimmy was the youngest member of the Studio. His chops greatly impressed fellow students, visiting directors like Elia Kazan, and the man himself, Mr Strasberg.
Although, apparently, the two never got on well.
Strasberg made Dean the target of his frequent barbed critiques, pushing him to spill his metaphorical guts into his roles. Dean was not eager to let Strasberg, ‘dissect me like a rabbit in a laboratory.’
Eventually, Jimmy took to describe Strasberg’s acting instructions as “mostly hot air and hog sh*t.”
In August, Dean joined the Ayers family on a ten-boat cruise. Not as a passenger, but as a crew member on their yacht. He had ‘adopted’ Lem Ayers and wife as his New York surrogate parents and took the occasion to drain them of all their nautical knowledge.
Along the way, he carved a good, lasting impression on the producer.
The boating trip was followed by a break in Fairmont, during which Jimmy introduced Bast and Dizzy to his aunt Ortense and uncle Marcus.
This was probably the only occasion in which William Bast observed James Dean to be completely at ease, with himself and those surrounding him.
Bast and Dizzy also got to meet Winton, Jimmy’s dad, who joined them at the farm for some days. Dizzy observed how father and son were shy and respectful to each other, as if wary of breaking a fragile emotional balance.
She found their relationship endearing, but in reality they had grown too distant, too different, to have a proper rapport. Winton did not hide the fact that he could not understand and accept Jimmy’s lifestyle nor his choice of becoming an actor.
Mr Dean would have hoped for a more solid profession for James, little did he know that his career was about to pick up.
The holiday at the Quaker farm was, in fact, cut short by a call from New York.
Ayers had decided to cast James in ‘See the jaguar’.
After a successful run in provincial theaters, the play landed on Broadway in December of 1952. The abrasive New York critics metaphorically ripped the script to shreds, spat on it and then wiped their shoes.
The play sucked, apparently, and it closed after five nights.
The only redeeming factor was the performance of young, unknown actor James Dean!
New job proposals kept pouring in, the most interesting one being another theater production, ‘The Immoralist’, based on the novel by André Gide.
Here, James played the role of Bashir, an Algerian young man who seduces the male protagonist.
The rehearsals apparently were no walk in the park.
As Jimmy related to Bast, director Daniel Mann was openly hostile against him. As Jimmy saw directors as surrogate fathers, hostility on their part was especially demoralising.
But Jimmy may have done his part to drive the rest of the cast and crew totally nuts.
During the rehearsals, he met, befriended and seduced another aspiring actor, John Gilmore. In his memoirs, Gilmore recorded how Dean was uncommunicative with the cast, or how he read his lines flatly and slowly, mumbling through dialogue or improvising without warning.
Most of the cast could not stand him and almost had him fired. The only colleague who stood up for him was Geraldine Page. It was no coincidence that Page was aware of Dean’s difficulties with reading.
In Dean’s own explanation to Gilmore, before he could properly act a script, he needed plenty of time to read it, digest it, memorise it.
He had to
“swallow the script … take it into the stomach and fart it out.”
Portrait of the Actor as a Young Man
Allow me to say: apparently, on opening night, 8th of February 1954, James farted the right way … because he impressed a Hollywood heavyweight, director Elia Kazan!
According to sources, it was either thanks to Geraldine Page, or to Jimmy’s agent Jane Deacy, that Kazan realised that James Dean should be the lead for his next film, East of Eden, based on the novel by John Steinbeck.
The plot revolves around Cal Trask, a young man with a fractured relationship with his strict father, who sees him as a good-for-nothing and a troublemaker.
Reminds you of a certain distant orthodontist father who wished his son studied law, rather than acting, doesn’t it?
In fact, Cal fit James like a glove. Kazan noticed it: even if he did not like James on a personal level, he knew he had cast a star in the making.
Jimmy returned to Hollywood to start filming, and it was during this time that he met rising star Pier Angeli.
Born Anna Maria Pierangeli in Sardinia, the Italian actress had caught the eyes of Hollywood casting directors and had just recently moved to Tinseltown.
Apparently, their relationship never went beyond a strong friendship and a total, spiritual and cultural affinity. It was clear that the two were meant for each other and even loved each other deeply.
Unfortunately, Pier’s mother stepped in.
She was still very young, and her mother managed all aspects of her career, including who should be dating. Her mom objected that Dean was not Catholic and was worried that his reputation as something of an oddball could compromise Pier’s rise to success.
Eventually, the Italian actress married entertainer Vic Damone. According to Bast:
“They say that when Pier married Vic Damone, Jimmy stood across from the church and cried.”
In the meanwhile, filming for ‘East of Eden’ had wrapped and Warner Bros had offered a new role to James Dean: his most iconic one, the character of conflicted teenager Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, by Nicholas Ray.
The movie was one of the first big productions to deal with the disaffected youth of the post-WWII generation. It introduced tropes such as knife fights amongst teen gangs, or lethal ‘chickie runs’ with powerful racing cars.
At a deeper level, it is an exploration of the troubled psyche of young men and women disappointed by parents and authorities who are either distant, overbearing or plain inadequate.
Jimmy – the actor – and Jim – the character – shared a passion for speed. Dean had spent his first Hollywood paychecks in a brand-new motorbike. And while he whizzed around LA, producers, insurers and friends were dead worried that he would break his neck.
A friend of Kazan’s thought that Jimmy’s idol Marlon Brando may talk some sense into him.
Jimmy had always pined for Brando’s attention, a feeling that the older actor had always shrugged off. When the two met, Brando warned Dean to get off the bike, as “an actor with half a face is no actor at all”
That seemed to do the trick.
Jimmy sold the bike … and bought a Porsche, satisfying his need for speed with sports cars.
He took to road racing, winning two trophies in his first competitions. But according to Bast, he was not pursuing accolades, rather the excitement of taunting death.
More precisely: he may have been pursuing that elusive, sudden death, leading to personal immortality – that sublime and macabre concept he had learned from Reverend DeWeerd.
Dean had little time to speed around the racetrack, though. After ‘Rebel’ had wrapped, he was immediately cast as Jett Rink in George Stevens’ sprawling Texan epic, “Giant.”
Albeit important, the role was not a lead one. But it did not matter to Dean, as he got to star alongside Hollywood royalty like Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Director Stevens had a hard time working with Dean, who frequently erupted in fits of rage, or long, sulky spells. But the veteran film-maker decided to make the most of it, asking the cinematographer to keep the camera rolling in between takes, to capture those unique moments.
Co-star Liz Taylor also learned to cope with Dean’s mood swings and the two became good pals.
But the closest friendship was the one that Dean forged with set photographer Sandy Roth, and his wife Belulah.
The trio had a common interest in photography, and eventually the actor came to ‘adopt’ the couple as his newest surrogate parents – yes, that same pattern repeating again!
Dean spent much time at their home, engaging in endless discussions about films and art, raiding their fridge and playing with Luis, the couple’s Siamese cat.
Liz Taylor took notice and decided to make a present to James: a Siamese kitten. For the first time, Dean had to look after another being … which he decided to name after his uncle Marcus.
The kitten had a positive influence on Dean’s life.
It gave him a sense of responsibility and normalized his habits. As Bast noted, Jimmy even took to returning home earlier at night!
And yet, a few weeks later, he confessed to the Roths that he had given away the kitten.
He was concerned that his professional commitments would not allow him to properly look after Marcus. In fact, James had just been cast as the lead in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, the real-life story of boxer Rocky Graziano.
And besides that, he realized that he led such a strange and unpredictable life that some night he might not return home again. He wondered: “Then, what would happen to Marcus?”
An eerie premonition of a sudden death?
It wasn’t the only one around that time. On the 22nd of September 1955, James Dean had a chance encounter with Alec Guinness in LA. The British actor took a look at his new Porsche 550 Spyder and said
“You’ll be dead if you get into that car.’”
Some days later, on the 30th, Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich were driving the Porsche to a race in Salinas, California.
At 3:30 p.m., they were given a speeding ticket.
Later, while driving along Route 466, Dean’s Porsche got into an accident with another car, driven by student Donald Turnupseed. The 550 Spyder was devastated from the impact. Turnupseed and Wuetherich were seriously injured but survived.
James Dean, driving at the moment of the impact, was killed almost immediately.
He was 24.
James Dean’s life had burned bright, blazed fast and disintegrated far too soon. But his fate would be spared oblivion.
Only one of his movies was released during his lifetime, East of Eden.
Rebel without a Cause premiered in 1955, and Giant in 1956. Both films were popular and critical successes and audiences simply could not ignore Dean’s peculiar, intense, heart-breaking, yet realistic acting style.
A legend was born, ironically, after his death.
At the 1956 and 1957 Oscars, James Dean was nominated for his performances in East of Eden and Giant, respectively. The Academy awarded Ernest Borgnine and Yul Brinner eventually. But to this day, Dean is the only actor to receive two posthumous Oscar nominations.
Besides the self-destructive tendencies, besides his philosophising about sudden death followed by immortality … James Dean was serious about his craft and development as a professional actor.
Had he lived, he would have been set to achieve a legendary status.
Perhaps his career would have followed a trajectory similar to the one of Paul Newman, the actor who inherited his role in the Rocky Graziano biopic.
Or, more likely, he would have trailed the progress of his idol Marlon Brando: another Method alumnus, manly yet vulnerable, who became both a darling of the Academy and a Hollywood maverick.
But besides all the ‘what ifs’, the three movies left by James Dean influenced entire generations of actors and filmmakers, and left an enduring legacy on American popular culture.
Perhaps Larry Kart of the Chicago Tribune summarised it best, on the 30th anniversary of Dean’s death:
“When all is said, what James Dean managed to do was enough.”
Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography
James Dean: Rebel Life
James Dean in New York
Alec Guinness and Jimmy’s death
Legacy of James Dean