In the short time that he was on earth, James Dean showed incredible zeal for life. He tried to learn everything he could and threw himself headfirst into his passions—and sadly, one of them would take his life at only 24 years old. From his tumultuous childhood to high-profile affairs and utterly tragic death, James Dean has become a legend and synonymous with the Hollywood bad boy. Here are the jaw-dropping facts about James Dean’s short life and tragic death.
James Dean Facts
1. He Claimed to Be a Cautious Driver
Not long before his untimely death in a car crash, James Dean did an interview with ABC interviewer Gig Young to help promote Rebel Without a Cause. Ironically enough, they ended up talking about safe driving. “I used to fly around quite a bit, you know, I took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highway,” he told Young. “Now when I drive on the highway, I’m extra cautious.”
He even ended the interview by telling everyone to drive safe. ABC never aired the interview.
2. He Liked to Embellish the Truth
As a result of a trapeze accident in the family barn when he was a child, James Dean lost his two front teeth. He wore false teeth for the rest of his life, and liked to take them out in front of people while in conversation. He also liked to tell people that he lost them during a motorcycle accident. Nice try, James.
3. He Made an Impact Even After His Death
James Dean made history even after his untimely death. The Academy posthumously nominated Dean for Best Actor at the 1955 Academy Awards for his role in East of Eden, marking the first time that has ever happened. They also nominated him in the same category at the 1956 Oscars for his role in Giant—but he didn’t win either time.
4. He Wasn’t Easy to Be Around
James Dean’s friends described him as having mood swings. One friend said: “He’d be up one minute, down the next.” That same friend also said Dean “was uncomfortable in his own skin.” Dean’s behavior could be troubling. He often showed up at his friend’s houses unannounced or called them late at night. That last part makes sense, considering he suffered from insomnia.
5. He Was Unravelling
Remember the strange behavior his friends talked about? Apparently, he had weird habits while filming his last film, Giant, too. He would wear the same T-shirt for two weeks straight, being late to set, and randomly shooting at things—but that wasn’t the worst part.
6. His Behavior Could Be Downright Disgusting
Dean’s worst habit on the set of Giant was his penchant for peeing in front of everyone. One co-star of the film, Dennis Hopper, explained what happened one day, saying, “We were in Texas and there were people lined up 100 ft from where Jimmy was doing his first scene with Elizabeth [Taylor]. He walked halfway between where we were shooting and where the people were, unfastened his pants, peed, and then walked back into the scene and got it in one take.” When you gotta go, you gotta go.
7. People Think His Car Is Cursed
Since his death, chilling stories about the car that he died in have come out. Famous auto customizer, George Barris, who also happened to work on the vehicle, bought it after the fatal accident. This is where things get weird, and reports of the car being cursed come in to play. Barris said that, upon arriving at his shop, the car rolled off a trailer, crushing an employee’s legs in the process.
8. The Curse Has Claimed Some Victims
That’s not all. Barris also said that a thief once broke into his shop and tried stealing the steering wheel. He didn’t make it very far: he slipped and broke his arm. Some auto aficionados have bought different parts of the car to use in their own vehicles. Strangely, those parts have been linked to a number of crashes. A man named Dr. McHenry struck a tree while driving a car that contained parts of the Spyder.
Another eerie incident happened when the Spyder was temporarily on display somewhere, and it spontaneously caught fire—but its strange story doesn’t end there.
9. The Car Has Disappeared
While many different dealers and auction houses have purported to have pieces of Dean’s car, the car itself has essentially disappeared into the ether. A few years ago, an auto museum offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that they had the remains of the car, but not a single person came forward.
10. Childhood Wasn’t Easy
James Dean was born in Marion, Indiana in February 1931. When Dean was just a young child, his father moved the entire family to Santa Monica, California. Dean was an only child, and grew incredibly close to his mother through the years—but sadly, tragedy was lurking around the corner.
11. He Experienced Terrible Loss
Dean’s mother passed after a short battle with cervical cancer when Dean was just nine years old. The young boy was devastated, but his nightmare wasn’t over yet. His father couldn’t handle the pressure of raising Dean on his own, and sent him back to Indiana to live with an aunt and uncle. His mother’s passing deeply affected him. One day at school when he was in the fourth grade he burst into tears, saying that he missed her.
12. I Wish I May, I Wish I Might
When she was still alive, Mildred loved to make her son’s wishes come true. He would write down wishes on a piece of paper and leave them under his pillow. She would go in his room at night and read the wish, and try to make it come true the next day.
13. He Had an Inquisitive Mind
He liked to tinker around with his bicycle as a kid, assembling and disassembling it over and over again. According to his family, Dean was prone to getting extremely engrossed and enveloped in certain activities.
14. He Had a Strange Friendship
Dean lived with his aunt and uncle on their Quaker farm, and he and his father would become estranged as a result. A bit lost and without much guidance, Dean befriended a local Methodist pastor named Rev. James DeWeerd when he was around 11 years old—but the relationship had a dark side. DeWeerd had a strong effect on the teen, and introduced to him to things that would become big parts of his life later on, including bullfighting, cars, and the stage.
15. Many Think It Was Inappropriate
Dean and Rev. DeWeerd were close—perhaps too close. According to biographers, they began an intimate relationship when Dean was in his senior year of high school that allegedly lasted for years. Many who have researched and reported on Dean’s life have come to this conclusion—and Dean himself may have confessed to it as well.
16. He Confided in Liz Taylor
James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor worked together on the 1956 film Giant. In the mid-90s, Taylor talked to an interviewer about her relationship with Dean—and made a heartbreaking confession. Taylor made the writer promise not to reveal what she told him until after her passing, and he kept the secret for over a decade. She said that while they were making Giant, she would stay up late into the night with Dean talking.
It was during one of these sessions that he told her he’d been abused by a minister when he was just 11 years old, a few years after his mother’s passing.
17. His Family Life Had Ups and Downs
James Dean may not have had it easy as a teenager, but that didn’t stop him from excelling as a student. He was estranged from his father at the time, but when he graduated, he chose to attend Santa Monica City College, placing him squarely back in the city where his father was. Father and son reunited—but sadly, the idyllic picture wouldn’t last for long.
18. He Lied to Get By
Dean was part of the debate team during his senior year in high school, and was known to make up his sources. Ever the cool kid, the one time he was caught, he simply shrugged it off.
19. He Was Rejected
James Dean had been studying pre-law and living with his father and stepmother when he decided to make a change and pursue one of his dreams. He told them that he was going to transfer from SMCC to UCLA and major in drama. His father’s reaction was utterly chilling. He rejected his decision completely, and when Dean left for Los Angeles the next semester, the two became estranged again.
20. He Almost Wasn’t a Star
James Dean nearly didn’t go out to California. Dean was thinking about enrolling in the drama program at Indiana University. He changed his mind when he found out that the school required drama major students to also graduate with certificates in teaching. The university didn’t think many of the drama grads could actually make a living as actors.
21. He Rocked Specs
You may not have seen them make an appearance in his films, but James Dean actually had poor vision and needed glasses. Imagine Rebel Without a Cause‘s cool-as-a-cucumber Jim Stark with glasses? Definitely would’ve made it a different film.
22. He Was a Jock
Even though he couldn’t see all that well, he was pretty good at sports. He played basketball and baseball, and was on the track team. He also broke a county record in the pole vault while in school. His basketball coach called Dean an “all-American type boy,” saying that “he was a heady player and a good competitor.”
23. He Took Acting Very Seriously
Things began moving for James Dean when he was at UCLA. He got the part of Malcolm in a production of Macbeth and was accepted into a prestigious acting workshop. He was throwing his heart and soul into acting—but with passion comes fire, and he had a disturbingly short temper. Dean was once suspended from school for three days because he tried to choke a heckler who was interrupting him while he read for an acting competition.
24. Give Us a Show Then!
Dean took violin lessons from his mom, and he liked playing the bongos! Are the bongos easy to play? Asking for a friend. His mom also put him in tap dance lessons when he was only three years old, and he even took ballet lessons as an adult.
25. He Was Ready to Go
By 1951, James Dean was more than ready for his life to get started. His first acting job was a quick one: he was in a Pepsi commercial, and he was paid a whopping $10. One of his fraternity brothers at UCLA had brought him along to auditions after they had worked together in the college’s production of Macbeth. That tiny taste of success was enough to compel Dean to make a drastic decision.
26. He Jump-Started His Career
Dean quit UCLA so that he could start working full-time as an actor. Luckily, he’d made an impression with the Pepsi ad, and the same producer brought him onto a TV project called Hill Number One. It was a dramatized version of the Ressurection, where Dean played John the Apostle. He didn’t have a big role, just a few speaking lines, but he made quite an impression.
27. He Loved His Fans
Dean made enough of a mark with Hill Number One that he got his first fan club out of it. Some girls at a Los Angeles high school started the “Immaculate Heart James Dean Appreciation Society.” They even invited him to their first meeting, and he showed up and signed autographs!
28. He Took on Odd Jobs
After Hill Number One, Dean had a couple of uncredited roles, including in Fixed Bayonets! and Sailor Beware, which starred a couple of big names: Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Dean also worked as a parking lot attendant during this time, just to get by.
29. Winging It
He also continued taking roles on the small screen, even once co-starring with future US President Ronald Reagan. Dean liked to improvise some of his lines, and considering he did a lot of live TV, it could throw everyone in the cast off. Reagan wasn’t exactly impressed by this, once being quoted as saying “just make him say the lines as they’re written.”
30. Some of His Work Disappeared
Strangely enough, the TV program that Dean and Reagan appeared on together, a live episode of General Electric Theater titled “The Dark, Dark Hours,” was lost for nearly 50 years after its original broadcast, despite the fact that it had made international headlines after it first aired in December 1954.
31. He Wanted to Get Serious
Dean wanted more than anything to be taken seriously as an actor, and he saw one path to achieve that dream. In 1951, he moved to New York City on the advice of his mentors. While he didn’t become famous overnight, there was one triumph that he took extremely seriously: Dean was admitted to the prestigious Actors Studio so that he could study method acting under Lee Strasberg. Dean was elated.
32. He Was Too Smart for His Own Good
When James Dean first moved to New York City, he took a job as a tester on a game show. The powers-that-be on Beat the Clock fired Dean because he did the stunts too quickly. Wait, shouldn’t that be the point?
33. The Role of a Lifetime
After a few more small roles on TV shows, Hollywood finally came calling for James Dean when he was cast in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden. Director Elia Kazan wanted to cast a broody, Marlon Brando-type, and the screenwriter suggested Dean, who still wasn’t famous at the time. He had to pass one important test first: get the approval of Steinbeck, the book’s author.
34. He Got by With a Little Help From His Friends
When he was in New York and still struggling to make ends meet, he started eating for free at a place on Sixth Avenue at 54th Street called Jerry’s Bar. Jerry Lucci, the owner, just really enjoyed talking with Dean, and if the restaurant was full he would let Dean eat in the kitchen.
35. He Had an Idol
James Dean was actually a big fan of fellow actor Marlon Brando. He tried reaching out to him, but Brando pretty much just shrugged him off. “I gave him the name of a [psycho]-analyst, and he went,” Brando commented once. “At least his work improved.” Yikes. However strange that interaction was, shocking rumors still spread about Dean and Brando…
36. Their Relationship Seemed Tense
Outwardly, Brando didn’t seem to be impressed with Dean. Dean had been trying to imitate Brando’s lifestyle, even buying the same kind of motorcycle (a Triumph). When Brando found out, his response was utterly devastating. He said, “Mr. Dean appears to be wearing my last year’s wardrobe and using my last year’s talent.”
37. If There Was a Frienship, It May Have Been More
They both played the same type of macho bad boy characters in the 1950s, but rumors persisted that there was a romantic, or at least physical relationship that took place between James Dean and Marlon Brando. Of course, Brando is just one figure who Dean was linked with, and the two both took instruction at the Actors Studio in New York.
While Brando has been open about his bisexuality, he never confirmed whether or not anything really happened between him and Dean.
38. He Passed the Test
When James Dean was up for the role of Cal in East of Eden, he had to meet with author John Steinbeck before getting cast. The problem was, Dean wasn’t really one for first impressions. Steinbeck immediately disliked Dean and thought he was sulky—but luckily, that made him perfect for the part. With Steinbeck’s approval, Dean was cast.
39. He Was a Master of Improvisation
With East of Eden, Dean was finally given a chance to show off his acting chops—and show off he did. A lot of his performance was unscripted, and it led to some devastating and surprising moments for the rest of the cast. It was a powerhouse performance—but sadly, it would be Dean’s only film that he would see released in his lifetime.
40. He Wanted to Mold His Mind
Even in the time leading up to his death, James Dean wanted to learn more. He had started learning how to sculpt with artist Pegot Waring, and was constantly asking questions, to the point that Waring became frustrated. “He wanted to know just about every single fact, idea, and theory that had been discovered by man clear back to the stone age,” Waring said.
41. His Image Matched His Demeanor
The star didn’t really care too much about his appearance, even going so far as to show up to a formal luncheon with no sock or shoes, and wearing dirty jeans. That wasn’t just a one-time thing, either. People who worked with Dean also said that he would show up to rehearsals wearing pants that were being held up with safety pins!
42. His Career Was Too Brief
Dean only starred in three movies during his short career: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. The latter two were only released after his passing in 1955. Sadly, there was one role he really wanted that he never got to play: that of Billy the Kid. He was a big fan of the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid and read it many times, but he would never get to fulfill his dreams of portraying the real-life outlaw.
43. Was He, or Wasn’t He?
Dean’s personal life was a hotly debated issue. There were the rumors about his sexuality. Regardless of what it might have been, Dean took some of his relationships are seriously as he took his acting—and his explosive temper was proof. When Dean was still at UCLA, he’d fallen in love with a classmate named Beverly Wills. One day while they were out together, another man asked her to dance, and Dean went off on the man, threatening violence. His volatile nature led to the end of their relationship.
44. His Studio Cooked Up Stories About Him
Once Dean signed with Warner Bros., they began releasing stories that would link him to other WB starlets. They also once made a press release that talked about how some of their stars were too busy studying the craft to engage in much of a life dating-wise. Of course, the other stars mentioned in the press release were Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, both of whom were gay.
45. He Was Briefly Engaged to an Actress
Dean’s most significant romantic relationship was with Italian actress Pier Angeli. The pair were even briefly engaged, and even though many didn’t find it genuine, Angeli said in an interview many years after Dean’s passing that the two had been deeply in love and inseparable, even making a comparison to Romeo & Juliet.
46. Their Relationship Drew Ire
Dean and Angeli may have been in love, but their union was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Angeli’s mother didn’t approve of Dean’s behavior, appearance, or dangerous hobbies like car racing. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Dean was ready to commit fully to Angeli. After Dean finished East of Eden, he returned briefly to New York City to tie up some loose ends—only to be utterly devastated.
47. He Was Dumped
When Dean was in New York City, the news broke. Angeli had gotten engaged—to another man. His name was Vic Damone, and he was a singer, also from an Italian-American background. The press ate it up, and when Angeli wed Damone the month after, they claimed that Dean watched the marriage from across the street, even revving the engine of his motorcycle during the vows. Dean denied the story.
48. Let Her Tell You a Story
Another woman that Dean briefly dated was actress Liz Sheridan. You may recognize her from her role as Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld. She even wrote a book about their relationship, called Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean: A Love Story.
49. Yeah, Don’t Try This Either
Dean once put an apple on his head during a Hollywood party, daring an archer to shoot it off. The party’s host, Joan Davis, stopped the archer just before the string was released.
50. He Wasn’t the Only One to Meet a Dark Fate
While many believed that the love story between Angeli and Dean was embellished, one thing is for sure: both met dark ends. Angeli divorced Damone, remarried, and then divorced her second husband as well. She would often say in interviews that Dean had been the love of her life—and in 1971, the despondent actress took an overdose of barbiturates and passed away. She was 39 years old.
51. He Didn’t Want to Be Typecast
After his star-making role in East of Eden, Dean was cast in Rebel Without a Cause. Both characters were moody outcasts desperate for their father’s love—but Dean immediately feared that he would be typecast. As a result, he took on the role that would be his final one: as Jett Rink in Giant, opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.
52. He Had a Sentimental Streak
Dean and Elizabeth Taylor became so close on the set of Giant that she gave Dean a Siamese cat as a gift, which he named Marcus, after his uncle. If you’ll remember, that was the uncle he’d gone to live with after his father had sent him away.
53. Was It Romance or Rivalry?
Dean had another connection to Marlon Brando—both dated actress Ursula Andress at the same time, just before Dean’s passing. She was even there when he bought the car that later took his life.
54. He Took His Job a Little Too Seriously
Dean was a method actor til the end. There’s a pivotal scene in Giant where his character is supposed to give a speech after having a few too many drinks at a banquet. He went full method with it, and had some drinks himself before shooting the scene. As a result, it was hard to make out his slurred speech, and it had to be overdubbed by another actor before its release.
55. He Saw It Coming
Dean knew that his dangerous hobbies, like bullfighting and car racing, were just that. He once made a joke that he’d never make it to see the age of 30—but it gets even darker. While discussing his penchant for fast driving, his Rebel Without a Cause co-stars all said that they expected him to get into an accident before the end of the year.
56. He Never Got to Work on His Last Project
Before his passing, Dean had signed on to star in a movie called Somebody Up There Likes Me. Seems a little eerie, doesn’t it? The role was recast and given to Paul Newman, which helped the actor get a kick start on his career.
57. He Was a Real Speed Demon
Early in 1955, Dean started car racing, even placing second in his first race. He drove a white Porsche Super Speedster that day in Palm Springs, but traded that in for the Porsche 550 Spyder after filming of Giant finished. The producers of Giant had put a clause in his contract that said he couldn’t race while filming the movie.
58. Cops Told Him to Slow Down
In a strange twist of fate, just two hours before the accident that took his life, police issued James Dean a speeding ticket, after they clocked him going 10 miles over the speed limit.
59. He Wasn’t Alone
Dean’s mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, was in the car crash that took the actor’s life, but survived. He sustained a broken leg and serious head injuries.
60. That Deadly Day
On September 30, 1955, while driving the Porsche 550 Spyder, Dean collided with Ford Tudor sedan at what is now the intersection of Highways 41 and 46. Dean passed after arriving at the hospital, having suffered terrible internal injuries and a broken neck. The coroner’s office deemed the crash to be an accident. Investigators were never able to determine whether or not Dean was speeding.
He had only owned the car for about a week.
61. Ominously on Point
This one might give you chills. Alec Guinness, the actor best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, met Dean at a restaurant in Hollywood just after Dean had bought the Spyder. Guinness had a premonition and warned Dean to stay away from the car. Guinness reportedly said to Dean: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”
The young star just played it off, but it would sadly be a premonition that came true.
62. Live Fast, Die Young
Dean’s reported last words, uttered just seconds before the accident, are absolutely chilling. When the coroner interrogated Dean’s passenger Rolf Wütherich, Wütherich claimed to not remember the moments before the crash. However, sources reported that Dean’s last words were, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us,” right before he crashed into a car crossing over the centerline.