“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death… I mean, if he can live on after his death, then maybe he was a great man.”
James Dean’s life was a short one: he died when he was only 24 years old. But he was someone who wanted to dip into just about everything, learning as much as he could. Despite his short time on this planet, he did quite a lot. Keep reading to delve into the life of this rising star whose life was cut far too short.
42. Momma’s Boy
Dean didn’t have the greatest childhood, especially after his mother Mildred passed away as a result of cervical cancer when he was only nine. His father, Winton, had moved the whole family to California to become a dentist, but when his wife died, he sent his son back to their native Indiana. His mother’s death deeply affected him, and one day at school when he was in the fourth grade he burst into tears, saying that he missed her.
41. I Wish I May, I Wish I Might
When she was still alive, Mildred helped 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.
40. Changing His Stars
Dean lived with his aunt and uncle on their Quaker farm, and he and his father would become estranged as a result. He did briefly stay with his father when he was at Santa Monica City College, but transferred to UCLA in 1950. Early on in his college years, he carried a dictionary with him because he wanted to have intelligent conversations but didn’t have the vocabulary to match.
39. Almost Never Was
He nearly didn’t go out to California. He was thinking about enrolling in the drama program at Indiana University but changed his mind because students going for their major in the program also had to graduate with certificates in teaching. The university didn’t think many of the drama grads could actually make a living as actors.
38. All the Better to See You With
Dean had poor vision and needed glasses.
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.”
36. Don’t Mess With Dean
He was once suspended from school for three days because he tried to choke a heckler who was disturbing him while he read for an acting competition.
35. Whatchu Talkin’ Bout, James?
He was part of the debate team during his senior year in high school, and was known to make up his sources. The one time he was caught, he simply shrugged it off.
34. Learning the Ins and Outs
He liked to tinker around with his bicycle as a kid, assembling and disassembling it over and over again. As his family noted, he was prone to getting extremely engrossed and enveloped in certain activities.
33. Moulding His Mind
Even in the time leading up to his death he 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.
32. Feeding His Image
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. He was also known for showing up to rehearsals wearing pants that were being held up with safety pins!
31. The Mind That Wouldn’t Rest
His friends described him as having mood swings, with one friend stating, “he’d be up one minute, down the next.” That same friend also said Dean “was uncomfortable in his own skin.” Dean could also be a bit random in his behavior, as he showed up at his friend’s houses or even called them late at night. That last part makes sense, considering he suffered from insomnia.
Dean was 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! But what’s even crazier? There’s reports that the pair had a romantic relationship.
29. Rumor Has It
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). Brando said, “Mr. Dean appears to be wearing my last year’s wardrobe and using my last year’s talent.” I guess we’ll never know the truth behind their interactions, or their unconfirmed relationship.
28. The Short Career of James Dean
He only starred in three movies during his short career, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, the latter two being released after his death in 1955. One role he had really wanted? 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 fulfil his dreams of portraying the real-life outlaw.
27. Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End
Before his death, Dean had signed on to star in 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.
26. A Peek Into His Heart
Another favorite book of his was The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and he frequently liked to quote from it. His favorite song? “When Your Lover Has Gone” by Billie Holiday.
25. Winging It
He was also a star on the small-screen, even co-starring with future U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Dean liked to improvise some of his lines, and considering he did a lot of live TV, that 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.”
24. What Do You Think He Bought?
His first acting job was a quick one: he was in a Pepsi commercial, and was paid a whopping $10.00. One of his fraternity brothers at UCLA had brought him along to auditions after Dean had a role in the college’s production of Macbeth.
23. His Number One Fans
As a result of that Pepsi commercial, the same producer brought him onto his TV project, Hill Number One, where Dean played John the Apostle. He didn’t have a big role, just a few speaking lines, but 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!
22. Odd Jobs and Sods
He also had a couple of uncredited roles, 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.
21. Bright Lights, Bigger City
Dean ended up dropping out of school and moved to New York in 1951 pursuit of an acting career. He starred on Broadway in two separate plays along with the number of TV roles he got. The author of the novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck, directly approved him starring in the movie adaption.
20. Friends in Tasty Places
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.
19. Too Smart for His Own Good
One of his other jobs was 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?
18. Was He, or Wasn’t He?
Off-screen, his relationship status and his sexual preferences were a hotly debated issue. He had a brief engagement with an actress, Pier Angeli, but there were many who didn’t find it genuine. Some people believed he was bisexual, but others didn’t and said he had been with other women. There’s even the belief that his first sexual experience as a teenager was with a minister who had seduced him.
17. Let Her Tell You a Story
One of the women he 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.
16. Don’t Try This at Home, Kids
Dean was known for his smoking habit, and even had a sneaky trick for lighting a cigarette. He could put an unlit cigarette in his mouth, along with a flaming match, and presto-magico, he’d open his mouth to reveal the lit cigarette! Impressive!
15. 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.
14. Give Us a Show Then!
He was musically inclined, at least to an extent. He 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.
13. I am Siamese, If You Please
Actress Elizabeth Taylor gave Dean a Siamese cat as a gift, which he named Marcus, after his uncle. The two had co-starred together in the film Giant.
12. 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, nicknamed “Little Bastard”, after filming of Giant finished. He had been contractually obligated not to race while filming that movie.
11. Life Was Telling Him to Slow Down
Just two hours before his fatal accident, Dean was issued a speeding ticket, clocked going 10 miles over the speed limit. The ticket shows that he was scheduled to be in court just a couple weeks later to answer to the charge.
10. Two’s Company
His mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, had been along for the ride, but survived. He sustained a broken leg and serious head injuries.
9. That Deadly Day
On September 30, 1955, Dean’s Spyder and a Ford Tudor sedan collided at what is now the intersection of Highways 41 and 46. Dean died upon arrival at hospital, having suffered terrible internal injuries and a broken neck. The accident was deemed to be just that, an accident, and investigators were never able to determine whether or not Dean was speeding. He had only owned the car for about a week.
8. Fact or Fiction?
No one knows where the car that killed James Dean is today, but 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.
7. The Curse of the Spyder
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. Others who bought parts of the car reportedly ended up in their own fatal crashes, too.
6. 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. “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week,” Guinness reportedly said to Dean. The young star just played it off, but it would sadly, and eerily, be a premonition that came true.
5. On the Ledge
Although he didn’t win, Dean was posthumously nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his role in East of Eden, marking the first time that has ever happened. You might remember that another tragic actor, Heath Ledge, was also posthumously nominated for The Dark Night. Dean was nominated (and lost) again for his role in Giant.
4. You’re an Odd One, Mr. Dean
Remember the strange behavior his friends talked about? Apparently, he had weird habits while filming his last film, Giant, too. He was known for wearing the same t-shirt for two weeks straight, being late to set, and randomly shooting at things. Oh, and 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. 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.
3. All He Wants for Christmas…
As a result of a trapeze accident in the family barn, 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.
2. Ironically Cautious
Dean had an interview with ABC interviewer Gig Young to help promote Rebel Without a Cause, during which he talked 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. The interview was never aired.
1. Live Fast, Die Young
Dean’s reported last words just seconds before the accident are chilling. Although Dean’s passenger, Rolf Wütherich, did not remember the moments before the crash when he was interrogated in the coroner’s deposition, sources report 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 centre line.
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