How is it possible for an actor to make only three major films, die in a car-crash at the age of twenty-four, and still be famous right around the world sixty years later? It isnt easy, but James Dean did it. He was born in the American state of Indiana in 1931, growing up on a farm there before he moved to California to stay with his widowed father. If he were still alive, he would be turning eighty-four this year.
But he isnít still alive, so he will always be remembered the way he was on film: young, handsome and charismatic. He went far too soon, but perhaps that would have been the way he wanted it. Most actors struggle for recognition and never achieve the success they long for. Even if they make it to the top and become famous, their fame may be fleeting. James Dean made a name that has lasted for good. Perhaps he would have traded all his extra years for the chance of acting immortality.
After all, he was burning with ambition right from the start. In 1951 he abandoned a degree in drama at the University of California in Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of stardom. He began to climb the acting ladder, winning small parts in films while he worked as a parking-lot attendant at CBS Studios. Then, taking the advice of his mentor Roger Brackett, a director of radio advertising, he moved the full width of America from L.A. to New York. He took on small roles in television plays, then won a place to study method acting at the Actors Studio, which he described as ďthe greatest school of the theaterĒ and admired for producing great actors like Marlon Brando.
Working hard at his studies, he picked up more roles in television and the theatre. He was building a reputation and hoping to win the attention of the movie business back in Hollywood. Everything went according to plan: in 1954 he was chosen for a big role in the film East of Eden (1955), an adaptation of a novel by John Steinbeck about two farming families in California. It would be the only one of his major films that was released before his death. He played Cal Trask, a troubled youth desperately seeking the approval of his stern father. Improvising large parts of his performance, he made a powerful impression on screen and also prepared himself for what would be his most famous role.
That came in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he played another troubled youth, struggling both to understand the world and to find a place in it for himself. The film would make him an international star, particularly among the teenagers who saw their own lives and emotions portrayed on screen by Dean and the other young actors he played alongside. He didnít know it when he finished work on Rebel Without a Cause, but his time on earth was now running out fast. He had the chance to appear in only one other film, Giant (1956), where he played a Texan ranch-hand alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. He had deliberately chosen the role of an older character to avoid becoming typecast in roles as a teen rebel. Itís clear that he was planning for a long and varied career.
He would never achieve one. Even as his Hollywood career began to take off, he had developed an interest in motor-racing. With the money he earned from East of Eden, he bought fast and flamboyant cars, including a Porsche and Triumph. He competed in a race at Palm Springs, winning first place in the novice class and second place in the all-comers. Then, during the filming of Giant, he was temporarily banned from racing by his studio, who were anxious that he didnít injure himself before the film was complete.
As soon as he had finished shooting his scenes in Giant, he wanted to race cars again. He set out in a new and even more powerful Porsche to a competition at the town of Salinas, California. He never got there. At approximately 5:15 p.m. on 30th September 1955, he crashed headlong at high speed into another car. Badly injured, he probably died instantly at the scene. His life was over and now the legend would begin.
James Dean went too soon, dying at the age of only twenty-four at the beginning of what seemed likely to be a long and glittering career. Appearing in only three major films, he made a name that has never faded. Every year since his death has brought him new fans and provoked new interpretations of his work among critics and scholars of film. In the twenty-first century he remains what he became all those years ago: an icon of male beauty, idealistic youth and unfulfilled promise.