James Dean, Born to be a Rebel

James Dean

Besides Brando, James Dean was perhaps the greatest icon of the first Rebel generation. Most ironic is the fact that James Dean did so few films, yet, in those few films, Dean displayed a personality worthy of modern actors in terms of subtlety and charisma. Even today, his posters adorn the walls of many a teenage boy and girl.

Born James Bryron Dean on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. Dean was the son of a dental technician. He moved with his family to Los Angeles at age five, but after his mother’s death he returned to the Midwest at age nine and was raised by relatives on their Iowa farm. After graduating from high school, he returned to California where he attended Santa Monica Junior College and UCLA.

James Dean
Effortless style.

He began acting with James Whitmore’s little theater group, appeared in occasional TV commercials, and played bit parts in several films. In 1951 he went to New York, where, after hanging around the theater district earning his living as a busboy, he got a part in Broadway’s “See the Jaguar.” He later observed classes at the Actors Studio, played bits in TV dramas, and returned to Broadway in “The Immortalist” in 1954. This last appearance resulted in a screen test at Warner Bros. and one of the most spectacular brief careers of any screen star.

In just over a year—after the bit parts ended and he was actually credited for his work and in only three films, Dean became a widely admired screen personality, personifying the restless American youth of the mid-50s, and embodying the title of one of his films, “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). He was nominated for Academy Awards for his performances in both “East of Eden” (1955) and “Giant” (1956), the latter released after his death to good reviews and great business.

James Dean
James Dean in his apartment on West 68th Street, New York City, 1955.

Dean was killed in a highway crash while on his way to a racing event in Salinas, California on September 30, 1955. The image of his mangled Porsche became a photo headlining every newspaper in America. His adulation by fans grew posthumously to legendary proportions. Many of them refused to accept his death, and the James Dean cult developed into a mass mystique of a kind that had surrounded the personality of no other star since possibly Rudolph Valentino. In the years since his tragic death, the legend of James Dean has continued to grow within the United States and, more staggeringly, to grandiose proportions throughout Europe and Asia. Periodically, a beautiful and brooding young actor will burst onto the scene and be compared to Dean—a testament to his enduring image.