Who is James Dean?
Son of Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson, James Byron Dean, was born in Marion, Indiana, on February 8, 1931. Dreaming of becoming a dentist, his father relocated their family to Santa Monica, California. After several years, his mother, who was very close to him, died after battling cancer. James was only nine years old during that time, so he was sent back to Indiana by his father to live on his aunt and uncle Quaker’s farm.
Rev. James DeWeerd, Dean’s pastor, was a significant influence on his life during this time. He later had influenced him to have an interest in car racing, bullfighting, and theater. Though he was an average student in academics, he did excel in sports like baseball and basketball.
Dean was reunited with his father in California after he graduated in Fairmount High School in May 1949. He enrolled in Sta. Monica College in the same state to pursue his pre-law before transferring to UCLA to pursue his love of drama. For two years, he studied theater at the University of California. This decision resulted in estrangement from his father. While at UCLA, from a group of 350 actors, Dean was luckily chosen to portray Malcolm in Macbeth, and at that same period, He also began acting in James Whitmore’s workshop. In January 1951, he quit his studies at UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor.
Dean quit college and went acting full-time. He had his first TV appearance for a Pepsi Cola commercial. He was cast in Hill Number One (1951), an Easter television special dramatizing the Resurrection of Jesus, and Dean had his first speaking part as John the Beloved Disciple.
Dean subsequently obtained three walk-on roles in Holywood movies: as a soldier in Fixed Bayonets! (1951), a boxing cornerman in Sailor Beware (1952), and a youth in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952).
Despite these roles, Dean was still a starving actor who worked menial jobs to support himself. With the advice of James Whitmore, Dean moved to New York to find better opportunities for his skills.
In New York, Dean admitted to the Actor’s Studio and studied method acting under Lee Strasberg. He had a nonspeaking bit part as a pressman in the movie Deadline – U.S.A., starring Humphrey Bogart (1952).
He performed several plays on and off Broadway, and he gained more confidence to take on more dramatic roles. His sly, insinuating performance on André Gide’s book’s stage adaptation gave him more success and drawn spectaculars attention. He played as a blackmailing homosexual houseboy in a Broadway production, The Immoralist (1954).
The Immoralist caught the attention of film director Elia Kazan and that when Dean started his big breaks. The director cast the 23-year-old actor in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, and gave him the leading role of Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955).
The actor was credited for making an emotional impact on the screen. He was notable with his skills in continually changing his character interpretation and line readings and deliberately baiting and challenging his fellow actors, like Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Burl Ives.
After the premiere of the East of Eden, Dean was seen as a movie star. And for the first time, he received a nomination for an Academy Award; it was the first acting nomination to be granted posthumously.
Despite the initial sole appearance in this film, Dean has become a famous symbol of the 50s era youth. He starred in two more films that brought him more fame and recognition.
Dean’s second starring film appearance was in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) by director Nicholas Ray. He played as sensitive high-school misfit Jim Stark that made him into the embodiment of his generation. His character rebelliously rejects elders’ values while desperately aching to “belong” and struggling to find life’s purpose. Dean’s performance spoke powerfully on behalf of disillusioned, alienated teenagers, and his role resembled as a hero that every youth could respect and admire for. Actors Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Dennis Hopper were also featured in this classic drama.
Producer-director George Stevens cast Dean to the film Giant (1956), a drama set on a Texas ranch that also starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. He went into a turbulent transformation from a simple Texas cowboy into an oil tycoon. He earned his second Oscar nomination with this film.
Although Dean only had three major films, he was a well-loved superstar. However, his tragic death ended his thriving career.
Driving off his silver Porsche to compete in a sports car rally in Salinas, California, he crashed headlong into a Ford sedan while speeding down the highway. The accident killed him instantly, and many were shocked.
Nevertheless, his death gave birth to an almost an intensely loyal cult and made him a film icon until the 21st century.