Although the exact circumstances of James Dean's fatal car accident are unclear, what is certain is that on September 30, 1955, the 24-year-old movie star lost his life and became a timeless cultural icon.
On the day of the accident, Dean was traveling across California with a friend, German mechanic and race car driver Rolf Wütherich. The pair were on their way to a car race — Dean was an avid racing fan.
In the twilight of the early evening, a car coming in the other direction turned in front of his Porsche, cutting him off. Dean, who had already been warned by the police for speeding earlier in the afternoon, was driving too fast and unable to swerve out of harm's way. He hit the other vehicle nearly head-on and died immediately, his neck broken.
Wütherich was thrown out of the vehicle but survived. The actor's prized silver Porsche Spyder had been reduced to a pile of scrap metal.
The dream of becoming an actor
James Byron Dean, born on February 8, 1931, spent his early years on a farm in the US state of Indiana. As a child, he loved art and music, played the violin, made pottery and even tried tap dancing. Yet he had only one dream: to be an actor.
His family moved to California and his mother died of cancer when Dean was only nine. His father sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in a Quaker household back home in Indiana. Deeply unhappy, Dean sat for hours alone in front of a radio, taking refuge in stories that took him to faraway places. In high school, he became involved in his school's theater group.
Yet the soon-to-be star had an even greater passion: driving. At the time, he was fascinated by motorcycle racing, although he didn't even have his driver's license yet. "My hobby, or what I do in my spare time, is motorcycle," he told his school principal. "I know a lot about them mechanically, and I love to ride. I have been in a few races and have done well."
A fresh start in NYC
After high school, Dean moved back to California to live with his father. The cinema industry, movies, and the studios in nearby Hollywood all interested him ardently. In 1949 he enrolled at Santa Monica College in California, choosing to study pre-law at his father's request. However, law wasn't his thing. He preferred instead to take up acting classes and workshops at UCLA in order to major in Drama. But Dean wanted to pursue a more serious acting career and so moved to New York City, feeling magically drawn to the East Coast metropolis.
The reality of being an actor in the megacity was difficult and laborious. Dean caught a break when he landed a spot in the storied "Actor's Studio" of method actor Lee Strasberg, considered the nation's most prestigious acting school at the time. Encouraged, Dean made ends meet by acting in television shows and theater productions.
A starring role
Casting the inexperienced young actor in the film was a big risk for Kazan, but it paid off. Dean dashingly played a young man in America trying to find his own way in the world, and the topic struck a chord with the youth of the time, who were eager to find ways to rebel against authority. The role made him a star overnight, earning him an Oscar nomination.
The rebel myth lives on
Dean saw further success with his second film Rebel Without a Cause (1955) about a sensitive high-school misfit. In 1956 he shot Giant, which further cemented him as a poster child of rebellious youths in the 1950s.
Yet, Dean only lived to see the success of his first film. His accident took place before the second and third films were released. At the age of just 24, he became a posthumous pop-culture icon. His casual, cool way of dressing, haircut and defiant gaze appeared again and again in photography and fashion.
Dean was buried in his home state of Indiana. After his death, the roles he had been scheduled to play were taken over by the young Paul Newman, who, like Dean, had also been influenced by Strasberg's method acting. He too became a star.
Although Dean died 65 years ago, he has not been forgotten. Today, a small museum in Indiana commemorates the world-famous icon. The intersection where his fatal accident occurred was renamed James Dean Memorial Junction. Decades after his death, fans still place flowers there in honor of the "rebel without a cause."
Adapted from German by Sarah Hucal