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Why the world still remembers James Dean

Heike Mund
February 8, 2021

He became the icon of cool after only three films: If he hadn't died at the age of 24, James Dean would have turned 90 today.

James Dean in Rebel without a Cause
Image: Imago Images/Zuma/RR Action

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.

James Dean's car after the crash
Tragic end of a career: James Dean's Porsche after the accidentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

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.

James Dean | "East of Eden"
Dean began his acting career in Broadway theaterImage: United Archives/picture-alliance

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.

James Dean in East of Eden
His first big hit: James Dean (middle) in "East of Eden" (1955)Image: picture alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

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 

Dean was given his major role by Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan who cast him as the angst-ridden brother Cal in East of Eden, an adaptation of the 1952 novel by John Steinbeck.

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. 

James Dean wearing a hat and glasses looking through a camera | Giant
ames Dean takes a break during filming the filming of "Giant"Image: akg-images/picture-alliance

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. 

James Dean looking melancholic
The idol for a generation: James DeanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

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