About James Dean

Who was James Dean?

James Byron Dean (February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955) was an American actor.  He is remembered as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement, as expressed in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as troubled teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his stardom were loner Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and surly ranch hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956).

Dean’s premature death in a car crash cemented his legendary status. He became the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations.

The Fairmount Connection

James Dean was born February 8, 1931 at the Seven Gables apartment house at the corner of 4th Street and McClure Street in Marion, Indiana, the son of Winton Dean  and Mildred Marie Wilson.  Six years after his father had left farming to become a dental technician, Dean and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. The family spent several years there, and by all accounts, young Dean, who was an only child, was very close to his mother.  In 1938, she was suddenly struck with acute stomach pains and began to lose weight quickly. She died of uterine cancer when Dean was nine years old.

Unable to care for his son, Dean’s father sent the boy to live with his sister Ortense and her husband, Marcus Winslow, on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, where he was raised in their Quaker household.

His overall performance in school was exceptional and he was also considered to be a popular student. He played on the baseball and varsity basketball teams, studied drama, and competed in public speaking through the Indiana High School Forensic Association.

After Fairmount

After graduating from Fairmount High School in May 1949, Dean moved back to California with his dog, Max, to live with his father and stepmother. He enrolled in Santa Monica College and majored in pre-law. He transferred to UCLA for one semester, and changed his major to drama, which resulted in estrangement from his father.  At that time, he also began acting in James Whitmore‘s workshop. In January 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dean acted in some television shows, but is most well known for starring in three feature films:  Rebel Without a Cause (1955),  East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956).

A Racer at Heart

In 1954, Dean became interested in developing an auto racing career.  Just before filming began on Rebel Without a Cause, he competed in his first professional event at the Palm Springs Road Races, which was held in Palm Springs, California on March 26–27, 1955. Dean achieved first place in the novice class and second place at the main event.  Dean hoped to compete in the Indianapolis 500, but his busy schedule made this vision impossible.

Dean’s final race occurred in Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, 1955.  His brief career was put on hold when Warner Brothers barred him from all racing during the production of Giant.  Dean had finished shooting his scenes and the movie was in post-production when he decided to race again.

The Death of a Legend

Longing to return to the “liberating prospects” of motor racing, Dean was scheduled to compete at a racing event in Salinas, California on September 30, 1955.  Accompanying the actor to the occasion was stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, Collier’s photographer Sanford Roth, and Rolf Wütherich, the German mechanic from the Porsche factory who maintained Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder “Little Bastard” car. Wütherich, who had encouraged Dean to drive the car from Los Angeles to Salinas to break it in, accompanied Dean in the Porsche. At 3:30 p.m. Dean was ticketed for speeding, as was Hickman who was following behind in another car.

As the group traveled to the event via U.S. Route 466, (currently SR 46) at approximately 5:15 p.m. a 1950 Ford Tudor was passing through an intersection while turning, ahead of the Porsche. Dean, unable to stop in time, slammed into the driver’s side of the Ford resulting in Dean’s car bouncing across the pavement onto the side of the highway. Dean’s passenger, Wütherich, was thrown from the Porsche, while Dean was trapped in the car and sustained numerous fatal injuries, including a broken neck.  

The driver of the Ford, Donald Turnupseed, exited his damaged vehicle with minor injuries. The accident was witnessed by a number of passersby who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse, but “death appeared to have been instantaneous”.  Dean was pronounced dead on arrival shortly after he arrived by ambulance at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m.

Laid to Rest in Fairmount

Dean’s funeral was held on October 8, 1955 at the Fairmount Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana. The coffin remained closed to conceal his severe injuries. An estimated 600 mourners were in attendance, while another 2400 fans gathered outside of the building during the procession.  James Dean’s final resting place is at the Park Cemetery in Fairmount, just about one mile from the James Dean Gallery.