|Definition: James Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. He starred in the film adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, for which he received an Oscar nomination. His next starring role, in Rebel Without a Cause, made him into the embodiment of his generation. Shortly after completing work on the film Giant, Dean was killed in a car crash and quickly became an enduring film icon.|
James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana, to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. Dean's father left farming to become a dentist and moved the family to Santa Monica, California, where Dean attended Brentwood Public School. Several years later, Dean's mother, whom he was very close to, died of cancer, and Dean's father sent him back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle's Quaker farm. During this time, Dean sought counsel from his pastor, the Rev. James DeWeerd, who influenced his later interest in car racing and theater. The two formed an intimate relationship that is rumored to have been sexual.
In 1949, Dean graduated from high school and moved back to California. He studied law at Santa Monica College, but eventually transferred to University of California, Los Angeles, and majored in theater.
After appearing in just one stage production, as Malcolm in Macbeth, Dean dropped out of UCLA. His first television appearance was in a Pepsi Cola commercial, and his first speaking part was in Sailor Beware, a comedy starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. To make ends meet, Dean worked as a parking-lot attendant at CBS Studios, where he met Rogers Brackett, a radio director who became his mentor.
In 1951, Dean moved to New York City and was admitted to the Actors Studio to study under Lee Strasberg. His career began to pick up, and he performed in such 1950s television shows as Kraft Television Theatre and Omnibus. In 1954, Dean's success in a theatrical role as an Arab boy in The Immoralist led to interest from Hollywood. Over the next 18 months, Dean starred in three major motion pictures, beginning with the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, East of Eden. Director Elia Kazan chose Dean after Dean met with Steinbeck, who thought him perfect for the part. Many of Dean's scenes in the film were unscripted improvisations. He would eventually be nominated for an Oscar for this role, making him the first actor in history to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.
In his next film, Dean starred as the agonized teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, a role that would define his image in American culture. Dean then landed a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant, playing an older, oil-rich Texan. Giant was Dean's last film. It was released after his death in 1956. Dean received an Oscar nomination for this role, making him the only actor in history to receive more than one Oscar nomination posthumously.
When Dean wasn't acting, he was a professional car racer. On Friday, September 30, 1955, Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, drove Dean's new Porsche 550 Spyder to a weekend race in Salinas, California. At 3:30 p.m., they were stopped just south of Bakersfield and given a speeding ticket. Later, while driving along Route 466, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed suddenly turned his Ford Custom in front of Dean's Porsche. The two cars collided almost head-on, flipping the Spyder in the air and landing it on its wheels in a gully. Dean was killed almost immediately. He was 24.
Friends told James Dean that the car was trouble when they saw it - a rare Silver Porsche Spyder, one of only 90 in 1955. Nicknamed "The Little Bastard," the car carried the iconic screen rebel to his grave on September 30, 1955.
After the accident, many fans refused to believe Dean was dead. A story circulated that he was still alive although terribly disfigured, and in true urban legend fashion this tale took on a life of its own.
I won't go into all the James Dean as a cult idol stuff except to say his mystique has staying power. For example, his tombstone was stolen twice in 1983, and in 1985 had to be replaced because of damage done to it by fans. Seems he was still the popular fellow despite having been dead for three decades.
After the tragedy, master car customizer George Barris bought the wreck for $2,500. When the wreck arrived at Barris' garage, the Porsche slipped and fell on one of the mechanics unloading it. The accident broke both of the mechanic's legs.
While Barris had bad feelings about the car when he first saw it, his suspicions were confirmed during a race at the Pomona Fair Grounds on October 24, 1956. Two physicians, Troy McHenry and William Eschrid, were both racing cars that had parts from the "Little Bastard." McHenry died when his car, which had the Porsche's engine installed, went out of control and hit a tree. Eschrid's car flipped over. Eschrid, who survived despite serious injuries, later said that the car suddenly locked up when he went into a curve.
The car's malevolent influence continued after the race: one kid trying to steal the Porsche's steering wheel slipped and gashed his arm. Barris reluctantly sold two of the car's tires to a young man; within a week, the man was nearly involved in a wreck when the two tires blew out simultaneously.
Feeling that the Porsche could be put to good use, Barris loaned the wrecked car to the California Highway Patrol for a touring display to illustrate the importance of automobile safety. Within days, the garage housing the Spyder burnt to the ground. With the exception of the "Little Bastard," every vehicle parked inside the garage was destroyed. When the car was put on exhibit in Sacramento, it fell from its display and broke a teenager's hip. George Barkuis, who was hauling the Spyder on a flatbed truck, was killed instantly when the Porsche fell on him after he was thrown from his truck in an accident.
The mishaps surrounding the car continued until 1960, when the Porsche was loaned out for a safety exhibit in Miami, Florida. When the exhibit was over, the wreckage, en route to Los Angeles on a truck, mysteriously vanished. To this day, the "Little Bastard's" whereabouts are unknown.
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