James Dean – America’s Greatest Actor

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James Dean may have been one of America’s greatest actors; however, due to his untimely death at a young age, his true success could never be measured. He is an icon, best known for his film, Rebel Without a Cause, in which he starred as a bad kid in Los Angeles. The other two roles that started up his career and being famous were in East of Eden playing Cal Trask, and in the movie Giant, were he played Jett Rink. Dean’s popularity and fame is legendary because of his performances in these three films.

James Dean was the first actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and remains the only actor to have had two posthumous acting nominations ( Howlett 4). James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. James and his family moved to Santa Monica, California after his father had become a dental technician(Howlett 5). James dean was said to be very close with his mother. According to Michael DeAngelis, she was “the only person capable of understanding him”(Perry 6).

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He attended Brentwood Public School in Los Angeles until his mother died of cancer when he was nine years old. After his Mother’s death, his father sent him to live with his sister, Ortense and her husband Marcus Winslow on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana(Howlett 7). Dean seek the counsel and friendship of Methodist pastor Rev. James DeWeerd. DeWeerd had a huge impact on Dean. He got him in car racing and going out for the theater. Dean did poorly during his high school years. He was a popular school and was a good athlete. He did really well when he played on the baseball and basketball teams and studied drama.

After graduating from Fairmount High School on May 16, 1949, Dean moved back to California to live with his father and stepmother(Sporto 15). He enrolled in Santa Monica College and majored in pre-law. Dean transferred to UCLA and changed his major to drama. While at UCLA, he was picked from a pool of 350 actors to land the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. In January 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor(Howlett 27). It didn’t take long for Dean to catch on. Between 1952 and 1954, he had two important Broadway roles, the first in See the Jaguar and the second in The Immoralist (Siegel).

Dean’s first appeared in a Pepsi Cola commercial. He quit college to act full time and was cast in Hill Number One and he had three walk-on roles in some movies(Sporto 35). His only speaking part was in Sailor Beware, Dean played a boxing trainer. Dean was struggling for a while to get a job in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Dean worked as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios. While working there he met a man named Rogers Brackett, a radio director, who offered him help and guidance in acting, as well as a place to stay(Perry 28). In October 1951 Dean moved to New York City.

He worked as a stunt man for a game show called Beat the Clock. He also appeared in a bunch of episodes on CBS. He also got accepted into Actors Studio to study Method acting. Dean referred to the Studio in a 1952 letter to his family as “The greatest school of the theater. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock. … Very few get into it … It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong. “(Howlette 38) On April 8, 1954, Dean left New York City and headed for Los Angeles to begin shooting the film East of Eden.

Dean’s performance in the film foreshadowed his role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause(Perry 62). A lot of the scenes in the film were unscripted, including his dance in the bean field and his fetal-like posturing while riding on top of a train-car. One of the scenes that he improvised was when Cal’s father denies his gift of $5,000. Instead of running away from his father, like the script said, Dean turned to Massey, started to cry and she embraced him (Howlett 51). That whole was kept in the film because Kazan thought it fit so well.

For the 1955 Academy Awards, Dean received a posthumous nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in East of Eden(Sporto 102). Dean was quickly cast into another movie called Rebel Without a Cause. This Film would have a huge impact on a lot of teenagers in America. The movie was a surprise hit, and Dean, as a troubled, tough but vulnerable teenager (again misunderstood by his parents), exhibited a provocative sexual presence combined with a tenderness that appealed to males and females alike (Siegel).

The next movie James Dean did was a movie call Giant. In the film, he plays an oil rich man named Jett. His role was notable in that, in order to portray an older version of his character in one scene, Dean dyed his hair gray and shaved some of it off to give himself a receding hairline(Perry 90). Giant was the last film James Dean ever did. At the end of the film, Dean is supposed to make a drunken speech at a banquet; this is nicknamed the ‘Last Supper’ because it was the last scene before his sudden death(2).

Dean mumbled so much that the scene had to later be re-recorded by his co-stars because before the film was edited, Dean had died. During the 1956 Academy Awards, Dean got his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Giant. On September 30, 1955, Dean and his friend Rolf Wutherich, who was a mechanic, set off from Competition Motors. There they had worked on his Porsche 550 Spyder that morning for a sports car race. Dean originally intended to drop off the Porsche at the meeting point at and leaving. At the last minute, Dean drove the Spyder because he thought he needed more time to get use to the car.

At 3:30 p. m. , Dean was pulled over by a policeman and ticketed in Mettler Station, Kern County, for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone(Howlette 82). A little after that, Dean was driving west on U. S. Route 466 near Cholame, California, when a black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe, driven from the opposite way by 23-year-old Donald Turnupseed, moved to take the fork onto State Route 41 and crossed into Dean’s lane. The two cars hit almost head-on. According to a story in the October 1, 2005, edition of the Los Angeles Times, California Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson and his partner had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles, when they were called to the scene of the accident, where they saw an unconscious, heavily breathing Dean being placed into an ambulance(Perry 121). Paramedics were attending to Wutherich who had been thrown from the car and was lying on the shoulder of the road next to the destroyed Porsche Spyder barely conscious, but survived with a broken jaw and other injuries. Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, a little he was announced dead at 5:59 p. m. by the emergency room(Sporto 138).

Right before that impact Wutherich told Dean to slow down when they saw the Ford coup in front of them about to drive into their lane. Dean’s last words were “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us. “(Sporto 139) Dean was a sexually ambiguous, sensitively intelligent Angry Young Man whose dramatic intensity lit up a generation of filmgoers. His untimely death, in a high-speed car crash, guaranteed his canonization as a tragic American cinema legend(“James Dean”). James Dean is buried in Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana and still to this day he is consider one of the greatest actors who ever lived.

Work CitedHowlett, John. James Dean: a biography. London: Plexus Pub., 1975″James Dean.” Answer of the Day. Answers Corporation, 2011. Answers.com 18 Feb. 2011.http://www.answers.com/topic/james-dean

Perry, Geogre C. James Dean. New York: DK, 2005

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. Revised and Updated in Part by James M. Welsh and

Tom Erskine. “Dean, James.” Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE52&iPin=EHOL0184&SingleRecord=True (accessed February 18, 2011).

Sporto, Donald. Rebel: the life and legend of James Dean. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996

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