186: Death of James Dean

James Dean in a publicity photo for "Rebel Without a Cause" (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
James Dean in a publicity photo for “Rebel Without a Cause”. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sixty years ago today, actor James Dean was killed in a car wreck in central California.

Here are some things you may not know about the actor and his death.

He was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. When he was in elementary school, his family moved to Santa Monica, California. His mother died when he was nine years old and he was sent to live with his aunt back in Indiana. After graduating from high school he moved back to California and enrolled at Santa Monica College before transferring to UCLA to study drama. In 1951 he dropped out of college to focus on acting.

He made appearances in commercials and on television and had uncredited roles in several movies before moving to New York where he was admitted to the Actors Studio to study method acting. While in New York he worked in television and in theater.

In 1954, he was cast as Cal Trask in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” Many of Dean’s most memorable moments in the film were improvised. He earned an Academy Award nomination for the role.

“East of Eden” was followed by “Rebel Without a Cause,” also released in 1955.

Before the release of “Rebel Without a Cause,” Dean took a supporting role in the film “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. He also earned an Academy Award nomination for this film.

In his time between movies, Dean enjoyed racing cars, earning classification victories in two events. After filming on “Giant” wrapped up, Dean purchased a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and planned to race it at Salinas Airport in Central California.

Two days later, when Dean introduced himself to actor Alec Guinness, Guinnes said of the car, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”

Seven days later, Dean and his mechanic left Los Angeles to head for the races in Salinas. He decided to drive the car instead of towing it because the car wasn’t sufficiently broken in. A little more than two hours after leaving L.A., Dean was ticketed for driving 65 miles per hour in a 55 zone.

At about 5:45 p.m., Dean and his mechanic approached an intersection, where the driver of a Ford Coupe traveling the opposite direction planned to turn left. The driver of the Ford apparently didn’t see the low-slung Porsche and turned in front of it. The vehicles collided nearly head-on.

Dean was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in nearby Paso Robles. His mechanic suffered a broken jaw and leg injuries. The driver of the Ford had facial bruises and a bloody nose. Dean was found to be at fault for the accident due to speeding.

“Rebel Without a Cause” was released 27 days after his death.

James Dean was 24 years old.

Our question, who directed “East of Eden”?

Today is Independence Day in Botswana, International Translation Day and Recovery Day in Canada. In the United States, it is unofficially National Chewing Gum Day and National Hot Mulled Cider Day. It’s the birthday of author Truman Capote, musician Marc Bolan and drummer Buddy Rich.


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