James Dean – Remembering a Legendary Icon

On September 30, 1955, at 5:59 in the afternoon, James Byron Dean, famously known as James Dean, was killed in a tragic car accident while driving near Cholame, California. While he died 63 years ago, his legacy continues to live on. Let us look back at his short but highly regarded life as an actor and a cultural icon of youth social estrangement and disillusionment.

Early Years

James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. He was the only child of Winton and Mildred Marie Wilson Dean. Dean’s father left farming to become a dental technician, so he moved his family to Santa Monica, California, where Dean attended Brentwood Public School.

As a child, Dean was very close to her mother and the only person capable of understanding him. Her mother had dreams of Dean being a performer, and so she enrolled him in a tap dance lesson and taught him on playing the violin. However, in 1938, Dean’s mother became ill. She later died of uterine cancer. James was only nine years old when her mother passed away.


(Original Caption) James Dean takes a tumble in his younger days. Undated photograph.

When his mother died, James Dean’s father sent him back to Indiana, and their relationship as father and son broke apart. Dean had issues with his father. He rarely talked to him.

Dean lived with Marcus and Ortense Winslow (Winton Dean’s brother-in-law and sister) on their farm in Fairmont, Indiana. Dean helped with his aunt and uncle’s farm while enjoying his carefree existence. He enjoyed cars, ice-skating, swimming, basketball, debate and drama when he was in high school. In 1949, after he graduated from Fairmont High School, Dean went back to California and lived with his father and stepmother (Dean’s father remarried after serving World War II).

For quite some time, Dean attended Santa Monica City College and studied pre-law but later on transferred to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he majored in theater. This change of career resulted again in an estranged relationship with his father.

Acting Career

While studying at UCLA, Dean was selected from a group of 350 actors to play Malcolm in “Macbeth” and during this time, he also attended James Whitmore’s acting workshop. In 1951, Dean dropped out of UCLA and pursued a full-time acting career

Dean’s first acting work was a soft drink commercial, which led to some small roles in Sailor Beware, Has Anybody Seen My Gal and Fixed Bayonets. Dean later moved to New York as advised by James Whitmore and was given a speaking role in the television Easter Special Hill Number One, where he played John the Baptist. He also appeared in Kraft Television Theatre, Omnibus, and General Electric Theater after his appearance in Hill Number One.


(Original Caption) 1955-James Dean and Julie Harris sit together at a table while Dick Davalos stands above them in a scene from 1955 film, ‘East of Eden’.

In 1953, Dean had a Broadway role in the drama “Jaguar” and played a blackmailing homosexual houseboy in the stage adaptation of André Gide’s “The Immoralist” in 1954. The Immoralist led Dean to a leading role in the movie “East of Eden” (1955) directed by Elia Kazan. Dean portrayed a troubled teenager Cal Trask, and during filming, he made many improvisations, which perpetuated his reputation as an actor.

American Icon

In his next film, Dean played as the agonized teenager Jim Stark in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” the film that defined his image in American culture. He playedwith Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in the movie directed by Nicholas Ray. The movie focused on the emotional alienation of three teenagers and the distressing drama that results from having a growing rivalry.


American actors Natalie Wood and James Dean with director Nicholas Ray on the set of his movie Rebel Without a Cause. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dean was next cast in the movie “Giant” (1956), where he played a supporting role to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. “Giant” was the last movie of James Dean.

Untimely Death

Known to have an auto-racing hobby, James Dean participated in car racing competitions in between acting on his movies. While this car-racing hobby left him liberating feelings during a match, the same interest led him to his untimely heartbreaking demise.

On the heartrending day of September 30, the famous actor was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder to Salinas, California to join a car racing competition after finishing his shooting scenes of movie “Giant“. He was with his German mechanic, Rolf Wütherich on his car when the accident happened. They took the long two-lane highway to reach their destination. While driving to the event, Dean received a speeding ticket at 3:30 pm as witnessed by stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, who was driving behind in a different car.


James Dean’s crash 1955, Sept 30 PM 5,59. (Photo by GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As Dean and Wütherich were approaching the junction via SR 46 (formerly known as U.S. Route 466), a 1950 Ford Tudor entering the intersection came into Dean’s lane.

Donald Turnupseed, the driver of the 1950 Ford Tudor, had been driving east on the road 466 and was trying to turn onto road 41 when he saw the Porsche moving toward him. Both drivers, unable to stop in time, collided, which resulted in James Dean’s death. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 in the evening at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. It was reported that three thousand people attended his funeral.

James Dean’s Legacy

Following James Dean death, “Rebel Without a Cause” opened in New York, and this marked the beginning of his legacy. During this time, Warner Bros received many mails from the youth. Dean was regarded as a symbol of teenage frustrations. His presence was impactful, and his skills were remarkable even after his death. Up to this day, he remained one of America’s most enduring icons.

James Dean was the only actor in the history of entertainment that received a best actor nomination posthumously. In, 1956, a year after his death, he was nominated for Best Leading Actor for his role in “East of Eden” Then, in 1957, Dean was again nominated two years after his death for Best Actor for his role in the movie “Giant” Receiving two nominations for Best Actor posthumously was first in Hollywood history.


Warner Brothers studio and US Postal Service officials watch as the James Dean stamp is unveiled on the Warner Brother’s Midwestern Street studio lot 24 June in Burbank, California. (Photo credit MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Most actors who acted with Dean praised him for his exceptional acting skills. In a James Dean documentary created by Journalist Ray Connolly in 1975, Connolly mentioned that Dean was a brilliant actor who delivered reality in his performance. Dean also did adlibs or improvised lines during filming, and he remained his defiance character in other aspects of his life as well. His style showed how cool he was. Peter Lyle, a fashion journalist, commended him for being very confident in his dress.

Decades after James Dean’s death, he continued to make appearances in pop culture. His name was mentioned in many pop and rock songs. His pictures were seen in television and movies. He was everywhere even in books and magazines. In the memory of thousands of people, Dean remained a young, handsome rebel that endures time and death.