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Today in history... tragic end for Hollywood's iconic rebel

12:00am | & News

One of the briefest Hollywood careers to spawn one of its biggest legends came to a tragic end on September 30th, 1955, with the death of James Dean.

The 24-year-old had made just three movies and was tipped for great things when he crashed his car and died in the wreck at the age of just 24. Since his death he has become a cult icon and the poster boy for rebellious youth. More than 60 years on, his image still makes millions of dollars every year.

Born in 1931 in Indiana, he moved with his family to California but was sent back to Indiana at the age of nine when his mother died suddenly from cancer. He went to live on his aunt and uncle's farm and was raised in their Quaker household, proving a gifted and popular student at school. As well as studying drama he played on the high school baseball and basketball teams.

After graduating he moved back to California to live with his now remarried father and stepmother, enrolling in college to study law. But after transferring briefly to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) he switched his studies to drama, which led to a fallout with his father who said he would never make a living from acting.

After showing promise in various college productions and appearing in a TV commercial for Pepsi Cola, he dropped out of UCLA in January 1951 to pursue a full-time acting career. His first speaking part was in a Easter TV special dramatising the resurrection of Christ. Small walk-on parts in a number of movies followed before he moved to New York City, gaining admission to the prestigious Actors Studio to study method acting under Lee Strasberg.

Dean's career picked up and more TV work came in, but it was glowing reviews for his role in a 1954 stage play that led to a call from Hollywood. After an impressive screen test, he was cast in the emotionally complex role of Cal Trask in a film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden". Director Elia Kaza had been looking for "a Brando" for the role, but was persuaded to give the unknown Dean a try, not least because he had been to the same acting school.

Much of Dean's performance in the film was unscripted and improvised, but his performance as the angst-ridden and misunderstood Trask electrified the screen and led to him being cast in a similar  role in his next, and possibly most famous, film "Rebel Without a Cause". Starring a raft of talented young actors, it proved extremely popular among teenagers who felt it captured their viewpoint as disenfranchised outsiders, epitomised in Dean's portrayal of central character, Jim Stark.

As his star continued to rise, Dean's final film was "Giant", an epic drama set in Texas. Keen not to be typecast as a rebellious teen, Dean played a supporting role to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, portraying a ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes wealthy.

Tragically Dean would not live to see either of his last two films released. His growing wealth had enabled him to pursue his love of road racing, buying a powerful Porsche 356 Spyder. He competed in three professional road races, winning his class in two of the events and withdrawing from the third with mechanical problems.

While filming Giant he was barred from racing by its producers, Warner Brothers, but was keen to get back to the track as soon as filming finished. On September 30th, 1955, he was driving his Porsche to compete in a race at Salinas, California, when he was involved in a collision with another car at an intersection on Route 466.

His passenger and Porsche factory race mechanic Rolf Wutherich was thrown from the vehicle and survived, but Dean was trapped in the car and sustained numerous fatal injuries including a broken neck. The driver of the other car, a student called Donald Turnupseed, escaped with only minor injuries. An inquest three days later laid the blame for the crash squarely on Dean, citing his excessive speed as the cause. He had already been ticketed for speeding on the same journey, less than two hours before the crash.

An estimated 600 mourners attended his funeral service in Indiana, with another 2,400 gathered outside the church. Within a year of his accident nearly four million people had joined the official James Dean fan club and his studio received up to 4,000 letters every day. He also received two posthumous Oscar nominations for his roles in East of Eden and Giant.

While James Dean's untimely and premature death no doubt robbed Hollywood of a considerable acting talent, it meant that to an army of adoring fans he would remain forever young.


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