James Dean is an icon famous for dying at 24. But his brief life was scintillating

A rising star in Hollywood, Dean had all the makings of a legendary actor

Sajid Khan
Published : 8 Feb 2023, 01:30 PM
Updated : 8 Feb 2023, 01:30 PM

Feb 8 is the birthday of American actor James Byron Dean.

There are few figures as iconic as James Dean. 

Though he acted in only three movies before his untimely death, Dean's magnetic charisma remains a cultural touchstone, even referenced in the chorus of a 2014 Taylor Swift hit. 

But it isn't just his talent, style, or death that makes Dean compelling. His life was intriguing too.

Dean had a hard childhood. He lost his mother at an early age and his father sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Indiana. During his childhood and late teenage years, Dean was reportedly subject to repeated sexual abuse. Despite this, he was an exceptional student and popular too. He excelled in academics, basketball and baseball, and even studied drama. 

Dean enrolled in Santa Monica College and later at UCLA where he switched his major from pre-law to drama. He played the role of Malcolm in a production of Macbeth and later attended a workshop arranged by famous stage and screen actor James Whitmore.

"I owe a lot to Whitmore," Dean told Seventeen magazine in 1955. "One thing he said helped more than anything. He told me I didn't know the difference between acting as a soft job and acting as a difficult art."

The workshop affirmed his decision to pursue acting more seriously. His start in Hollywood was modest. He worked his way up from the bottom, from walk-on roles to bit parts in television and even as a stunt tester. He even supported himself by working as a parking lot attendant. He appeared in several television shows before he was referred to Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio to study method acting – a range of training and rehearsal techniques that try to elicit sincere performances by making the actor identify, understand and experience a character's inner motivation and emotions. 

"The greatest school of the theater," Dean wrote to his family about the Studio. "It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Mildred Dunnock, Eli Wallach... Very few get into it ... It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong."

Dean began to draw attention for his work on stage and television. His 1954 role as Bachir, a homosexual North African houseboy, in a theatre production of Andre Gide's The Immoralist led to calls from Hollywood. 

His breakthrough role was in Elia Kazan's adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Steinbeck and Dean did not get along, but the author believed him perfect for the role of Cal, one of the main characters. 

Dean's performance in the film was largely unscripted, with many notable sequences improvised. The best-known scene in the movie is one where Cal's father, played by Raymond Massey, rejects his gift of $5,000. The script called on Dean to run away after the rejection. Instead, Dean turns to Massey, grabs him in an embrace, and breaks down crying. Kazan decided to keep the shot, and Massey's shocked reaction, in the film.

East of Eden would be the only movie of his released before his death. The film also got him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, which came posthumously.  

But Dean's most iconic role came in Nicholas Ray's 1955 Rebel Without a Cause. In Hollywood history, many rebellious actors are popular and remembered for being tragic stars. Dean's role in the film embodied this very stereotype. The film proved exceptionally popular among teenagers, many of whom felt it accurately portrayed their experiences of angst. His striking features, aura of confidence, and extreme vulnerability garnered significant attention and audience interest. 

Dean's final movie was 1956's Giant, which saw him receive his second posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Dean had what most directors would call raw, unfiltered talent. His dynamism and energy were his hallmarks. He made up for what he lacked in skill and nuance in pure instinct. His performances were visceral and unfettered, sometimes over-the-top, but compelling and all the more real for their imperfections. In almost every scene, he made an impact.  

Dean was also known for his auto racing hobby. He was the proud owner of a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356, and even thought of a career in motorsport. A fashion icon and rebellious role model for young people, his persona influenced many musicians, including Elvis Presley. His image was emblazoned on the covers of posters and magazines. He was surely on the road to superstardom.

Dean's life came to an end in a traffic accident in 1955. As the saying goes, he burned twice as bright but perhaps only half as long. If given the time, would Dean have faded into obscurity? Some think so. His talent may have remained unrefined, and audiences may have tired of his typecasting in angst-ridden roles. And perhaps the timing of his death and its association with the fiery, destructive youths he played on screen contribute to his enduring legacy. 

Then again, many believe Dean had the potential to become a legendary actor with a similar career and impact as the great Marlon Brando. His death shook the entire industry and the world. But his life was fascinating too. 

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.