Actor James Dean lies in the dirt with his head leaning on his hand in the 1950s

James Dean: The life story you may not know

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September 7, 2021
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

James Dean: The life story you may not know

No one has ever been as cool as James Dean. The young actor epitomized a sense of restlessness, rebellion, and alienation that has never been replicated. Dean made his mark in a remarkably short period of time, dying at only 24 years old in a car crash.

He made just three major movies—as the unloved son in the family drama "East of Eden," a defiant teen in "Rebel Without a Cause," and a tough Texas ranch hand in "Giant"—and exploded into Hollywood stardom. He had a sullen sensuality, a swagger, a sense of daring, an aura of trouble, and a thoughtfulness about him. With his trademark T-shirt, jeans, and leather motorcycle jacket, his sense of style seems eternal.

"Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world," he once said. "You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that's all you have. Being a good actor isn't easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I'm done."

Stacker compiled 25 facts about the life of James Dean that you may not know, drawing from media accounts, movie archives, historical accounts, and fan websites.

1931: Born in Indiana

James Byron Dean was born on Feb. 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, where he spent his childhood on a farm. His mother was Mildred Marie (maiden name Wilson), and his father, Winton Dean, was a farmer who later became a dental technician.

1940s: To California and back to Indiana

Dean's family moved to California, where his mother died of cancer when he was 9 years old. He went back to Indiana, where he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who were Quakers.

1940s: Losing his teeth

Dean's front two teeth were fake, thanks to a childhood accident in Indiana. He knocked them out while swinging on a trapeze in a barn at his aunt and uncle's home. He later would say he lost them in a motorcycle accident.

1940s: A high school athlete and pole vault champion

Dean was a star athlete at his high school in Indiana. He played basketball and baseball, and he also ran track. He set the county's pole vault record before graduating in 1949.

1949: Graduating from high school

At Fairmount High School in Indiana, Dean was involved in theater as well as sports. He won a statewide contest for "Dramatic Declamation" reading a piece written by Charles Dickens. He delivered the benediction at his graduation ceremony.

1949: Attending college in California

Dean moved back to California after graduating high school. He enrolled at Santa Monica College in 1949, studying pre-law to satisfy his father. But he took acting classes and workshops at UCLA, where he played Malcolm in "Macbeth."

1950: Doing stunts for 'Beat the Clock'

In California, Dean had a job as a game show "stunt tester" for the television contest show "Beat the Clock." He was supposed to test out stunts that members of the studio audience would be asked to perform. He proved to be so good at performing the stunts that his results were not useful for predicting the skills of the audience, and he was let go.

1950-51: Pepsi ads and an Easter television special

In 1950, Dean appeared as an extra twice in Pepsi-Cola commercials. The producer of the ads also asked him to play the role of St. John the Apostle in a television Easter special, "Hill Number One," which aired in 1951.

Early 1950s: Living and acting in New York City

Dean moved to New York City, where he studied at the Actor's Studio run by method acting teacher Lee Strasberg. The actor landed a few roles in New York theater productions and then in Hollywood, where he had a small role as a sailor in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy "Sailor Beware," as a soldier in the Korean War in "Fixed Bayonets!" and as a teen in "Has Anybody Seen My Gal" with Rock Hudson.

1955: A starring role and an Oscar nod

Director Elia Kazan decided on Dean, an unknown, to play Cal Trask in "East of Eden," adapted from the 1952 novel of the same name written by author John Steinbeck. Dean proved to be a star and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.

1955: Competing for 'East of Eden'

In screen tests for Dean's breakout movie "East of Eden" in 1955, Paul Newman had also been a contender for the movie, but director Elia Kazan ultimately decided Newman was too old. Also under consideration to play the two brothers central to the film were Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who were, again, rejected as too old. Landing the roles were Dean, 23, and Richard Davalos, 19.

1955: Clashing with co-star Raymond Massey

In his 1988 autobiography, director Elia Kazan wrote about how much Raymond Massey disliked Dean, who played his son in "East of Eden." Massey was extremely religious and Dean would provoke him, and the young actor often did not know his lines. The director wrote he used the tension between the two for dramatic effect when making the movie.

1955: Not so quiet on the set

During the filming of "East of Eden," director Elia Kazan was concerned about Dean's unruly behavior. Kazan had Dean shared an apartment with his co-star Richard Davalos. When that failed to rein him in, Kazan had Dean live in a dressing room on the Warners Bros. lot and moved into an adjacent room.

1955: Falling in love

Dean fell in love with Italian actor Pier Angeli, whom he met while visiting Paul Newman on a movie set. Reportedly, Angeli's mother did not want the two to marry because Dean was not Catholic, and the actor married Vic Damone. Many of Dean's publicized love affairs were inventions of Warner Bros.

1955: A switchblade

A switchblade used by Dean in a "Rebel Without a Cause" knife fight scene was sold at an auction in 2015 for $12,000. In the fight scene, Dean and actor Corey Allen used actual switchblades, and they wore chainmail vests under their clothes for protection.

1955: Banned from competing in road races

Dean started competing in road races, using his movie earnings to buy a Porsche and a motorcycle. When he was filming "Giant," his contract specifically stated he could not race until it was finished.

1955: A fatal crash on the road

Dean was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder on U.S. Highway 466 in California with a friend, heading to a car race on Sept. 30, 1955, when he was killed in a head-on collision with a 1950 Ford Tudor, driven by Donald Turnupseed, a 23-year-old student. Dean had been cited by police for speeding earlier that day.

1955: An almost instant death

Dean suffered a broken neck in the fatal crash, and he died almost instantly. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital.

1955: Dean's passenger is injured but survives

Rolf Weütherich, a German auto mechanic and race car driver, was Dean's passenger in the fateful 1955 collision. He suffered multiple injuries. He later suffered from depression and ultimately died in a car accident in 1981.

1955: A funeral attended by thousands

The funeral for Dean was held at the Fairmount Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana, where a reported 2,400 fans gathered outside. He was buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, not far from his aunt and uncle's farm. His headstone has been stolen twice.

1955: A nine-picture contract left behind

Dean had signed a nine-picture, six-year contract for $1 million with Warner Bros. His next projects were to have been an NBC television version of the play "The Corn is Green" and a Rocky Graziano biopic film titled "Somebody Up There Likes Me."

1956: Dean's absence from filming with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor

During the making of "Giant," Dean did not get along well with Rock Hudson, who played a wealthy rancher. But the young star became close friends with Elizabeth Taylor, who gave him a Siamese kitten named Marcus. After Dean's death, Taylor was absent from the set and hospitalized for depression.

1956: Roles go to Paul Newman

With the loss of Dean, Warner Bros. signed Newman for the role in "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Newman also filled Dean's planned role as Billy the Kid in the 1958 movie "The Left Handed Gun."

1956: Posthumous Oscar nominations

Dean was the first actor ever to be nominated, posthumously, for his role in the 1955 movie "East of Eden." He was also nominated after his death for his role in the 1956 movie "Giant."

1960: A star on Hollywood Boulevard

Dean was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. The California highway near Cholame where Dean was killed has since been rerouted, and the actual site of the crash is now an open field. In Fairmount, Indiana, about an hour's drive north of Indianapolis, a museum houses many of the star's effects, including his schoolwork, clothing, movie props, and two of his motorcycles.

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