On this day in 1955, cultural icon James Dean dies at age 24 in a car crash on U.S. Route 446 in California. Dean was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” headed to a car race in Salinas, with his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich, when they were involved in a head-on collision with a car driven by a 23-year-old college student Donald Turnaspeed.
Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:59 p.m. Wuetherich, thrown from the car, survived the accident and Turnaspeed escaped with minor injuries; a coroner’s inquest cleared him of wrongdoing.
Born February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, Dean moved with his family to Santa Monica while still in grade school. Very close to his mother Mildred, the first of many female figures who could “understand him,” Dean was sent back to Indiana after Mildred passed from cancer when Dean was just nine.
Living on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm in Fairmount, Dean sought the counsel of a local Methodist pastor, the Rev. James DeWeerd, who seems to have had a formative influence upon Dean, especially upon his future interests in bullfighting, car racing, and theater. According to some, Dean had “an intimate relationship with his pastor, which began in his senior year of high school and endured for many years.” In 2011, it was reported Dean once confided in Elizabeth Taylor that he was sexually abused by a minister approximately two years after his mother’s death.
Dean’s overall performance in school was exceptional and he was a popular student. He played on the baseball and varsity basketball teams, studied drama, and competed in public speaking through the Indiana High School Forensic Association. After graduating Fairmount High School in May 1949, he moved back to California with his dog, Max, to live with his father and stepmother. He enrolled in Santa Monica College and majored in pre-law.
He soon transferred to UCLA, changed his major to drama, and was picked from a group of 350 actors to portray Malcolm in Macbeth. At that time, he also began acting in James Whitmore’s workshop. In January 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor.
Initially Dean scored some television and small-role film work, before he moved to New York City, where he continued appearing in advertising, plays and TV programs and studied at the Actors Studio under legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg. With strong notices coming in for his growing body of work, Hollywood began calling.
Dean returned West, and rose to stardom in 1955 with his role as Cal Trask in East of Eden; he reportedly beat out Paul Newman for the part. Dean’s performance in the film, based on the John Steinbeck novel, earned him a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It was the first time in Oscar history that an actor was nominated after his death.
The young actor’s next film was “Rebel Without a Cause,” also released in 1955, in which he played rebellious teen Jim Stark. The film, which co-starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, turned Dean into the poster boy for disaffected youth and cool.
Dean’s final film “Giant,” released in 1956 after his death, was an epic tale of a Texas cattle rancher and his family. Dean starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and was nominated posthumously for a second Oscar for his performance as Jett Rink.
James Dean’s meteoric success as an actor enabled him to pursue his passion for racing cars and motorcycles, giving further voice to his passion, intellect and angst. A nurse by-standing at the Dean crash site detected a weak pulse, but said “death appeared to have been instantaneous” due to a broken neck and other mortal trauma.
Despite his short life and brief acting career, Dean endures as a Hollywood icon. Buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana, fans continue to flock to his grave every year and still more pay tribute to Dean at a memorial located near the accident site in Cholame, California, known as James Dean Junction.
From East of Eden and on to Heaven