James Dean’s acting career lasted only four years before his untimely death. But he succeeded in making an indelible impression on moviegoers in roles portraying a rebellious and misunderstood youth. He was nominated for two Oscars and was the first person to receive the award for Best Actor posthumously (after death).
James appeared in just seven Hollywood movies. He was only credited in three of them: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He also acted in two Broadway shows and appeared in many television productions.
He was born James Byron Dean on February 8, 1931 to Winton and Mildred Dean in Marion, Indiana. Formerly a farmer, his father worked as a dental technician. When James was 5 years old, his father moved the family to Santa Monica, California. James’ mother died of cancer when he was nine years old, and his father sent him back to Fairmount, Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm. After graduating high school he returned to California and enrolled in the Santa Monica Junior College, where he studied pre-law. James then transferred to UCLA to study drama, evidently against the wishes of his father. He dropped out of college in January of 1951 to pursue an acting career.
James did a Pepsi-Cola commercial and made appearances in several episodes of television shows, such as General Electric Theater and Robert Montgomery Presents. His 1954 appearance on stage in The Immoralist got him a screen test for a part in East of Eden with Warner Brothers. A lot of James’ acting in this role was improvised and unscripted. It is this role that won him a posthumous Best Actor award at the 1955 Academy Awards held on March 21, 1956.
Watch James’ first TV appearance for this 1950 Pepsi-Cola commercial:
Shortly after completing the shooting for East of Eden, James was given the role he is probably best remembered for: Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, opposite Natalie Wood. James did the shooting for his final movie, Giant in 1955. He played in a supporting role with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson for which he received his second Oscar for Best Actor posthumously at the 1956 Academy Awards.
James Dean’s fondness for racing and fast cars led him to a premature death. After he had been signed on to do East of Eden he bought an MG. He fixed it up and participated in several California road races. He traded the modified MG in for a Porsche 550 Spyder that he had customized and named “Little Bastard”. His Giant contract didn’t allow him to race, but the racing resumed once filming was completed.
On September 23, 1955 James was driving “Little Bastard” with his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, to a race at Salinas, California. Another motorist making a turn in front of him cut him off and they hit nearly head-on. James died before he reached the hospital at 24 years of age. He lives on, though, through his films and as a true movie star with an ability to connect with young audiences. He had performed his three starring movie roles in just a years’ time, but it was enough to make him a Hollywood legend.