Who is James Dean?

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  • Written By: Garry Crystal
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2019
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James Dean was born in the small farming town of Fairmount, Indiana in 1931. In his short life and after his death he became one of the most iconic figures in cinematic history. While attending high school, he became a star athlete but also showed an interest in drama. Encouraged by his drama teacher, Dean landed his first acting gig starring in a Pepsi commercial.

He soon began to land small roles in television dramas. James Dean then moved to New York in 1951 and began studying at the famed Actors Studio with legendary coach/teacher Lee Strasberg. He swiftly landed roles on stage, in productions such as The Immoralist and See the Jaguar, and in many live television dramas. In 1954, Dean signed a contract with Warner Bros., one of the largest studios at the time.

The first film to bear the name of James Dean was Elia Kazan's East of Eden in 1955, adapted from the book by John Steinbeck. Dean perfectly captured the troubled son, Cal Trask. Portraying emotions such as alienation, angst and jealousy, Dean won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar nomination. However, it was his next film that made James Dean a legend.


Released a month after his death, Rebel Without a Cause struck a chord with teenagers the world over. Dean combined the sensitivity of Montgomery Clift with the sexuality and explosive anger of Marlon Brando. Again, he portrayed alienation, confusion and angst and soon became the voice of a generation. James Dean in jeans, red jacket and white T-shirt is still one of the most iconic cinema images ever.

James Dean's third and last film, Giant, in 1956, was a sweeping epic. His portrayal of the lonely and tortured Jett Rink brought him his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Critics were divided about his acting talent, but the public, especially teenagers, loved him. He was acting out their emotions up there on the screen. Dean's personal life, which has been the subject of much speculation, was supposedly as tortured and lonely as that of his screen characters.

It was his love of speed and fast cars that would end the short life of James Dean. In 1955, Dean was killed while driving his Porsche Spyder sports car. He collided with another car and was killed instantly. Ironically, a few days earlier he had made a road safety commercial for the National Highway Committee.

There is no telling what heights James Dean could have reached if he had lived. He is now etched in the public's imagination and on film as a brooding, romantic figure. With his death at the age of 24, James Dean will always be seen as the eternal teenager.


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