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James Dean (1931 – 1955)


James Dean

Sensitive and masculine in equal measures, James Dean made his mark playing sincere, searching youths hungry for emotional honesty. His pained cry to his parents—”You’re tearing me apart!”—in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was emblematic of an entire misunderstood generation. Dean’s intensely personal acting added to his mystique, blurring the dividing line between actor and character so much that his legions of fans, even half

a century after his death, still envision him as the mixed-up kid he played on screen. Pain came early to his life—his mother died when he was just nine—but so did the arts. As a child he studied the violin, tap dancing, and drawing. As a teen, he developed a love of racing—first motorcycles, then cars—that would shape his destiny. But it was as an actor that he made his mark, starting in high school productions and eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he played unbilled walk-ons in four films. After moving to New York, he won a place at the prestigious Actors Studio, In 1954, a flashy supporting role as an Arab hustler in the play The Immoralist brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. talent scouts. He made an acclaimed starring debut as Raymond Massey’s tormented son in East of Eden (1955), a John Steinbeck adaptation directed by Elia Kazan. When his next film, Giant (1956), was temporarily postponed because of leading lady Elizabeth Taylor’s pregnancy, Warner’s shifted him into the juvenile delinquency drama Rebel Without a Cause. Dean shone in all three films, but the latter two were released after his sudden death. Driving to compete in an auto race in Salinas, California, he was killed in a collision with another vehicle. The youthful angst he captured in his three starring films brought him a devoted fan following who continue to clamor for images of their idol and flock to his grave in Fairmount, Indiana, where an annual tribute honors his memory. Among those keeping the legend alive, Giant costar and good friend Dennis Hopper mourned what he called “my sense of destiny destroyed—the great films he would have directed, the great performances he would have given, the great humanitarian he would have become, and, yet, he’s the greatest actor and star I have ever known.”

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