On September 30, 1955, budding movie star James Dean died at age 24 when his sports car slammed into a Ford sedan near Bakersfield, California—just prior to the release of his signature film, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Six decades later, explore some surprising facts about the persistent cultural icon, who’s sometimes referred to as “the first American teenager.”
1. He was largely raised by his aunt and uncle.
Born in a small city in Indiana, Dean soon moved with his parents to Santa Monica, California, when his father, a dental technician, was transferred to a hospital there. But at age 9 his mother died of cancer, and he was sent back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle’s farm. From that point on, he would rarely see —or even talk—to his father, other than a brief spell in which he stayed in his father’s home while attending Santa Monica City College.
2. Thanks to a childhood accident, his front teeth were fake.
Described by his cousin as “never one to sit still,” a young Dean had his two front teeth knocked out while swinging on a trapeze in his aunt and uncle’s barn. (Dean later embellished the story, saying he lost them in a motorcycle accident.) As an adult, he purportedly enjoyed surprising acquaintances by casually removing his false teeth mid-conversation.
3. He set a local pole vault record.
Despite being nearsighted, short and skinny, Dean was a standout athlete at his Indiana high school, playing baseball and basketball and running track. “He was a heady player and a good competitor,” his basketball coach once told a reporter. “He was what you would call a clean-cut, All-American type boy.” Dean particularly excelled at the pole vault, breaking the county record by the time he graduated in 1949.
4. His first professional gig was a soft-drink commercial.
Dean performed in several high school plays and continued acting in college, especially after transferring from Santa Monica City College to UCLA in the fall of 1950. Shortly after winning a role in a UCLA production of “Macbeth,” a well-connected fraternity brother brought him along to serve as an extra in a Pepsi-Cola commercial. The next day, Dean filmed a second spot, in which he danced around a jukebox while singing a Pepsi jingle. Having made a favorable impression, the same producer then hired him to play John the Apostle in “Hill Number One,” a TV special that aired on Easter 1951. Though he had only a few lines, it was apparently enough for some girls at a Los Angeles parochial high school to form his first fan club: the Immaculate Heart James Dean Appreciation Society.
5. Dean starred in only three movies.
Dropping out of college to focus full time on acting, Dean landed bit roles in a few Hollywood films before moving to New York City in October 1951. While there, he appeared in two Broadway plays and numerous TV shows. Yet he did not catch his big break until 1954, when his portrayal of a gay houseboy in the play “The Immoralist” brought him to the attention of director Elia Kazan. With John Steinbeck’s approval, Kazan cast Dean in a screen adaptation of Steinbeck’s epic novel “East of Eden.” Thus propelled to stardom, Dean next filmed “Rebel Without a Cause,” the only movie in which he received top billing, and “Giant,” which co-starred Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. More movies were in the works, but Dean died before he could make them.
6. Dean was the first actor to receive an Academy Award nomination posthumously.
Cinematographers, composers, writers, an actress and a costume designer had all received posthumous Oscar nominations, but never a male actor until 1956, when Dean’s portrayal of troubled teenager Cal Trask in “East of Eden” won him a best actor nod. The next year, he was nominated again for best actor, this time for playing ranch hand Jett Rink in “Giant.” He didn’t win either year, however, losing out to Ernest Borgnine and Yul Brynner, respectively. Since then, several other stars have likewise earned best actor or best supporting actor nominations after their deaths, including Spencer Tracy and Heath Ledger, but Dean remains the only one with two posthumous nominations.
7. He was a racecar enthusiast.
A lover of speed, Dean reportedly used part of his “East of Eden” advance to purchase a red convertible and a motorcycle. By March 1955, he had begun competing in road races, guiding a white Porsche Super Speedster to a second-place finish at his debut in Palm Springs, California. While working on “Giant,” the studio contractually barred him from racing. But upon finishing the film, he traded in the Speedster for an even more powerful Porsche 550 Spyder, which he nicknamed “Little Bastard.”
8. He was ticketed for speeding two hours before his death.
On the afternoon of September 30, 1955, as Dean drove his brand-new Porsche Spyder to a road race in Salinas, California, a police officer ticketed him for going 65 mph in a 55-mph zone. Just over two hours later, a Ford Tudor sedan collided with Dean at the junction of present-day Highway 46 and Highway 41, about 80 miles from Bakersfield. Dean, who broke his neck and suffered severe internal injuries, was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. To this day, it’s unclear whether he was speeding at the time. A coroner’s jury found the crash to be accidental “with no criminal intent.”
9. His car is said to be cursed.
George Barris, a famous auto customizer who worked on Dean’s Porsche Spyder, claimed to have purchased the car after the actor’s death. He later said that when it arrived at his shop, it rolled off a trailer and crushed an employee’s legs, and that mayhem and mystery continued to follow it for years thereafter. Barris asserted, for instance, that a thief slipped and broke his arm while trying to make off with the steering wheel, and that those who bought the Porsche’s parts ended up in fatal crashes. Meanwhile, Dean’s mechanic, who was sitting next to him at the time of the accident, died in a 1981 drunk-driving mishap following multiple suicide attempts. Though the legend of the curse lives on, most Dean experts doubt the veracity of Barris’ statements. The car’s current whereabouts remain unknown.
10. He briefly dated a ‘Seinfeld’ actress.
In the years since his death, many men and women alike have professed to being in romantic relationships with Dean. One such claim came courtesy of Liz Sheridan, best known for playing Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on the TV show “Seinfeld,” who wrote a 2000 memoir entitled, “Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean: A Love Story.” According to the book, Sheridan and Dean met in New York in 1951, soon moved in together and were at one point engaged to be married.