On this day in 1955, movie star James Dean dies at age 24 in a car crash on a California highway. Dean was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” headed to a car race in Salinas, California, 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 named Donald Turnupseed. Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:59 p.m. Wuetherich, who was thrown from the car, survived the accident and Turnupseed escaped with minor injuries. No charges were ever filed against him.
James Byron Dean was born February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. He studied drama at the University of California, Los Angeles, before moving to New York City, where he appeared in plays and TV shows and took classes at the Actors Studio with legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg.
Dean 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 a rebellious teen named 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.
Dean’s success as an actor enabled him to pursue his passion for racing cars and motorcycles. Despite his short life and brief acting career, he endures as a Hollywood icon. He is buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana, where fans continue to flock to his grave every year. People also pay tribute to Dean at a memorial located near the accident site in Cholame, California.