How did James Dean get his start in acting?

James Dean was an American actor who served as a cultural symbol of teenage social alienation and disillusionment in the films “East of Eden” (1955), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955),  and “Giant” (1965). He started his career in 1952 but met his tragic death in September 1955, putting an end to a short-lived yet remarkable acting career.

Dean was revered for his ability to represent the agony of restless, confused, and idealistic adolescents of the 1950s on screen, making him a cult figure decades even after his death. Here, let’s look back at Dean’s humble beginnings, how he started acting, his success, and his untimely demise.

Early Years

James Byron Dean was born on 8th February in 1931, in Marion, Indiana. He was the only child of Winton Dean, a dental technician, and Mildren Wilson. When Dean was six years old, Winton moved the family to Santa Monica, California, where Dean went to Brentwood Public School. Dean was close to Mildren, who dreamt of seeing him becoming a performer. That’s why she taught Dean how to play the violin and had him attend tap dance lessons.

Sadly, Mildred succumbed to cancer in July 1940. Winton sent Dean to Fairmount, Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle, Marcus and Ortense Winslow, Winton’s sister and brother-in-law. 

In their rural home, Dean enjoyed a rather carefree life, being able to go swimming, ice-skating, and pursue an interest in cars. In high school, he played basketball, baseball, and running track. Yet, he also showed prowess in debate and drama, perhaps a signal to the path he later chose.Dean in 1953

Initial Acting Roles

Dean finished high school in 1949 and went to Los Angeles, California, where he attended San Monica City College and majored in pre-law. Eventually, he transferred to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to major in theater. He made his first television appearance in a soft drink ad, which then led to his small participation as John the Baptist in the Easter special episode of the television play, Hill Number One (1951).

To make ends meet, Dean had to quit college and took the job as a parking lot attendant, while going into various auditions available. In 1951, he landed a small role in the Hollywood war film “Fixed Bayonets,” before moving to New York as per the advice of James Whitmore whom he befriended and had briefly studied.

Dean earned a spot in the Actors Studio managed by Lee Strasberg. From there, his career started to gain traction, appearing in different television shows. Such as Kraft Television Theatre, General Electric Theater, and Omnibus. He also landed a key role in the Broadway play “See the Jaguar” and was cast in more Broadway productions. Yet, his success came after his role as an Arab boy in “The Immoralist” (1954), where he was awarded “Best Newcomer” in the Daniel Blum Theater World Awards.

Dean in East of Eden

Three Films

Dean’s impressive performance in “The Immoralist” caught the attention of director Elia Kazan and offered him to be Cal Trask, the leading role of a troubled teenager in “East of Eden.” Dean became notorious for altering his lines and character interpretation, and for goading his fellow actors. Despite this, the movie proved Dean’s acting caliber, earning him an Oscar nomination. It was the first acting nomination in the Academy Awards to be granted posthumously.

After “East of Eden,” Dean filmed “Rebel Without a Cause”, with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood. He played the role of Jim Stark, a sensitive high-school deviant who perfectly resembled the youth of his generation, rebuffing the values of the elders but intensely trying to find a purpose and survive alienation. The flick made Dean a hero, speaking on behalf of many teenagers enduring the same situation, and perhaps among the old movies that millennials can still relate to today.

His next work was a supporting role in the George Stevens’s Giant, an intergenerational family epic featuring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Dean received another Academy Award nomination for the role, making him the only actor to earn more than posthumous Oscar nomination.

Dean in Rebel Without A Cause

Untimely Demise

After filming” Giant”, Dean was set to rehearse for the play, “The Corn Is Green.” Yet, shortly after the production, the restless Dean decided to do some car racing using his silver Porsche 550 Spyder. In September 1955, he participated in a sports car rally, speeding in Salinas, California. However, he, alongside his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich, crashed head-on into a Ford Sedan, killing Dean instantly. He was 24.

Dean was buried on October 8, 1955, in Fairmount, Indiana, where three thousand people attended the funeral. “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant” were both released posthumously, where Dean’s talent, mystique, and influence lives on.

Dean in 1955

Interesting Facts About James Dean

Aside from being the iconic, sensitive, troubled teenage rebel that many people still admire today, here’s are interesting facts to know about James Dean.

1. James Dean’s front teeth were fake.

As a frisky young child, Dean broke his two front teeth while swinging on a trapeze in his uncle and aunt’s barn. Though the older Dean dressed up the story, claiming a motorcycle accident was the reason. Still, he was alleged to surprise other people by randomly taking off his false teeth amidst conversation.

2. He broke a county pole vault record in 1949.

Though short, skinny, and nearsighted, Dean was a remarkable athlete during his high school. Aside from baseball, basketball, and running track, in which he excelled due to his intensity and competitiveness, he also broke the country pole vault record in 1949.

3. He was ticketed for overspeeding two hours prior to his death.

Two hours before his death, a police officer stopped and ticketed Dean after he went 65-mph on a highway with a 55-mph zone in the south of Bakersfield. Just more than two hours later, the accident happened in Paso Robles, California. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival after breaking his neck and suffering internal injuries.

4. He was a lover of speed.

Dean was a lover of speed and purportedly used part of his salary advances from his first flick to buy a motorcycle and a convertible. In March 1955, he started participating in road car rallies, using a Porsche Super Speedster. Dean stopped racing when he began shooting “Giant” as the contract barred him so. Yet, just shortly after shooting “Giant”, he bought the powerful silver Porsche 550 Spyder, which he named “Little Bastard.”