His lifespan was only short: But although he only starred in relatively few films, James Dean is one of Hollywood’s greatest cult figures. In various roles, he embodied the type of the young American rebel – there was hardly a young American in the fifties who could not identify with James Dean.
In his high school years, James Dean discovered his passion for acting: his teacher Adeline Brookshire helped Dean take his first steps as an actor – he played in various high school productions and received voice training from Brookshire.
After receiving tickets for a car race in Indianapolis as an exam gift in the late 1940s, James Dean discovered another passion that would stay with him for the rest of his life: Car racing. But this passion had to wait for now – other things were more important, for example his training as an actor.
His father, who lived in California, had major objections to acting: he advised his son to study law and to regard acting purely as a hobby. Dean initially followed his father’s advice and enrolled in law school: Secretly, however, Dean had long since decided to become an actor.
Education and wrong tracks
At first, James Dean studied in California: However, the dry academic education he received there did not help
him. He was given small roles in plays and acted in commercials – Dean was anything but satisfied with this.
His acting mentor James Whitmore advised James Dean to move to New York: At that time, New York was the first choice for aspiring actors. New York was not only home to Broadway, it was also home to prestigious acting workshops such as the Actors Studio, where numerous screen stars trained.
In the early fifties, Dean got various jobs in television – he appeared in television series in supporting roles and was hired by NBC as an assistant director.
After his first television engagements, James Dean applied for a spot at the Actors Studio: in 1952, Dean was one of fifteen young actors accepted by the Actors Studio.
Dean’s enthusiasm for the Actors Studio quickly waned, however: After preparing lines for the first time, he was criticized so harshly that he turned away from the studio and continued to go his own way. In the meantime, Dean occupied himself with music and literature – among other things, he took dance lessons with Eartha Kitt.
At the end of 1952, James Dean received the news that the leading role in the Broadway-play See the Jaguar was still vacant: James Dean was able to impress during the audition and received the leading role. It was James Dean’s professional debut in a leading role: like countless other actors of his generation, James Dean began his acting career on Broadway.
James Dean received good reviews for his first Broadway engagement: this gave James Dean his first roles in television movies. In 1953 he starred in The Capture of Jesse James, directed by the then unknown director Sidney Lumet.
At this time, James Dean starred in numerous other television films: These engagements helped Dean gain further acting experience.
Breakthrough on Broadway
In late 1953, the autobiographical novel The Immoralist by French writer André Gides was adapted for Broadway: James Dean was given the role of Bachir, one of the leads. Frenchman Louis Jourdan played another leading role – Louis Jourdan later became known for his role as Bond antagonist Prince Kamal Khan in Octopussy.
Rehearsals for The Immoralist, which took place around Christmas 1953, were dominated by the conflict between Louis Jourdan and James Dean: Jourdan’s classical training was in stark contrast to Dean’s spontaneous and unpredictable approach to his role.
But opposites attract: The critics were enthusiastic about James Dean’s play. This marked James Dean’s breakthrough on Broadway.
It was less than a month after the premiere of The Immoralist that James Dean received an offer from the then highly sought-after director Elia Kazan to star in his latest film, East of Eden (1955). On March 8, 1954, Dean flew with Elia Kazan from New York to California: shortly before, it had been officially announced that Dean would play the lead in Kazan’s new film.
Before taking on his role, Dean got a little tan in the desert: after all, Dean had to look like a country boy in the film, not a city boy. Elia Kazan had originally considered casting Marlon Brando – one of James Dean’s idols – in the lead role in East of Eden: But John Steinbeck, the author of the novel of East of Eden, was impressed by James Dean.
James Dean celebrated his first major Hollywood success by buying his first sports car: with his sports car, James Dean took part in the two-day Palm Springs road race in California at the end of March 1955, which he finished in third place.
A short time later, James Dean got the leading role in George Stevens’ production Giant (1956): Filming was initially postponed, however, because co-star Elizabeth Taylor had other engagements to attend to.
Rebel Without a Cause
In March 1955, filming began on Rebel Without a Cause (1955): James Dean starred as Jim Stark, a rebellious outsider looking for peer approval after moving to a new town. It was this role that defined James Dean’s image as a rebellious outsider: In the film, Dean embodied the repressed needs of numerous American youths, becoming a youth idol with whom almost every teenager could identify.
James Dean got along very well with director Nicholas Ray: Ray gave Dean numerous acting liberties. Dean also expressed his desire to one day direct and film his favorite book, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
In his last film, Giant, James Dean embodies Jeff Rink, a simple farmhand who finds oil on his piece of land and comes into great wealth. The film largely deals with the relationship between cattle baron Bick Benedict (played by Rock Hudson) and Jeff Rink (James Dean), who worked for Benedict before his oil discovery.
Elizabeth Taylor played Leslie Lynnton, the wife of cattle baron Benedict.
At the beginning of the film James Dean’s character is 19 years old, at the end of the film he is 49 years old – this was a great challenge not only for the make-up artists, but also for James Dean himself.
Giant became a great success: it was James Dean’s third and last Hollywood success.
The filming of Giant had just been completed when James Dean was killed in an accident with his sports car in California on September 30, 1955.
Cinema audiences will forever remember him as the young, rebellious James Dean.
Dean had a hard time with directors’ fixed ideas of roles: when he played a part, he acted spontaneously and filled the role with his own ideas and conceptions.
Dean’s acting style was characterized by vulnerability and irritability on the one hand and sensitivity on the other: Like hardly any other actor of his generation, he was able to balance youthful defiance with sensitivity.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig