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Interview with James Dean
Interview with James Dean
Do you remember how Bruce Lee found me in a Chinese restaurant so I could conduct one of my unearthly, supernatural interviews with him? Well, it has happened again. This time I went to a revival of James Dean films and was watching “Giant.” Who do you think plopped down into an empty theater seat beside me? Bruce Lee, Martial Arts Master?
No! This time it was James Dean himself.
me – What a pleasure to meet you, James. There are only a few minutes left in the film. Would you mind if we stayed to the end?
James Dean – No, not at all. I kinda enjoy watching myself back in the day when I was still in one piece … more or less.
me – Is it okay if we take my car to a quiet café where we can talk? (Stupid, I said to myself. He probably doesn’t want to be anywhere near an automobile.)
James Dean – No problem – as long as it isn’t a Porsche 550. (Laughs nervously)
Note: Statements that are italicized within quotation marks are actual quotes from James Dean.
Tribute to James Dean
me – I know Jimmy is your nickname. May I call you that? And however did you find me?
Jimmy – Jimmy is fine. And you were recommended by one of my close friends, Mata Hari. She enjoyed your discreet supernatural interview with her.
me – Mata was memorable; she did not deserve her fate.
Jimmy – Funny you should say that. Neither did I!
me – Tell me about your early years, Jimmy.
Jimmy – I was born in Marion, Indiana February 8, 1931, to Mildred and Winton Dean. My middle name is Byron. My father had been a farmer but gave up on farming – it was at the height of the Depression – to become a dental technician. I was an only child. We moved to the village of Fairmount ten miles away when I was an infant.
When I was five, we moved across the country to Santa Monica, California and I attended Brentwood Elementary School until my mother died of breast cancer when I was nine years old. My father sent me to live with his sister, Ortense, and her husband, Marcus Winslow, on their 350-acre farm back in Fairmount, Indiana.
me – Were you close to your mother?
Jimmy – “A piece of me died when she did. She was the only person capable of understanding me."
My aunt and uncle were devout Quakers who loved me I know, but in my heart I felt like an orphan abandoned by my own father.
Note: Jimmy’s father sent him back to Indiana on the same train that contained his wife’s body for burial in Fairmount. His father did not attend the funeral.
me – Were you a good student?
Jimmy – Good but not great. My grades were average at Fairmount High School – I was 20th in a class of 49 – but I was a member of the basketball team, the baseball team, the forensic (debate) team, and Future Farmers of America. And I acted in all the school plays. That’s when I first became interested in an acting career.
“To my way of thinking, an actor's course is set even before he's out of the cradle.”
me – I see you’re wearing glasses. Have you always worn them?
Jimmy – Yeah, that sexy squint of mine in the movies was because I’m extremely near-sighted. I always wore thick glasses when I was not on screen. And look at this. (Jimmy removes a plate from his mouth with two false upper front teeth.) Most people don’t know this, but I got two of my front teeth knocked out when I played basketball in high school.
me – Put your teeth back in your mouth, Jimmy, before you destroy any more of my illusions.
me – Tell me about your return to Santa Monica.
Jimmy – I graduated at 18 and returned to California with my beagle, Max, to live with my father and stepmother. I enrolled in Santa Monica College with a major in pre-law. The school had a popular drama program and when I graduated, I transferred to UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) and changed my major to theater arts.
My father was unhappy with my new major and we became further estranged. “He told me acting would get me nowhere.”
I competed with 350 other student wannabe actors at UCLA and landed the role of Malcolm in the play, Macbeth . I wanted to pursue a career in the movies so I dropped out of school and worked odd jobs to support myself.
me – What kind of odd jobs.
Jimmy – One of my jobs was working as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios in Hollywood. I met a guy named Rogers Brackett who was a radio director for an ad agency. We became friendly and he offered me professional advice as well as a place to stay.
Both Rogers and the actor, James Whitmore – I had begun attending his acting workshop – encouraged me to go to New York City to try out for roles in stage performances.
James Dean Films
me – Do you recall your first professional acting jobs?
Jimmy – I landed three walk-on roles in movies: Fixed Bayonets, Sailor Beware, and Has Anybody Seen My Gal? I even had a speaking part in the war film, Fixed Bayonets, which starred Richard Basehart. I had one line. Are you ready for this? “It’s a rear guard coming back.” That was it. Later, my one line was cut from the movie. (Sarcastic laugh)
“I think I am going to make it (as an actor) because on one hand I am like (Montgomery) Clift saying, ’Help me,’ and on the other hand I am (Marlon) Brando saying, ‘Screw you!’ and somewhere in between is James Dean.”
me – What was your next acting role in New York?
Jimmy – I was the kinda nerdy-looking guy in a Pepsi Cola television commercial (1950) who dropped a coin into the player piano. My pay? A tremendous 30 bucks.
My next job – don’t laugh now – I got a job as a stunt tester.
Me – What on earth is a stunt tester?
Jimmy – I was hired to test the stunts for the Beat the Clock television game show. My job was to test the safety of the stunts that studio audience members would later perform on the show. But I was too good at my job so they let me go.
me – Why were you let go for being too good?
Jimmy – I was so agile and quick completing the stunts I was testing that my speedy results could not be used to set time limits for contestants to complete those stunts.
James Dean Books
James Dean with Ronald Reagan
In 1951, I started studying “Method” acting under Lee Strasberg in his famous Actors Studio, I was really proud to get accepted there. I wrote to my aunt and uncle “… this is the greatest school of the theater. It houses great people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy … Very few get into it ... It is the best thing that can happen to an actor. I am one of the youngest to belong."
Then TV gigs (roles) started coming my way. I appeared in 31 different dramas from April 1951 to May 1955 on Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, General Electric Theater and Lux Video Theatre, to name a few. My first role was John the Disciple in an Easter television special.
me – Was there one television role that was more unique for you than all the others?
Jimmy – How many actors do you know that acted with a U.S. president on TV? I did. With Ronald Reagan on GE Theater (CBS 1954). Neither one of us had a clue he would be president one day. Would you like to know something else most people don’t know?
me – Does a bear use Charmin in the woods?
Note: Forgive me, readers: I used the same response in my ‘Interview with Al Capone.’
Jimmy – Most people don’t know that while I lived in New York, I studied dance with the famous modern dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham, at her School of Dance. Eartha Kitt, the singer and actress, was in my class.
me – I should have guessed – you do have some graceful moves. Did you appear in any stage plays during the early 50s?
Jimmy – I had small roles in three off-Broadway plays and a larger role in See the Jaguar (1952) which ran on Broadway – for all of four days.
me – Tell me about the play that provided your ‘big break.’
Jimmy – I got the leading role of Bachir, a blackmailing North African houseboy, in the 1954 Broadway production of The Immoralist – an adaptation of the autobiographical novel about repressed homosexuality by Andre Gide. Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page were my co-stars.
The positive reviews I received from
five major New York newspapers and the rave review from Time Magazine praised my performance and led to calls from
Hollywood. Specifically, I got the attention of Elia Kazan who was casting a
movie based on John Steinbeck’s novel, East
of Eden, for Warner Bros. He invited me to take a screen test.
Back in Hollywood
me – You know, Jimmy, you are often considered an icon today because of your ‘experimental’ attitude toward life. In other words, your apparent ambivalent sexuality. You have been quoted as saying: “An actor must interpret life and, in order to do so, must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer.”
Jimmy – Are you asking about the rumors of my bisexuality? If so, I’ll tell you what I told an east coast reporter in 1954: “Well, I am certainly not going to go through life with one arm tied behind my back.” End of story.
me – Fair enough. How did you ward off all those beautiful Hollywood starlets who were attracted to you?
Jimmy – “I often told the women who tried to get too close to me that I was still grieving for my mother. It made a good alibi.” I dated Ursula Andress who was the beautiful babe in the first James Bond movie. But that was for PR.
I did have a genuine relationship with a young and very beautiful Italian actress, Pier Angeli. I met her while she was making the film, The Silver Chalice, at Warner Bros.
But it wasn’t meant to be. She broke off our relationship unexpectedly (apparently from pressure by her mother), announced her engagement to Vic Damone, a popular Italian singer, and they were married the next month.
Note: Pier Angeli died of an accidental (?) barbiturate overdose when she was 39. Before she died, Pier wrote that Dean was the only man she had ever really loved.
East of Eden - click on Arrow and then click on 'You Tube' to watch
East of Eden
me – Tell me about your experience in your first important movie role.
Jimmy – Elia Kazan, the director, signed me for the role of Cal Trask in East of Eden in 1954. My character is the rebel son of a pious, disapproving father (see any similarity there?) who was played by Raymond Massey.
My estranged mother played by Jo Van Fleet is the madam of a brothel (absolutely no similarity whatsoever)!
I was a relatively unknown young actor and I learned that Kazan originally wanted “a Brando for the role." I didn’t realize it then but my role in this film was very similar to the role I would play in the next one, Rebel without a Cause.
Both characters are loners who crave guidance and affection from a father figure.
me– What was that zany dance of yours all about in the bean field in the movie?
Jimmy – That was completely unscripted – it was just the way I felt
me – And I read that you did another improvisation when instead of running away from your father as called for in the script after he rejects your gift of money, you ran to him and lovingly embraced him?
Jimmy – I surprised the hell out of Massey with that action and was surprised myself that Kazan kept it in the film.
Note: James Dean received a posthumous ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’ Academy Award nomination for this role, the first posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history.
Rebel without a Cause
me – Within the same year, Jimmy, you had your second starring film role. Why do you think this film was so popular with teenagers?
Jimmy – In Rebel without a Cause directed by Nicholas Ray, I portrayed Jim Stark, an idealistic but troubled, rebellious middle class teen. I think I may have been seen as a major representation of teenage angst – in a red jacket. I believe many American teens at the time identified with me and the roles I played. As well as with my co-stars: Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.
me – Did you have a romance with Natalie Wood as many fans believed?
Jimmy – Contrary to popular opinion, there was no romance, just a close friendship. We liked each other and enjoyed each other’s company, "but there was no affair and no sexual relationship.”
Notes: The film received three Academy Award nominations but Jimmy was not nominated, perhaps because he had received a nomination that year for ‘East of Eden.’ The film was released in 1955, a month after Jimmy died.
Natalie Wood accidentally (?) fell overboard from the yacht she and her husband, Robert Wagner owned and drowned. She was 43.
Sal Mineo was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in the alley behind his apartment building in West Hollywood, California. He was 37.
me – Tell me about the character you played In your third and, unfortunately, final film, Giant.
Jimmy – This movie directed by George Stevens was based on the popular novel by Edna Ferber. I was the poor, surly, racist Texas cowboy, Jett Rink – another non-conformist role – with a strong prejudice against Mexicans who discovers oil and becomes filthy rich.
My co-stars were two of the most popular movie stars of the era: Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. To portray an older version of my character in one scene, I dyed my hair gray and shaved some of it off to give myself a receding hairline.
me – How did those two superstar movie personalities react to you, a comparative newcomer?
Jimmy – Elizabeth Taylor was a sweetheart, platonically speaking, that is. Did you know that I was actually a year older than Liz? She gave me a beautiful Siamese cat as a gift. But during filming Rock Hudson and I did not get along. This tension may have lent more reality to our on-screen-clashes.
At the end of the film, I made a drunken speech at a banquet (which has been nicknamed the ‘Last Supper’ because it was the last scene before my sudden, horrible demise). I mumbled so much that the scene had to later be re-recorded by my co-stars because I died before the film was edited. If I had known this would be my last film I would have spoken more distinctly. (Laughs sardonically)
Note: Phyllis Gates, Rock Hudson's ex-wife, wrote that he cried after hearing the news of Jimmy’s death. … "Rock couldn't be reached. He was overcome by guilt and shame, almost as though he himself had killed James Dean.”
James Dean received his second Academy Award nomination posthumously after ‘Giant” was released in 1956.
Sports Cars and Racing
me – Next to acting, Jimmy, would you say that racing was one of your greatest passions?
Jimmy – You got that right. When I won that first role in East of Eden , I bought myself a sporty red MG-TD and then I upgraded it to a Porsche 356 Speedster which I raced. Paid $4,000 for that beauty. I came in second in the Palm Springs Road Races in March 1955 and third at Bakersfield in May.
me – When did you buy your Porsche Spyder?
Jimmy – While we were filming Rebel without a Cause , I traded my 356 Speedster in for a Porsche 550 Spyder – there were only 90 made. My film contract barred me from racing during the filming of Giant, but once the film was completed, I was free to race again. I had my new 550 customized by a friend, George Barris, who numbered it 130 at the front, sides and back.
me – I remember reading that you and a buddy gave your new Spyder a nickname which was … ?
Jimmy – (laughing) We called it ‘Little Bastard.’ “When I met the British actor, Alec Guinness, outside a restaurant, I showed him my new car. He said it looked ‘sinister’ and told me, ‘Get rid of that car, or you'll be dead in a week!'" This encounter took place September 23, 1955.
Note: George Barris later designed the Batmobile for the movie, ‘Batman.’
me – Tell me about what happened just one week later on September 30, 1955.
Jimmy – I was driving my Spyder to enter a sports car race at Salinas California. My mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, was in the passenger seat. At 3:30 pm I was stopped by police and given a ticket for speeding ten mph over the speed limit (65).
Two hours and fifteen minutes later, I was driving west on Route 46 near Cholame, California. A guy driving a 1950 Ford Tudor headed east tried to take a left turn onto Route 41 and crossed into my lane at full speed without seeing me. We hit each other almost head on. You know the guy’s name?
me – I think I remember it was like a vegetable.
Jimmy – Close! His name was Donald Turnupseed. Can you imagine? I ‘bought the farm’ because of a Turnupseed!
The last words I said right before the impact were, "That guy's gotta stop... He'll see us!"
Note: All re-creations of the accident agree that Jimmy was observing all the rules of the road, and the other driver was at least equally at fault due to inattention; possibly solely at fault. But he was a local boy and Jimmy was a Hollywood star so that fact received little attention.
James Dean was killed almost immediately from the impact due to a broken neck. He was 24. His very brief but brilliant career, charisma in films, violent death and highly publicized funeral transformed him into a cult icon
He is buried in Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana – the farming community where he grew up. Even today, visitors come from as far away as Argentina and Australia to visit his grave.
A memorial built in 1977 – a sculpture of concrete and stainless steel made in Japan – surrounds a tree of heaven located in front of the Cholame, California post office near the crash site. The 46-41 Highway junction at Cholame has been named the James Dean Memorial Junction. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 1996.
Jimmy’s mechanic, Rolf, was thrown from the car during the impact of the crash but survived with multiple injuries. He became depressed from the trauma of the accident and made several suicide attempts. He died in Germany in 1981 in an auto accident similar to the one that killed James Dean.
Donald Turnupseed received a gashed forehead and bruised nose and was not cited by police for the accident. He refused all interviews with the press.
James Dean was the first — and is one of five actors — to have been posthumously nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and is the only one nominated twice.
James Dean’s father inherited his estate, which was valued at the time of his death at $96,438 after taxes. He did not leave behind a will, so most of his possessions went to his father, Winton Dean, whose relationship with him had remained distant. His estate still earns about $5 million per year, according to ‘Forbes Magazine.’
Jimmy earned $12,000 from his first film, $12,500 from the second, and $21,000 from "Giant." Before his death, Jimmy’s agent negotiated a nine-picture, $1-million deal with Warner Bros. Jimmy did not live long enough to honor it. Paul Newman inherited the roles which helped make him a star: "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956) and "The Left Handed Gun" (1958).
In an interview in 1955, Gig Young, the actor, asked Jimmy, “Do you have any special advice for the young people who drive?” Jimmy’s reply: “Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine!”
The curse of "Little Bastard"
James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder became infamous for being the vehicle that killed not only him, but for injuring and killing several others in the years following his death. Many people came to believe that the sports car and its parts were somehow cursed. Jimmy’s friend, George Barris, bought the totaled wreck for $2,500, only to have it slip off its trailer and break a mechanic's leg.
Soon afterward, Barris sold the engine and drive-train to two physicians, Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. While racing against each other, McHenry was killed instantly when his vehicle spun out of control and crashed into a tree. Eschrid was seriously injured when his vehicle rolled over while going into a curve.
James Franco plays me in the DVD "James Dean"
Subsequently, two young would-be car thieves were injured while attempting to steal parts from the car. When one tried to steal the steering wheel from the Porsche, his arm was ripped open on a piece of jagged metal. Later, another man was injured while trying to steal the bloodstained front seat. This was the final straw for Barris who loaned the wrecked car to the California Highway Patrol for a highway safety exhibit.
The garage storing the Spyder went up in flames, destroying everything except the car itself, which suffered almost no damage from the fire. While on display, at a Sacramento high school, the car fell, breaking a student's hip. On the way to Salinas, the truck containing the vehicle lost control causing the driver to fall out, only to be crushed by the Porsche after it fell off the back.
In 1960, after the car was returned to Barris, it mysteriously vanished and has never been found. I guess Alec Guinness knew what he was talking about when he said the car was “sinister.”
“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death ... I mean, if he can live on after his death, then maybe he was a great man.” – James Dean
© Copyright BJ Rakow 2011, Rev. 2015 All rights reserved.
Sources: Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray (2nd edition), 2004 . . . Frascella, Lawrence and Al Weisel. Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, 2005.. . . Moss, Marilyn Ann. Giant: George Stevens: A Life on Film. 2004 . . . Osborne, Robert. 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards, 2003 . . . Perry, George. James Dean, 2005 . . . Rathgeb, Douglas L. The Making of Rebel without a Cause, 2004 . . . Schickel, Richard. Elia Kazan: A Biography, 2006 . . . Stock, Dennis. James Dean: Fifty Years Ago, 2005
Films, Plays and Television Appearances
1 - Films
Has Anybody Seen My Gal
East of Eden
Rebel Without a Cause
2 - Stage Plays Broadway
See the Jaguar
3 - Plays off Broadway
Women of Trachis
4 - Television
31 dramatic roles
1951 - 1955
Believe it or not, but Jimmy's fans still search for and buy this James Dean style red jacket 56 years after his death.