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James Dean: The Man Behind the Myth

Updated on March 27, 2009

James Dean was one of the most gifted actors to ever grace the silver screen, and one of the truest human beings to grace the earth. He was not only an actor, but a representative of society's youth. He transcended the constrainsts of time and has shone through onto millions of people for over 50 years now. Though his life was tragically cut short and only had three films to his name, he has left a mark on Hollywood & the world that will not soon fade.

The Man

"He's not easy to understand. But he's all man, and he'll make his mark. Mind you, my boy will make his mark." And so he did. James' father, Winton Dean, stated in Modern Screen, just one month before the fatal car crash, that James was "all man." He had faith in his son, as any father does, but the world had faith in James Dean like they'd never had before.

James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Winton and Mildren Dean. At the age of 4, Jimmy moved with his parents to Santa Monica, CA. In 1940, when Jimmy was 9, his mother was diagnosed with uteran cancern. After her death that same year, Jimmy was sent back to Fairmount, Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle, Marcus and Ortense Winslow. He had a relatively happy life in Fairmount, with Marcus and Ortense encouraging his artistic and athletic endeavors. On his eighteenth birthday, Jimmy registered for the draft. Some say he wasn't drafted due to poor eyesight; some claim that Jimmy stated he was a conciencious objector due to his religion (Quaker). Soon after he graduated high school in 1949, Jimmy moved in with his father and stepmother, Ethel, in Santa Monica, CA, and attended Santa Monica City College for a brief time. In the fall of 1950, Jimmy Moved out of the Dean home and transferred to UCLA, majoring in theatre arts and pre-law. After a falling-out with his fraternity, the Epsilon Pi chapter of Sigma Nu, he dropped out of college the following January to pursue his acting career full-time. After small roles in commercials and on TV, and working several "odd jobs" around town, he decided to move to New York City. There, he studied at the Actor's Studio and met many influential people, including Marlon Brando and Martin Landau, among others.

The world first saw his shining talent with the release of his first feature film in 1954, East of Eden. In this movie, Jimmy played Cal, the quiet, brooding twin to his "perfect" brother Aron. He was posthumasly nominated for an Oscar for his role in East of Eden. This was the only film James would see released in his lifetime (although he didn't attend the movie's opening). By the time Rebel Without A Cause was released, he had been made an undying legend. His third movie was Giant, co-starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Dennis Hopper, in which Jimmy played a Texas ranch hand who struck oil and made it rich.  However, this movie would be his last; in September of 1955, at age 24, Jimmy was killed in a car crash while driving his Porche Spyder 550, shortly after filming for the movie ended.

His incredible gift for acting...not merely acting, but feeling and conveying...had shone past his photogenic quality, which was in itself a timeless and endearing attribute. Dennis Hopper says of James, "I have never seen an actor as dedicated, with the extreme concentration and exceptional imagination as James Dean." When playing James' father in Rebel Without A Cause, Jim Backus stated "He had the greatest power of concentration I have ever encountered...the lines were not simply something he had memorized - they were actually a very real part of him." William C. Mellor, cinematographer of Rebel, also recognized James' immense ability -- "In front of the camera, he had an instinct that was nearly uncanny... He just seemed to know how it should be, without rehearsal or anything." This level of concentration and dedication to his craft was reflected in his performances. After just a little over one year, James Dean had become an American icon. The youth of the nation could immediately relate to the 24-year-old on the screen. Dennis Hopper also added, "He seemed to capture that moment of youth, that moment where we're all desperately seeking to find ourselves." This achievement was because of one thing - James' ability to convey naturally in his actions, words, and voice what everyone else was thinking. They saw themselves in him.

His influence went past just the 1950s and into each new decade, and now a new millennium. Everybody wanted to be James Dean. His hair, his face, his clothes, his demeanor... He was the ultimate in cool. But his "coolness" went past his loose-fitting clothes, leather jacket, and perfectly styled hair. As his father said, James was "all man." He was a very intelligent and well-rounded young man. Concert pianist and actor Oscar Levant says of James, "He turned out to be a fascinating and intelligent young man who talked fluently about artists in music. And he was surprisingly knowledgeable about such recondite composers as Schönberg and Bartók." Despite James' "tough guy" image, he was actually quite shy and respectful. In his own words, James believes that "Only the gentle are ever really strong." These are the features that made him not only a phenomenal actor and an American icon, but also an extraordinary man

Quotes By Jimmy

"Dream as if you'll live forever, Live as if you'll die today."

"For me the only true success, the only true greatness, lies in immortality."

"Only the gentle are ever really strong."

"When I can't sleep at night I like to get up and beat the skins.It drives away the blues."...on playing the bongo drums

"The gratification comes in the doing, not in the results."

"To grasp the full significance of life is the actor's duty; to interpret it his problem; and to express it his dedication."

"Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that's all you have."

"Being a good actor isn't easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I'm done."

"Studying cows, pigs and chickens can help an actor develop his character. There are a lot of things I learned from animals. One was that they couldn't hiss or boo me. I also became close to nature, and am now able to appreciate the beauty with which this world is endowed."

"How can you measure acting in inches?!?" (when told he was too short to be an actor - James Dean's actual height was 5'8")

"Trust and belief are two prime considerations. You must not allow yourself to be opinionated. You must say, 'Wait. Let me see.' And above all, you must be honest with yourself." Hedda Hopper

"An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet. In the short span of his lifetime, an actor must learn all there is to know, experience all there is to experience, or approach that state as closely as possible. He must be superhuman in his efforts to store away in the core of his subconscious everything that he might be called upon to use in the expression of his art."

"When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn't acting. It's following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that. So the director's task is just that – to direct, to point the way. Then the actor takes over. And he must be allowed the space, the freedom to express himself in the role. Without that space, an actor is no more than an unthinking robot with a chest-full of push-buttons."

"It was an accident, although I've been involved in some kind of theatrical function or other since I was a child – in school, music, athletics. To me, acting is the most logical way for people's neuroses to manifest themselves, in this great need we all have to express ourselves. To my way of thinking, an actor's course is set even before he's out of the cradle."

"Since I'm only 24 years old, guess I have as good an insight into this rising generation as any other young man my age. And I've discovered that most young men do not stand like ramrods or talk like Demosthenes. Therefore, when I do play a youth, such as in Warner Bros. Rebel Without A Cause, I try to imitate life. The picture deals with the problems of modern youth. It is the romanticized conception of the juvenile that causes much of our trouble with misguided youth nowadays. I think the one thing this picture shows that's new is the psychological disproportion of the kids' demands on the parents. Parents are often at fault, but the kids have some work to do, too. But you can't show some far off idyllic conception of behavior if you want the kids to come and see the picture. You've got to show what it's really like, and try to reach them on their own grounds. You know, a lot of times an older boy, one of the fellows the young ones idolize, can go back to the high school kids and tell them, 'Look what happened to me! Why be a punk and get in trouble with the law? Why do these senseless things just for a thrill?' I hope Rebel Without A Cause will do something like that. I hope it will remind them that other people have feelings. Perhaps they will say, 'What do we need all that for?' If a picture is psychologically motivated, if there is truth in the relationship in it, then I think that picture will do good. I firmly believe Rebel Without A Cause is such a picture." (from an interview at a preview of Rebel Without A Cause)

Quotes About Jimmy

  • "All of us were touched by Jimmy, and he was touched by greatness."
    ...Natalie Wood, co-star in Rebel Without A Cause

  • "He was very afraid of being hurt. He was afraid of opening up in case it was turned around and used against him."
    ...Elizabeth Taylor, co-star in Giant

  • "There were times when I was in his dressing room and he'd tell me, 'I dont feel like talking, but stay anyway.' I would sit there and read while he listened to music and played his bongo drums."
    ...Faye Nuell, Natalie Wood's double in Rebel

  • "[Dean's] death caused a loss in the movie world that our industry could ill afford. Had he lived long enough, I feel he would have made some incredible films. He had sensitivity and a capacity to express emotion."
    ...Gary Cooper

  • "I didn't know what to do. How do you tell an eight-year-old boy his mother's going to die? I tried. In my own stumbling way I tried to prepare Jim for it. Nowadays, he lives in a world we don't understand too well, the actor's world. We don't see too much of him. But he's a good boy, my Jim. A good boy, and I'm very proud of him. Not easy to understand, no sir. He's not easy to understand. But he's all man, and he'll make his mark. Mind you, my boy will make his mark."
    ...Winton Dean (Jimmy's father) in Modern Screen, August 1955

  • "He could look in a delicatessen window and suddenly start waving at a bowl of prunes, like they were alive. He was childish in a charming way."
    ...Christine White

  • "He had the greatest power of concentration I have ever encountered. He prepared himself so well in advance for any scene he was playing, that the lines were not simply something he had memorized -- they were actually a very real part of him."
    ...Jim Backus (Jimmy's father in Rebel)

  • "Jim Dean and Elvis were the spokesmen for an entire generation. When I was in acting school in New York, years ago, there was a saying that if Marlon Brando changed the way people acted, then James Dean changed the way people lived. He was the greatest actor who ever lived. He was simply a genius."
    ...Martin Sheen

  • "He would be bothered when someone would say he was mean and disrespectful. Because actually, he wasn't. They took silence to mean he cared little or nothing for them. They didn't have the insight, or didn't care to exercise the insight, in knowing that he was a shy boy that just didn't know how to approach them. Instead of making an attempt to approach him, they just, well, they just wrote him off."
    ...Lew Bracker

  • "He didn't show you very much. He'd challenge you to find him. Then when you'd found him, he'd still make you guess. It was an endless game with him. The thing people missed about Jimmy was his mischievousness. He was the most constantly mischievous person I think I've ever met. Full of tricks, full of magic, full of outrageousness."
    ...Stewart Stern

  • "Every time I go to Europe, I remember that James Dean never saw Europe, but yet I see his face everywhere. There's James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe – windows of the Champs Elysees, discos in the south of Spain, restaurants in Sweden, t-shirts in Moscow. My life was confused and disoriented for years by his passing. My sense of destiny destroyed – the great films he would have directed, the great performances he would have given, the great humanitarian he would have become, and yet, he's the greatest actor and star I have ever known."
    ...Dennis Hopper, co-star in Giant

  • "I'm obsessed. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I'm hoping to keep his memory going. It's a tribute."
    ...David Loehr (Dean Archivist, The James Dean Gallery, Fairmount, Indiana)

  • "When I worked with him on TV, I found him to be an intelligent young actor who seemed to live only for his work. He was completely dedicated, and although a shy person, he could hold a good conversation on many wide-ranging subjects."
    ...Ronald Reagan

  • "[Stewart Sutcliffe] was really our leader, and he was really into the James Dean thing. He idolized him. Stewart died young before we made the big time, but I suppose you could say that without Jimmy Dean, The Beatles would have never existed."
    ...John Lennon (A few weeks before the group recorded its first hit record, "LOVE ME DO," in 1962, fifth member Stewart Sutcliffe died at the age of 21.)

  • "When he was interested and participating, his energy was powerful. He had the greatest of intellectual qualities – curiosity about everything."
    ...Roy Schatt, photographer

  • "He said, 'We both have to get married and have families. That's what we both want; that's what we both need.' He never talked to me like a man that was worried about cutting it [life] short or having it cut short."
    ...Lew Bracker

  • "I liken it to a kind of star or comet that fell through the sky and everybody still talks about it. They say, 'Ah, remember the night when you saw that shooting star?"
    ...Julie Harris, co-star in East of Eden

  • "He seemed to capture that moment of youth, that moment where we're all desperately seeking to find ourselves."
    ...Dennis Hopper, co-star in Giant

  • "[James Dean] was spectacularly talented, handsome in a fragile sort of way and absolutely outrageous. He was an original. Impish, compelling, magnetic, utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next. Definitely gifted."
    ...Edna Ferber, author of best-selling novel "Giant"; from her autobiography "A Kind of Magic"

  • "Sometimes we'd just sit and talk, or we'd listen to music for a couple of hours at a time without saying a word. Sometimes he'd get up and dance. He used to do modern, interpretive things. Jimmy had a wonderful pantomimic gift - I couldn't compare him to anyone else. He had a quality and style all his own."
    ...Jane Withers

  • "In Texas, one disgustingly hot night during the filming of Giant, he and I ate a full jar of peanut butter, a box of crackers and six Milky Ways, and drank twelve Coca-Cola's!"
    ...Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict in Giant) from her autobiography, "The Quality of Mercy"

  • "In front of the camera, he had an instinct that was nearly uncanny. I don't recall ever working with anyone who had such a gift. I recall one scene, where he was in a shadow, and had to lift his head to the light. We explained how it should go and he played it exactly right, to the half-inch, the first time. He just seemed to know how it should be, without rehearsal or anything."
    ...William C. Mellor, cinematographer

  • "Jamie and I were like brother and sister. He told me in fact he thought of me as a sister. Our relationship was strictly platonic and spiritual."
    ...Eartha Kitt

  • "Jimmy was a very close and good friend of mine. I have fond memories of Jim, the days we spent together in New York City as young actors -- walking the streets and talking about the theater and wondering about our next job, reading books and discussing them; seeing plays, seeing films; working in acting workshops and being serious young fellows about the thing we loved most, which was acting in the theater and films."
    ...Martin Landau

  • "Jim had a year away from Warner Brothers. We had planned to use that time to get our company started. We would have done both feature pictures and a television series, which would have allowed Jim to break in as a director. I think he would have been a great director."
    ...Nicholas Ray

  • "To the ranchers and the people around there, he was just as nice as could be. Dean came to me and said, 'Bob, I want to be a Texan twenty-four hours a day. I'd like for you to work with me. I'll even pay you out of my pocket.' So I got him some clothes and boots and he starts talking like a Texan every day."
    ...Bob Hinkle, on the filming of Giant

  • "We took a walk that first day, and there was a building going up near Sixth Avenue, and we virtually became sidewalk superintendents by barking orders to people. And we proceeded to go over to Rockefeller Center where there was a young girl skating, and we applauded her and she did her command performance. Our minds, our ability to fantasize, and our ability to communicate was kind of an instant thing. I had an amazingly instant rapport with him, and as a result we became friends immediately. He used to come out to my house, my parents' house in Queens, and my little nephews adored him. [We had] Christmases and Thanksgivings [together]. We were sort of a surrogate family."
    ...Martin Landau, on their first meeting

  • "He turned out to be a fascinating and intelligent young man who talked fluently about artists in music. And he was surprisingly knowledgeable about such recondite composers as Schönberg and Bartók."
    ...Oscar Levant, concert pianist and film actor

  • "While we were making Giant, I think we all knew that young Jimmy Dean was giving a performance that not even the extreme adjectives of Hollywood could adequately sum up. It's not often a unit gets a feeling like that."
    ...William C. Mellor, cinematographer

  • "What I remember most about him was the little boy quality shining forth at you from behind those thick glasses of his, tearing at your heart. He had that extreme and touching idealism of youth which made you wish that he would never have to be disillusioned. Now he won't be."
    ...Louella Parsons

  • "Jimmy Dean loved the feel of Indiana soil under his feet and I think that was the source of much of his strength."
    ...Adeline Nall

"It wasn't so much a matter of whom I was acting with, it was whom I was watching… Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Page, Jimmy Dean … a pretty hotshot group."
...Paul Newman, on his apprenticeship at the Actors Studio

  • "Actually, the person I related to was James Dean. I grew up with the Dean thing. Rebel Without A Cause had a very powerful effect on me."
    ...Al Pacino

  • "The only time I ever worked with James Dean was in a 1953 off-Broadway production called The Scarecrow. He played the Scarecrow's reflection in the mirror. He was an unknown then but he was jolly good in every way. I knew then that he was born to become an actor."
    ...Patricia Neal

  • "Jimmy was not only an internal actor, but an expressionist, which came partly from his studying dance. He would physicalize actions, such as the way he lifted himself up on the windmill in Giant, or goose-stepped measuring off the land, or his sleight-of- hand gesture as Jett Rink. He had the amazing capacity to pick up and learn a new trick almost immediately, tossing a rope and making a knot, a card trick from a magician, coin tricks, racing a car..."
    ...Dennis Hopper, co-star in Giant

  • "I have never seen an actor as dedicated, with the extreme concentration and exceptional imagination as James Dean. He could take the written imaginary circumstance and make it his own by improvising - lying on the ground in a fetal position playing with a wound-up toy monkey beating its cymbals, giggling while being searched in the police station because it tickled, standing up in a drunken daze making the sound of sirens with his arms outstretched, hitting his fists into the sergeant's desk, jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool with no water, or doing the voice of Mr. Magoo throughout the movie (which was the voice of Jim Backus, his father in Rebel) -- things that were not written on the page, things that were invented by the actor."
    ...Dennis Hopper, co-star in Giant


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    • Lee Raskin profile image

      Lee Raskin 

      4 years ago from Brooklandville, Maryland ( Baltimore )

      Nice tribute...but where is the attribution for your historical narrative...James Dean archivists, authors and photographers deserve their due credit also... by law. actually spelled Porsche. Lee Raskin, JD. Porsche historian/James Dean author.

      James Dean: At Speed, 2005

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Germany

      Interesting article. Thank you. I read a book in English named "Live Fast, Die Young" by John Gilmore. As I understand it he was close with James Dean. Here is a link.

    • profile image 

      8 years ago

      really an icon

    • profile image

      peter sharman 

      9 years ago

      james dean in his films he made you could tell he was a real gentle giant.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      11 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Nice hub! I saw all of his movies when they came out. Time to watch them again.


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