Andy Warhol called James Dean the damaged but beautiful soul of our time. Though the tormented young actor only appeared in three major films–East of Eden, and the posthumously released Rebel Without a Cause and Giant–his tragic death at age twenty-four when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder into another motorist, one Donald Turnupseed, on his way to a car race in Salinas, California, spawned a rabid death cult.
An entire generation of teenagers viewed Dean as the embodiment of their own restless rebellion, and his sudden death left many fans in fervent states of denial. Some embraced the reality of his passing by committing suicide. More middle-of-the-road mourners spent fifty cents to sit behind the wheel of the horrendously crushed Spyder, or paid untold amounts for wrappers from gum Dean supposedly chewed and other memorabilia items churned out following his demise. Devotees continue to inundate his studio with fan mail to this day, as well as to flock to his Indiana gravesite.
Dean enjoyed a normal and relatively happy childhood in Fairmont, Indiana, and in Los Angeles, up until his mother’s death from cancer when he was nine, at which time his father shuttled him back to Indiana to be raised by his aunt and uncle. Despite his undeniable boyish good looks, the future sex symbol struck most people he met as a faltering, morbid young man, and his extreme temperament only intensified as he matured.
His fits of utter despondency alternated with periods of wild euphoria betrayed a classic manic-depressive personality. Dean worked out his emotional problems in artistic pursuits–dancing, bongo-playing, poetry-writing, sculpting–and in race-car driving, but when he funneled his intensity into his first love, acting, the results were extraordinary.
After attending college in California, Dean spent several years bouncing from coast to coast, getting his feet wet in bit parts in several movies and acting in TV commercials, until he landed his first major role in the Broadway play See the Jaguar in 1951. His second Broadway outing in a 1954 production of The Immoralist earned him a screen test for Warner Bros., and within a year, he had starred in the three movies that have secured him a permanent and near-mystical hold over the American consciousness.