“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.” -James Dean
James Dean was a Hollywood actor, professional car racer, and undisputed icon of 1950s America. He was a teen heartthrob in his own right and a star whose name and image, to this day, represents coming-of-age angst and frustration. Though he lived only 24 years, the impact he had on his contemporaries, and pop culture as a whole, continues on.
EARLY LIFE, EDUCATION and CAREER
James Byron Dean was born February 8th, 1931 in Marion, Indiana, in the apartment where his parents lived. His father Winton came from a farming background, but dreamed of pursuing a career in dentistry, and so moved his wife and son to Santa Monica, California. As a young child, Dean was very close to his mother, Mildred, but when he was only 9 years old, the family lost her to cancer.
After Mildred’s death, Winton was not able to properly care for his son and sent Dean back to Indiana to live with an aunt and uncle. After graduating from high school there in 1949, he moved back to California to live once again with his father and new stepmother.
He initially chose to study law at Santa Monica College, but against his father’s wishes, changed his mind and enrolled at UCLA to study drama. His first acting “gig” was there at UCLA, when he was selected among a large pool of auditioners to play the lead role in “Macbeth.” Ultimately, James Dean did not graduate, but left college to pursue acting full-time.
As a young newcomer in Hollywood, Dean was determined but had a hard time finding good roles. He was cast as the beloved disciple in a television Easter special, and also got a few bit parts here and there. He was not one to give up, however, and enrolled at the famed Actors Studio under the guidance of legendary theater practitioner Lee Strasberg. His big break finally came in 1953, when he was cast a major role in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.”
If 1953 was a good year, 1955 was the year James Dean became a household name. He was cast the starring role in the much-anticipated “Rebel Without a Cause,” in which he played an emotionally-distraught teenager opposite Natalie Wood. Not wanting that role to be the cornerstone of his entire career, he took on a major role in the film “Giant,” opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Although both films were released to critical acclaim, sadly, James Dean would never see either movies’ premiere.
Following production of “East of Eden,” Dean had decided to pursue a side career as a race car driver. He bought a couple of vehicles and entered into several races, excelling at them all. On September 30th, 1955, he was highway driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder (infamously named “Little Bastard”) to a race he was scheduled to compete in in Salinas. When a Ford turned left at a corner at an intersection just ahead of him, James Dean wasn’t able to hit the breaks in time, and a terrible collision ensued. The other driver survived, but Dean was mortally wounded, and taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was only 24. Interestingly, the junction at Highways 41 and 46 where he was killed no longer exists in its original state, but is now simply a pasture. In 2005, the location where he died was renamed the James Dean Memorial Junction.
His funeral was held on October 8, 1955 in his home state of Indiana, and was attended by hundreds of mourners. Thousands more paid their respects outside the Fairmount Friends Church where the service was held. He is interred at Park Cemetery in the City of Fairmount. In 1983, his original grave stone was stolen, and replaced by the one seen in this photo.
James Dean's grave, Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana
LITTLE BASTARD'S "CURSE"
It’s a pop culture rumor that the Porsche James Dean was killed in is cursed. This rumor started in 1956 when the original buyer of Dean’s totaled car put it on display and used the “curse” to draw people in to see it. In any case, whether it be due to a curse or the mighty power of suggestion, others who have since owned the car or even original components of it were said to suffer behind-the-wheel accidents. In 1959, a garage housing the car caught fire, and to this day the cause is unknown. In 1960, the car mysteriously vanished.
Although his life was tragically short, James Dean’s contributions to cinema and pop culture continued to impact other young stars in their rise to fame in the years and decades following his death. Elvis Presley himself thought of Dean as a role model in many ways, so much so that he modeled his own image and career in Hollywood after the late actor. “I know by heart all the dialogue of James Dean’s films. I could watch ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ a hundred times over,” he once said. When asked about comparisons of himself to Dean in the media, Presley famously replied, “I would never compare myself in any way to James Dean, because James Dean’s a genius.”
Other stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, were impacted greatly by Dean and his short-lived career. Taylor once stated, “He was a very intelligent young man. I loved him…if it was just the two of us, he became very introspective and told me some things that just blew my mind.” Natalie Wood, with whom Dean starred in “Rebel Without a Cause,” said in a 1974 interview, “He was very aware of the fact that he was a star. There was no escaping it. Eyes were on him.”
James Dean was the first actor to ever receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination.
Thank you for reading about James Dean and his famous grave! I hope you enjoyed. Return here soon for more of our Famous Graves series (I so enjoy writing them!) In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Dean’s life and death, here are some links that may be of interest to you: