James Byron Dean (February 8, 1931 September 30, 1955) was an American actor.
He is best known for the movies Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant... with good reason, as those are the only three films in which he had a starring role; he was killed in a car accident at the age of twenty-four, just as his career was starting to take off. Dean was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and remains the only actor to have received more than one posthumous nomination.
A symbol of cool for teenagers of the 1950s and nowadays for his being (reportedly) bisexual. His relatively short career and enduring popularity also makes him something of a real-life Ensemble Dark Horse. The roles that made him famous (Cal Trask in East of Eden and Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause) were Troubled, but Cute guys with Freudian Excuses; his role as Jett Rink in Giant was an attempt to break away from being typecast as troubled teens.
In 2019, 64 years after his death, it was announced that "Dean" (more accurately his likeness) would be "appearing" in a new film called Finding Jack, set during The Vietnam War (a conflict which did not begin in earnest until after he died). This met with considerable backlash and is widely regarded as a publicity stunt. The filmmakers defended their decision to "cast" Dean in the film, saying that it was approved by his family... however he was an only child with no children of his own, and his own parents are long dead, so the family in question is his first cousin Marcus Winslow (his paternal aunt's son), who was 11 years old when he died, so this approval is also highly contentious.
While he was known to family and friends as "Jimmy", he shouldn't be confused with Jimmy Dean the "Big Bad John" singer, early costar of Rowlf the Dog, and breakfast sausage magnate.note
James Dean's roles are commonly associated with the following tropes:
- Cool Loser: One of the archetypes with which he is most associated.
- I Am Not Leonard Nimoy: James Dean is Troubled, but Cute personified. People will cosplay as Jim Stark and say they're James. Giant is his non-Troubled, but Cute role, and it's the least remembered of his films for this reason. Had he lived longer, perhaps this would have been different.
- Iconic Outfit: His iconic red jacket, white t-shirt and jeans in Rebel Without A Cause.
- Meta Casting: East of Eden was essentially James playing himself, or a character very similar to himself — including the troubled relationship with his father. Elia Kazan has called it the most apt bit of casting he ever did. Upon meeting James, John Steinbeck (who wrote the novel on which the film was based) remarked, "He is Cal!"
Portrayals in fiction:
- Another James, last name Franco, portrayed him in the 2001 Made-for-TV Movie biopic James Dean, to much acclaim.
- Nick Carpenter played him in The Mystery of Natalie Wood, a 2004 biopic Mini Series about the eponymous actress, who starred with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.