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:
- Actor-Inspired Element: He suggested that Jett Rink's drunken soliloquy in Giant be done via long shot to emphasise the character's isolation.
- Cool Loser: One of the archetypes with which he is most associated.
- The Danza: As Jim in Rebel Without a Cause.
- Dawson Casting:
- In East of Eden, he was already in his early twenties playing the teenage Cal.
- In Rebel Without a Cause, he was 23 playing the 16-year-old Jim Stark.
- Enforced Method Acting:
- For the ferris wheel scene in East of Eden that leads into Cal and Abra's kiss, James opted not to use the bathroom to add to his character's discomfort.
- He and Richard Davalos also shared an apartment briefly to get into the mindset of twin brothers. The latter admitted they became the characters "to the teeth" and it took him two years to shake it off.
- Friendship on the Set:
- Julie Harris became his companion on East of Eden, and she was often the one who could get him to calm down. Years later she would say "I loved him so much" in a platonic sense.
- Elizabeth Taylor befriended him on the set of Giant, and they would often stay up late into the night talking about life. He also became friends with Dennis Hopper.
- Hostility on the Set:
- Raymond Massey hated him on the set of East of Eden, as he was classically trained and disliked the method. Elia Kazan picked up on this and encouraged the hostility to make for a natural performance between a distant father and son. The former later admitted it was his best role.
- Put it this way. Rock Hudson, with whom he worked on Giant, said years later "I don't want to speak ill of the dead but he was a prick".
- On the same film, he had a tumultuous relationship with director George Stevens, and they clashed almost daily.
- 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!"
- Throw It In: For the famous scene in East of Eden where Adam rejects Cal's present, Cal was scripted to hit him. James however improvised Cal tearfully trying to hug him instead. Raymond Massey's confused reaction was genuine.
- Underage Casting: In Giant, he continued to play Jett into his forties, and actually refused to wear more detailed older age makeup; only having grey hair and a few lines on his forehead.
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.
- The 2010 film Bicycle Bride features a character named "James Dean" who looks exactly like James Dean, crossing into Uncanny Valley territory (he was played by actor Andreas Wilson).
- THE MONUMENT MYTHOS is set in an Alternate Universe in which Dean becomes President of the United States.