It’s been close to seven decades since his death, and yet the world seems to still be fascinated with James Dean. With such a brief time in the spotlight, he sure made an impression. Of course, his striking looks made it easy to look – and remember – him. But why, oh why, did we have to lose a Hollywood icon so suddenly and so soon?
The truth is that Dean’s death remains both disturbing and mystifying to this day. In fact, details have emerged regarding his autopsy and experts say that the movie star could indeed have been saved. Nonetheless, he’s gone and the eerie circumstances surrounding his death have only made him more of a legend.
A Car Racing Enthusiast to the Very End
A car racing enthusiast, it can be seen as ironic or fitting that it was his passion that cost him his life. James Dean crashed his Porsche Spyder on the way to a race meet on September 30, 1955. Before his death, he’d competed in a number of car races, but his work contract prevented him from racing, that is until he finished shooting the film Giant.
After the film wrapped, Dean had an upcoming racing event at the Salinas Road Race. Reports say that he planned to have his Porsche 550 Spyder (which he named Little Bastard) transported to the track.
How Did James Dean Die?
In a last-minute decision, Dean changed his mind and drove his Porsche instead. The trip was from Los Angeles to the track and with him was his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. Driving along US Route 446 near Cholame, California, Dean crashed his car head on into a Ford Tudor which was being driven by 23-year-old named Donald Turnupseed.
While Turnupseed had minor injuries and Wütherich sustained serious harm and needed surgery, Dean didn’t survive the collision. As it turns out, Dean had been given a speeding ticket before the crash occurred.
How Old Was James Dean When He Died?
The poor kid was only 24 years old when his life was cut short. Interestingly, regardless of just how much time has passed, the details of Dean’s death continue to emerge. The circumstances that claimed his life are much deeper than meets the eye.
Let’s begin with the fact that Warner Bros. prohibited him from racing. Back in those days, actors were essentially owned by movie studios. Many contracted actors were thus barred from certain activities that would put them at risk of injuries or anything that could stall production or taint their brand.
Warner Bros. Barred Him From Racing
Warner Bros. made it clear early on that Dean wasn’t allowed to race while filming. Unlike other actors who lived to rebel, Dean was a good kid (more or less) and abided by the rules of his contract. He indeed refrained from racing until the end of production on what came to be his final film, Giant.
As soon as he could, he signed up for his first post-production race. With the green light to race, he needed the perfect car. Just nine days before the race on the day of his death, he bought the car that many would later say was cursed.
A Shiny, New Porsche Spyder
A devoted race car driver, Dean was always looking for the next best thing in automotive innovation. With a keen interest to stay ahead of the curve, Dean purchased a brand-new car that he was simply itching to get on the track.
Just nine days before his death, he traded in his 1955 Porsche Super Speedster for the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. He had an artist do some body work and had the name “Little Bastard” painted on the vehicle.
Blame It on the Little Bastard
The name Little Bastard wasn’t chosen on a whim; it was a nickname Dean had earned when he was younger. But the name proved to be quite ironic given its fate. A week before the crash, Dean met British actor Alec Guinness, who was worried when he saw the Porsche.
Guinness later wrote in his diary: “The sports car looked sinister to me… Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own: ‘Please never get in it. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’”
If Only He Had Stuck to the Plan
Guinness voiced his worries, but Dean laughed it off. After finishing his last film, he was anxious to get back to his favorite hobby. He signed up for a weekend of races in Salinas, California – a weekend of freedom and relief for the young star.
Before heading to the races, Dean was planning to keep his shiny new Porsche 550 in a towing trailer. It would have limited the number of cars on the road, and – if only he had known – it would have saved Dean’s life. A member of Dean’s party, known stunt driver Bill Hickman, was going to be the man responsible for towing the Porsche.
Blame It on the Mechanic
However, right before the fateful drive, Dean’s friend and car mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, told him to drive his Porsche to the track, to get a feel for it before the big race. And so, Hickman was behind the wheel of Dean’s 1955 Ford Country Squire.
Next to Dean in the Porsche was Wütherich and Hickman was a car or two behind them. During the ride, and two hours before the fatal crash, Dean and his convoy were pulled over just outside Bakersfield by cops who issued them a pair of speeding tickets.
Speeding Down Racer’s Road
The speed wasn’t anything insane; they were going only 10 mph over the limit. Yet, it was enough to warrant police involvement. The thing is, Dean was eager to hit the racetrack, and the ticket didn’t slow him down one bit.
Instead, he drove down Route 166/33 as fast as possible. This route was a known shortcut that gave drivers the freedom of speeding and was dubbed “the racer’s road.” The road then led the crew to Route 466, the last piece of tarmac that Dean would see in his life.
He Wasn’t Speeding After All
Otie Hunter, the officer who issued Dean’s ticket that day and later framed it, said in 2015 that the actor was going way over the speed limit of 55 mph. News reports at the time of the crash indicated that Dean was going 85 to 90 mph at the time of the collision, but that turns out to be false.
It’s been revealed that he was driving about 55 mph, which was determined based on the position of his body and the wreck itself. It was also later concluded that Donald Turnupseed, the driver who hit Dean’s car, was at fault.
A College Student’s Wrongful Turn
Regardless of the actual speed he was going, Dean was going along Route 466 when Turnupseed, a young college student from California Polytechnic State University, was heading in the opposite direction in his Ford Tudor. Reports show that Turnupseed made a sudden turn on to Route 41.
According to Turnupseed’s account, he didn’t see Dean’s little Porsche in the opposite lane before directly hitting him. The Ford flew almost 40 feet down the road, ejecting Wütherich from the Porsche completely. The car landed in a crumpled mound with Dean still inside.
He Could Have Been Saved
Dean was trapped inside the car and had to be removed with a crowbar; one of his feet was stuck between two pedals. He was unconscious but still breathing when the ambulance arrived at the scene. Dean was pronounced dead by the time he arrived at the Paso Robles War Memorial hospital at 6.20 p.m.
The doctor noted that he had broken bones and lacerations all over his body. He also had multiple fractures in his jaw and suffered from internal injuries. His official cause of death was a broken neck caused from the collision.
The Ambulance Got Into a Crash on the Way to the Hospital
In 2014, a documentary series called Autopsy: The Last Hours of… delved into Dean’s last moments. Forensic expert Dr. Michael Hunter believes that Dean’s life could have been saved if the paramedics had put his neck in a brace before he was placed in the ambulance.
Strangely enough, the ambulance he was in got into a collision of its own with another vehicle on its way to the hospital. According to Hunter, the second collision and the fact that Dean’s neck was not stabilized with a brace, decreased his chance of survival.
Or Did He Die in Bill Hickman’s Arms?
The official story holds that Dean was dead on arrival at the hospital. But rumors have spread that he actually died before, in the arms of his friend, Bill Hickman, the driver who was only a car or two behind him when the crash happened.
Hickman was a stunt driver who was close with Dean. He was also one of the people who helped get Dean out of the car and the last man to hold the movie legend while he was still breathing. “I pulled him out of the car, and he was in my arms when he died, his head fell over,” Hickman later recalled.
The Last Man to Hold Him
“I heard the air coming out of his lungs the last time. Didn’t sleep for five or six nights after that, just the sound of the air coming out of his lungs.” Losing Dean deeply affected Hickman until the day he died. Being the last guy to hold James Dean is one thing…
Now try to imagine being the guy that killed James Dean. Believe it or not, Turnupseed – the man responsible for the death of the Hollywood icon – remained out of the media for the rest of his life.
The Man Who (Unintentionally) Killed James Dean
Despite being at the wheel of the car that created the crash, Turnupseed was never charged in his death. Unsurprisingly, Turnupseed chose to live a life of privacy. Although freed from a life in prison, the college kid sure grew up fast that day and endured long-lasting guilt.
Other than being known as the man who (unintentionally) killed James Dean, he went on to become a successful businessman. He ultimately died of cancer in 1995. But a year after the crash, he wrote a letter to his friend (dated September 29, 1956). In the letter, he tells his friend, whom he apparently hadn’t spoken to in a while, about recent events in his life.
The “Affair With Dean”
He also mentioned the accident: “I have had quite a bit of excitement in the last year or so, first starting back to school then the affair with Dean,” he wrote. He said he bought another car and a home, and “am now just getting time to catch my breath.”
He also included some photos that he took of both his and Dean’s crumpled cars. “Thank God I got out of it in one piece,” he wrote. For the rest of his life, Turnupseed refused to talk about the accident with anyone, making this letter remarkable.
Rolf Wutherich Later Died in Another Crash
Unlike Dean, Wutherich was thrown from the vehicle, but both of them were transported in the same ambulance to Paso Robles. Naturally, Wutherich’s life was never the same. He, like Turnupseed, had to deal with his own guilt until his dying day.
He was, after all, the guy who told Dean to drive the Porsche to Salinas. Of the wounds he sustained, a broken jaw and injuries to his hip were among the worst. In 1981, the car mechanic ended up meeting his own fate on the road. While driving in his homeland of Germany, he died in a fatal accident.
The Curse of the Little Bastard
The crumpled Porsche Spyder was declared a total loss by the insurance company, but it went on to hold a legacy of its own. It was sold and continued to bleed wherever it – or parts of it – went. The post-James Dean journey of the Little Bastard has led people to call out a curse.
The Little Bastard was totaled, but several pieces were salvaged and resold. The man who got the Little Bastard’s engine was doctor and car racer Dr. McHenry, who was involved in a fatal crash a year later during a car race while using the same engine.
Same Engine, Another Fatal Crash
It was actually another doctor who originally had his hands on the Porsche’s engine. Dr. William Eschrich bought it from a salvage yard in Burbank. He initially installed the engine into his Lotus IX race car but loaned the transmission and suspension parts to McHenry.
Both doctors participated in 1956 Pomona sports-car races. While Eschrich crashed his Lotus and survived, McHenry wasn’t as lucky. He smashed into a tree and was killed instantly. The curse of the Little Bastard was gaining momentum. And yet, its journey carried on.
The “King of Kustoms” Took It on Tour
Shortly after the crash, the self-proclaimed “King of Kustoms” George Barris bought the body of the Porsche Spyder, with plans to rebuild it. But when the mangled frame was said to be beyond repair, Barris chose to go another route: to capitalize on its notoriety.
The Porsche was first loaned to the LA chapter of the National Safety Council. Between 1957 and 1959, it was the highlight of car shows, cinemas and bowling alleys. Then, in March of 1959, while it sat in storage in Fresno, the Little Bastard mysteriously caught fire.
Blown Tires, Deaths, and Broken Hips
Little damage was done to the car, though: only two melted tires and some singed paint. Speaking of tires, Barris also sold a pair of the Spyder’s tires, which reportedly blew at the same time, causing the new owner to swerve off the road.
The accounts don’t stop there. The Little Bastard was said to have fallen from its display at a show in Sacramento, breaking the hip of someone standing by it. It also reportedly fell on and killed a driver named George Barkus, who transported it to a road-safety expo.
The Case of the Missing 550 Spyder
The Porsche allegedly disappeared in 1960 from a sealed boxcar while on its way from Miami to Los Angeles. But this just may have been a fanciful end of the story that Barris, a true showman, created as a way of keeping the car’s legend alive.
Come 2005, the whereabouts of the Porsche 550 Spyder were still unknown despite a million-dollar reward for information on it. Barris is no longer alive and the car is still missing. It’s a wonder if the case of the missing Little Bastard will ever be officially closed.
Never-Released Photos Go Up for Auction
As recently as 2019, a series of never-released photos of Dean’s fatal crash went up for auction. The photos went for close to $20,000. “The early death of James Dean reverberates to this day,” Bobby Livingston, the executive vice president at RR Auction, stated.
“These images offer an intensely unique perspective of the crash location and the resulting carnage – many of the photos taken only hours after the accident.” Six of the photos have both inside and outside views of the Porsche, and the words “Little Bastard” are clearly seen.
Paul Newman Took Over His Roles
Dean left behind family, friends, and thousands of fans. He also never got to finish his nine-picture contract with Warner Bros, which spanned six years and paid $1 million. His next projects were the play The Corn Is Green and a biopic titled Somebody Up There Likes Me.
With Dean no longer around, Warner Bros. had to sign someone else who could pull the same weight. So, they signed Paul Newman for the role in Somebody Up There Likes Me as well as Dean’s scheduled role as Billy the Kid in the 1958’s The Left-Handed Gun.
Leaving Elizabeth Taylor Behind
As for his last film, Giant, Dean reportedly didn’t get along well with Rock Hudson, who played a rich rancher. He did, however, become close with Elizabeth Taylor, who gifted him a kitten named Marcus. After Dean’s death, Taylor was reportedly absent from the set and even hospitalized for depression.
Dean turned out to be the first-ever actor to be posthumously nominated, for his role in the 1955 film East of Eden. He was also nominated posthumously for his role in Giant.
More Famous After Death
It seems as though Dean’s death made him more famous. Aside from the Oscar nominations, he has been the subject of over 23 books and more than 14 movies that were made after his death. Then there are all the times he’s been portrayed in films.
In 1996, he was memorialized on a US postage stamp. To this day, his hometown of Marion, Indiana celebrates his life every September with a James Dean look-alike contest, a car show, a 50’s dance contest, and a screening of his movies.
Here are some random but interesting facts about the heartthrob…
Out of the Great Depression and Into Fantasy Land
Dean was born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Mildred and Winton Dean. Winton, a dental technician, moved the family to Fairmount when Dean was about three to take up bullfrog farming. But this was during the Great Depression, so the farm failed, and the Deans had to find another way to make ends meet.
They moved on to Santa Monica, California, where Dean’s mother was truly devoted to him. She would build little theaters out of cardboard and encouraged her young boy to play using dolls. She also read him poetry and introduced him to art.
Losing His Doting Mother
Mildred enrolled Dean in tap dance lessons and taught him how to play the violin. The boy was very close to his mother, which made it all the more difficult to learn that she was going to die when he was still very young.
In 1938, when he was only seven, his mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She ended up dying in 1940, leaving nine-year-old Dean without his doting mother. He had to ride a train back to Marion with his grandmother and the coffin for the funeral. He ended up staying in Marion with his dad.
Time on the Farm
He didn’t take it very well. One day in school, he was said to have burst into tears during class, saying he missed his mom. Being with the family he did have, he learned to work through his grief and somehow enjoy his childhood.
Being on a farm helped. “This was a real farm and I worked like crazy when someone was watching me,” he later said. “Forty acres of oats made a huge stage and when the audience left, I took a nap and nothing got plowed or harrowed.”
School vs. Studies
Dean was a good student in high school, excelling in both sports and drama classes. Once he graduated in 1949, he returned to California, but his relationship with his father was strained; they fought over the issue of college and the young actor’s budding career in film.
Unconcerned about his father’s opinions, Dean changed his major at UCLA to drama. In 1950, when Dean was 19, his classmate, James Bella, convinced him to be an extra in a Pepsi commercial, which was his first appearance on TV.
The New Hot Kid on the Block
While at UCLA, Dean played Malcolm in Macbeth and his drama coach, James Whitmore, advised him to move to New York. There, he was got into the Actors Studio. He said, around the time, “I have made great strides in my craft. After months of auditioning, I am very proud to announce that I am a member of the Actors Studio.”
Getting into the acting world was something the young man was extremely proud of, and it didn’t hurt that all the actresses were smitten with the new kid on the block. He quickly became a playboy…
The Hollywood Playboy
It didn’t take long for Dean to become a Hollywood playboy, and according to his biographer Darwin Porter, he “would sleep with anybody to get ahead.” Some of the screen sirens he shared a bed with included Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Word on the street in those days was that Dean wanted to marry Monroe, but she allegedly claimed that it would only cause them “to destroy each other.” There was also a time when he wanted to “steal” Taylor from her then-husband Michael Wilding. But that didn’t work out.
His One True Love
Dean actually had one promising relationship with an actress named Pier Angeli. The two met in 1955 when he was filming his first movie, East of Eden. With her gentleness and his rebelliousness, they found a happy balance.
However, Angeli’s mother disapproved of Dean, and Dean didn’t want to be restrained by marriage. They ended up splitting and Angeli got engaged to singer Vic Damone. Supposedly, Dean sat on his motorcycle outside the church at their wedding and sped away as soon the newlyweds came out.
Was James Dean Gay?
After his death, the rumor mill continued to spin and people said that Dean was gay, or at least bisexual. Some of these rumors dated back to the early ‘50s. In 1954, he played a gay houseboy named Arab in the play The Immoralist.
Writer Hal Hackaday remembered Dean “was not very happy playing the young Arab. He didn’t like the plot. I also believe he didn’t like playing a homosexual on Broadway. He felt uncomfortable.” Hackaday doesn’t say Dean was homosexual. But according to Biography, Dean’s “sexuality has been a matter of debate.”
Sharing a Bed With an Older Man
In the summer of 1951, 20-year-old Dean met and moved into the home of a much older man, Rogers Brackett, whose bed he shared. “This guy’s a fairy,” a friend had told Dean after meeting Brackett, to which Dean replied, “I know.”
He then lied about his sleeping arrangement, telling his friends and agent that they had separate beds. There were also instances when powerful people in the industry – males – gave him roles if he performed sexual favors for them. Dean said these acts made him feel like a “whore.”
No Big Deal
“It’s no big deal,” he said, according to Bill Bast, but he later felt only anger. Dean grew aggressive and disruptive. Bast suspected it was Dean’s way of getting back at a society that wronged him. Warner Bros. promoted him alongside Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, two closeted gay actors.
Dean was billed as their most eligible bachelor. But the rumors of his sexuality were whispered. Whatever was said about his sexuality, Dean preferred to avoid labels. “I’m not a homosexual,” he once told a reporter who asked if he was gay, “but I’m not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
When They Used to Call Him Little Bastard
Before the famous cursed car, it was Dean who was called the Little Bastard. He was one of those tortured artists who earned a reputation for being moody. It’s why he came to be called “Little Bastard.”
According to Dean’s close friends Lew Bracker and Phil Stern, Warner Bros.’ Jack Warner called Dean the same thing when he refused to come out of his trailer while filming East of Eden. Apparently, Bill Hickman would fondly call him a little bastard. Dean would hit back, calling Hickman a big bastard.
Life in the Fast Lane
Warner later said, “That kid Dean… gave us a lot of trouble, but it was worth it. He was surrounded with stars in Giant, but we believe he was 25 percent responsible for the success of the picture.” By the time he filmed Giant in 1955, he had already starred in three TV shows and Rebel Without a Cause.
Money was rolling in, and the actor was buying more and more race cars. In the March 1955 race at the Palm Springs Road Race, he won first place in his class and third in the race.