The Short-Lived Career of Hollywood’s Bad Boy: James Dean

James Dean was a talented Hollywood heartthrob, but his career and life were cut short after a horrific car accident in 1955 at the young age of 24. He rubbed shoulders with stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Elizabeth Taylor, after working on the movie Giant together. He was a promising movie star who was taking the world by storm. Sadly, all his fame and fortune couldn’t save his life.

James Dean leaning on a piece of wood in ‘East of Eden.’
James Dean in ‘East of Eden.’ Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

He had many different talents, hobbies, interests, and loved to try new things. Unfortunately, one of the last activities he picked up was car racing. He bought a new sports car just one week before his death; wait until you see the conspiracy theories surrounding the vehicle. Even though James Dean was taken from the world far too soon, he went down as a legend. Check out the life and career of the beloved actor who will stay 24 forever, James Dean.

Momma’s Boy

James Dean was born on February 8th, 1931. He didn’t have the best childhood. His mother, Mildred, was diagnosed with cervical cancer and passed away when Dean was just nine years old. His dad, Winton, moved the family to California so that he could become a dentist, and they were living there.

James Dean as a baby
James Dean. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

However, after his wife passed away, Winton sent Dean back to their hometown, Indiana. As you can imagine, losing his mother was really tough on young Dean. When he was in fourth grade, Dean was sitting in class one day when he suddenly burst into tears because of how much he missed his mom. Just picturing, it breaks my heart.

Making Dreams Come True

While she was alive, Mildred was an amazing mother. She always encouraged her son and tried to make his dreams come true. He used to write his wishes down and put them under his pillow. His mom went into his room while he was sleeping and read the wish. The next day, she always tried to make it happen.

Mildred Dean, James Dean's mother
James Dean’s mother, Mildred. Photo by Stephen Douglass / Shutterstock

When Dean moved back to Indiana, he lived with his on his aunt and uncle’s Quaker farm. Separating from his dad after losing his mother was tough on the kid. This eventually led to the father and son becoming estranged. He did, however, live with his dad briefly after high school.

College Life

Dean stayed with his dad for a short time when he attended Santa Monica College. But in 1950, he transferred to UCLA. While he was a college student, Dean frequently carried a dictionary around. He wanted to have intellectual conversations, but he knew he didn’t have the vocabulary to match.

James Dean with his father in an army uniform
James Dean and his father. Photo by Stephen Douglass / Shutterstock

He almost didn’t even go to California. At first, he wanted to attend the drama program at Indiana University. That’s where he grew up, so it only made sense. He ultimately changed his mind because that program made their students graduate with certificates in teaching. They didn’t think many of their students would make it as real actors in Hollywood.

Competitive Nature

Dean didn’t have great vision and was required to wear glasses. Despite his poor eyesight, James Dean was a great athlete. He loved sports and played baseball and basketball. Plus, he was also on the track team. If that wasn’t enough, while Dean was in school, he broke a country record in the pole vault. Now that’s impressive.

James Dean playing basketball in high school
James Dean playing high school basketball. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

His basketball coach referred to him as an “all-American type boy,” and described him as “a heady player and a good competitor.” Once, Dean got a three-day suspension from school after he was interrupted while he was reading for an acting competition. He did the only rational thing and tried to choke the heckler.

A Variety of Interests

When he was a kid, Dean liked to play around with his bicycle. He loved to assemble and disassemble the bike all the time. Building was fun for him. His family revealed that he would get completely absorbed in certain activities. He had a bunch of different interests growing up and was clearly involved in many different teams.

James Dean and his baseball team in high school
James Dean and his high school baseball team. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

In addition to all his physical activities, Dean also participated in the debate team when he was in twelfth grade. Apparently, he had a reputation for making up his sources. He got caught once and just shrugged it off. He just became way too invested in everything he put his mind to.

Feeding His Mind

If you couldn’t tell by now, James Dean loved to learn, experience, and educate himself on many different subjects. Shortly before his death, Dean started taking sculpting classes with Pegot Waring. He was frequently asking his teacher so many questions that it drove Waring absolutely crazy.

James Dean. Source: Shutterstock

Waring explained why he was so frustrated: “He wanted to know just about every single fact, idea, and theory that had been discovered by man clear back to the Stone Age.” I can kind of relate to that. But you know what they say, ‘wisdom is power,’ and Dean genuinely enjoyed knowing everything. He was good at absorbing information and had a quick mind.

Strange Habits

Believe it or not, James Dean didn’t care much about his appearance at all. He showed up once to a formal luncheon in dirty jeans and didn’t think wearing shoes and socks were necessary. This wasn’t an isolated incident for the star. Reportedly, oftentimes he would show up to rehearsals with his pants being held up with safety pins.

James Dean fooling around in the yard as a kid
James Dean as a young boy. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

James Dean was also described as having mood swings. One of his friends said: “He’d be up one minute, down the next.” That same friend went on to reveal that Dean “was uncomfortable in his own skin.” Dean would randomly call his friends or show up at their homes in the middle of the night. Considering he suffered from insomnia, it made sense.


Dean was a huge fan of actor Marlon Brando. He tried getting in contact with him, but Brando kind of blew him off. Brando once said: “I gave him the name a [psycho]-analyst, and he went. At least his work improved.” That’s a little harsh, but it gets crazier. It was reported that Dean and Brando were involved in a romantic relationship.

Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and James Dean.
Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and James Dean. Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Brando did appear to be impressed with James Dean. Dean was trying so hard to be just like him and even bought a Triumph, the same kind of motorcycle that Brando had. Brando claimed, “Mr. Dean appears to be wearing my last year’s wardrobe and using my last year’s talent.” We will probably never know the truth about their alleged romance.

Promising Movie Career

James Dean had a long Hollywood career waiting for him. Sadly, his showbiz career ended way too soon. He starred in just three movies before his fatal car accident: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. His final project came out in 1955, shortly after his passing. There was one particular part he really wanted to land, Billy the Kid.

James Dean in ‘Giant.'
James Dean in ‘Giant.’ Photo by Hollywood Photo Archive / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

He really enjoyed the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid and read it many times. His dream was to portray the outlaw on screen, and he would have been perfect for the role. Of course, he didn’t get to fulfill this dream during his short 24 years.

Paul Newman was Given His Part

Another one of Dean’s favorite books was Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Not only did he love reading the book, but he would frequently quote from it. Like most of us, James Dean also had an all-time favorite song, When Your Lover Has Gone by Billie Holiday.

Paul Newman and Pier Angeli in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me.’
Paul Newman and Pier Angeli in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me.’ Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Dean was meant to play the lead on Somebody Up there Likes Me. He signed on to the movie shortly before he died. Isn’t that a little creepy? Or a weird coincidence? Of course, the part needed to be recast and was ultimately given to Paul Newman. The movie was a good opportunity for Newman and really helped boost his acting career.

Making It Up on the Spot

Obviously, James Dean was known as a movie star, but he was also a star on the small screen. He once even co-starred with Ronald Reagan (future U.S. President at the time). Dean did a lot of live T.V. work, and he was known for improvising his lines; he often threw off everyone else in the cast.

James Dean leaning on his hand in a field
James Dean. Source: Shutterstock

Reagan wasn’t particularly impressed with his improvising habit; he was even quoted saying, “Just make him say the lines as they’re written.” But if you know anything about James Dean, nobody could make him do anything. He just lived in the moment and liked to have fun on set. Improvising was enjoyable for the handsome actor.

Pepsi Commercial

James Dean’s first acting job was in a commercial for Pepsi. He was paid ten whole dollars for the gig, but hey, you got to start somewhere. One of his fraternity brothers at UCLA decided to bring the aspiring actor to the audition with him after Dean landed a part in the school’s production of Macbeth.

James Dean
James Dean. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

After impressing the producer during the Pepsi commercial, he decided to bring the actor into Hill Number One, his T.V. project. Dean portrayed John the Apostle. Although it wasn’t a huge role, it helped him get his foot in the door. Plus, it led to his very first fan club and heartthrob status.

Fan Clubs and Odd Jobs

Some teenage girls from Los Angeles high school founded the “Immaculate Heart James Dean Appreciation Society.” They invited the actor to their first meeting, but of course, they never thought he would come. Not only did James Dean show up, but he signed autographs for his excited fans.

James Dean resting his head in the film ‘Giant.’
James Dean in ‘Giant.’ Photo by Floyd Mccarty / Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

At the start of his career Dean also had a few uncredited roles. He appeared in Fixed Bayonets! and Sailor Beware, a film starring some big Hollywood names, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. During this phase of his career, Dean also needed a day job. Before he was able to pay his bills with acting, he also worked as a parking lot attendant part-time.

Big City, Bigger Dreams

In 1951, Dean decided to drop out of school and move to New York to pursue a career in showbiz. He loved to act, and he was a natural. In addition to getting several T.V. roles, he also starred in two different Broadway productions. John Steinbeck, the author of the book East of Eden, personally approved Dean to star in the movie adaptation.

James Dean in an apron and Pat Hardy in ‘The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’ in 1951.
James Dean and Pat Hardy in ‘The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’ in 1951. Photo by Lewman Prods / Kobal / Shutterstock

But when Dean first moved to New York, he was still struggling to make ends meet. Luckily, there was a place on Sixth Avenue on 54th Street called Jerry’s Bar, where Dean ate for free. Jerry Lucci, the owner over there, really loved talking to Dean and having him around. If the restaurant was full, he gave Dean permission to eat in the kitchen.

Is It True About Dean?!

Off-screen, Dean’s relationship status, and sexual preferences were a hot topic of debate. He was briefly engaged to actress Pier Angeli, but many fans didn’t think it was real. A lot of people speculated that it was because James Dean was bisexual, but others believe that it was because the actor slept with other women.

James Dean and Pier Angeli circa 1950.
James Dean and Pier Angeli circa 1950. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Reports about his sexuality didn’t end there. There was one rumor going around that Dean’s first-ever sexual experience was with a minister who seduced him when he was a teenager. Of course, there is no way for us to confirm this allegation. He also briefly dated Liz Sheridan, known for her part as Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld.

Rebel Without a Cause

The rebel without a cause was also known for his smoking habit. Dean even had a cool trick for lighting a cigarette. He put an unlit cigarette and a flaming match in his mouth, and abracadabra, he opened his mouth, and the cigarette was lit. That sounds like a pretty cool magic trick, but don’t try this at home.

James Dean and Natalie Wood behind the scenes in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’
James Dean and Natalie Wood behind the scenes in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Back then, people weren’t as knowledgeable about the dangers of smoking. That wasn’t the only reckless thing Dean had done. Once at a Hollywood party, the actor put an apple on his head and dared an archer to shoot it off. Thankfully, the host of the party, Joan Davis, stopped the archer in time.

Musical Talents

James Dean had always been a very gifted young man. He was a talented actor, but he also enjoyed other forms of art. Dean was musically inclined. When he was a little kid, his mom gave him violin lessons, and he also loved playing bongos. I wonder if that was a hard instrument to learn. If his life wasn’t cut so short, we might have seen Dean start his own band at some point.

James Dean practicing ballet.
James Dean practicing ballet. Photo by Moviestore / Shutterstock

In addition to instruments, Dean started taking tap lessons when his mom signed him up at the tender age of the three. Even as a toddler, he loved to be on stage. He continued to dance as an adult and took ballet lessons. It’s like he was born to perform.

A Need for Speed

Since Dean loved to participate in all different kinds of activities, he found a new hobby in early 1955 – car racing. It’s not very surprising to find out he was pretty good at that too. In his first race ever, he came in second place. That day, he drove a Super Speedster in Palm Springs.

James Dean collecting a prize after a car race in California.
James Dean collecting a prize after a car race in California. Source: Shutterstock

But after he finally finished filming Giant, he traded the Speedster in for a Porsche 550 Spyder, which he called “Little Bastard.” While filming the movie, he was contractually not allowed to race. Many contracts don’t allow their leads to participate in risky activities; if they get injured, it can stall or ruin the movie. Unfortunately, nobody expected what would happen once his contract was up.

That Fatal night

On September 30th, 1955, the world lost a bright shining star. Dean’s Spyder and a Ford Tudor crashed on the intersection of Highways 41 and 46. Tragically, he died as soon as he got to the hospital. He suffered a broken neck and severe internal injuries. The crash was deemed an accident, and investigators were never able to figure out if Dean was speeding or not.

Page of the 'Fairmount News'
Page of the ‘Fairmount News’ Newspaper Article, Carrying the Story of the Death of James Dean in 1955. Photo By Kip Rano/Shutterstock

Rolf Wuetherich, his mechanic, was also in the car with him, but luckily, he survived. However, he did sustain serious head injuries, as well as a broken leg. Dean had a thriving career set right in front of him, but that ended in the blink of an eye. He was only 24 years old and owned the car for only one week.

Strange but True Facts

Dean got a speeding ticket just two hours before the tragic car accident. The ticket issued said that the actor was going 10 miles above the speed limit. The ticket also shows that he was set to appear in court a few weeks later due to the charge.

James Dean driving his Porsche.
James Dean driving his Porsche. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Famed auto customizer, George Barris, worked on the car and bought it after the devastating accident. Then, things got weird; rumors started circulating that the car was cursed. Barris explained that when the vehicle arrived at the shop, it rolled off the trailer and crushed an employee’s legs. Yikes! Do you think a car could be cursed? Or that this just a spooky coincidence? What’s even creepier is that nobody knows where the car is today.

The Haunted Car

Barris also revealed that at the time, someone broke into the shop and attempted to steal the steering wheel. However, he didn’t get very far because he slipped and broke his arm. It has also been reported that other individuals who bought parts of the car ended up getting into fatal crashes as well.

George Barris and his car designed for James Dean’s 50th-anniversary tribute
George Barris at James Dean’s 50th-anniversary tribute. Photo by Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

If that doesn’t freak you out, this might give you the chills. Actor Alex Guinness met Dean at a Hollywood restaurant right after he bought the Spyder. Guinness said he had a gut feeling and told Dean to stay away from that car. Reportedly, Guinness literally said: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” The young actor thought nothing of it, but that eerie premonition came true.

Still Nominated

Even though he didn’t win, Dean was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his part in East of Eden. This is the first time in Hollywood history when someone was nominated after their death. You may remember when another beloved actor was posthumously nominated for his incredible portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger.

James Dean in East of Eden.
James Dean in East of Eden. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Dean was nominated again for his role in the Giant. Unfortunately, he didn’t win that one either, but just being nominated is a huge honor. He was 24yearsold; imagine the greatness he could have accomplished if he was around longer and gained a bit more experience as an actor.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go

Remember when we mentioned how Dean didn’t care much about his appearance? Apparently, James Dean had some strange tendencies during the filming of Giant, his final film. Supposedly, he wore the exact same T-Shirt for two weeks straight. He would also show up late to set and randomly shoot at things. He also peed in front of everyone.

James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of ‘Giant’ in 1955.
James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of ‘Giant’ in 1955. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

Dennis Hopper, one of his co-stars on the movie, told a little story of what happened one day, “we were in Texas, and there were people lined up 100 ft. from where Jimmy was doing his first scene with Elizabeth [Taylor]. He walked halfway between where we were shooting and where the people were, unfastened his pants, peed, and then walked back into the scene and got it in one take.”

Fake Teeth

Unfortunately, James Dean wasn’t a stranger to accidents. He lost his two front teeth following a trapeze accident in the family barn. He actually wore fake teeth for the rest of his life. Sometimes he took them out in front of people while he was having conversations (I told you he didn’t much care about his appearance).

James Dean
James Dean. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Dean also liked to fabricate the story sometimes and told people he lost them in a motorcycle accident. Thanks to his acting talent, he probably fooled a lot of people. If only his final accident had resulted in losing a couple of teeth instead of losing his entire life. He still went down as a Hollywood legend.

Drive Safe, Kids

James Dean needed to get attention for his upcoming film Rebel without a Cause. To promote the movie, the actor was interviewed by an ABC reporter named Gig Young. During the interview, Dean spoke about safe driving. He told Young that he used to be a reckless driver but not anymore.

James Dean wearing glasses and a tuxedo
James Dean. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

“I used to fly around quite a bit, you know, I took a lot of unnecessary chances on the highway,” he explained. “Now, when I drive on the highway, I’m extra cautious.” He ended the interview with the eerie words, “drive safe.” This gives me the chills considering he died in a car accident. That interview has never been aired.

Lived the Fast Life

There are a lot of weird circumstances surrounding Dean’s death. Whether it’s the haunted car or promoting safe driving, it all feels very eerie. Well, it gets creepier. Dean’s last words before the accident are extremely chilling. Sources reported that Dean’s final words were, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us.”

James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ leaning against a wall and wearing a red jacket
James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ Photo by Hollywood Photo Archive / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

That was right before he collided into a car crossing over the centre line. It should be noted that when Rolf Wütherich (the other passenger) was interrogated in the coroner’s deposition, he didn’t remember the moments leading up to the accident. Apparently, his memory cleared up a few days later. The most heartbreaking part is that Dean had no idea what was about to happen.

Stunt Testing Job

We mentioned how James Dean worked odd jobs when he moved to New York. Before making it big, the future star needed a steady paycheck. He took on a job as a “stunt tester” for a game show called Beat the Clock. On the show, contestants were given a series of tasks to complete in a certain amount of time.

James Dean leaning against a wooden pole with a circular sign with the number three on it.
James Dean. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Producers wanted to make sure that these tasks were practical, so they needed people to test them out. Among these testers was James Dean. However, he completed the tasks way too rapidly and got fired. Isn’t the point to go fast? Apparently, it didn’t help the show much because his speed wasn’t average. He seems to have been above average in all the things he did.

James Dean Doesn’t Need to Learn his Lines

After the movie adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden, Dean really made a name for himself as an on-screen performer. However, he may have made things a little challenging for his fellow actors. Some of Dean’s methods complicated things for other actors on the set, according to Raymond Massey, one of his co-stars.

James Dean in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’
James Dean in ‘Rebel Without A Cause.’ Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

We already mentioned how the star liked to improvise, but apparently, Dean never learned his lines before showing up to the set. He frequently ignored things such as finding his marks or moving on cue. He also enjoyed preparing by himself, and when he was ready, he blew a whistle so everyone would know it was time for shooting. Wow, that actually sounds really obnoxious.

His Headstone Keeps Getting Stolen

James Dean was laid to rest in Park Cemetery in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. Apparently, the appeal of the star didn’t end when his life did. His headstone has reportedly been stolen. Someone took off with the tombstone in 1983, but fortunately, it was recovered. However, it was stolen again later that year.

A portrait of James Dean
James Dean. Photo by Bert Six / Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

The second time it was stolen, it remained missing until 1987 when it was found behind a fire station. The replacement marker was kept safe until 1998 when it vanished. A sheriff deputy randomly came across it. The sheriff was off duty and unintentionally found it on a country road. That’s lucky. What are the chances?

Could Have Lived?

After reviewing official documents related to Dean’s death, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter came to a shocking conclusion. Apparently, James Dean had a chance of surviving the high-speed car accident. As we know, the car crash took his life, but did it need to? As we know, Dean died due to injuries he sustained, most notably, his broken neck.

A photograph of James Dean with his hat hung up on a ranch
James Dean. Photo by Hollywood Photo Archive / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

Hunter claims that if paramedics had put a brace around his neck, the 24-year-old might have survived. Of course, his severe internal injuries could have been fatal as well. However, reports say he was breathing after the accident (though unconscious). His survival chances decreased when his broken neck wasn’t attended to correctly.

What Could Have Been?

Dr. Hunter revealed his claims in the documentary called Autopsy: The Last Hours of James Dean. He explained that when the ambulance was rushing to the hospital, it collided with another vehicle, which further injured Dean’s broken neck. According to Hunter, if he had a neck brace on, things could have turned out differently.

James Dean sitting on his Porsche
James Dean. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

An official investigation into his death concluded that James Dean was speeding and died from a broken neck. He also broke his upper and lower jaw, broke his arms and internal injuries. Unfortunately, we will never know for certain what could have happened. Do you think his death could have been avoided by a simple brace?

A Timeless Sex Symbol

James Dean built a reputation for himself as “Hollywood’s bad boy.” He was good looking, charming, and extremely talented. The cigarettes and risky behavior gave him a rebellious image, but he was still very lovable. Even though he died far too soon, he will be frozen in time as a 24yearold forever.

James Dean posing between statues of horses
James Dean. Photo by Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

We see many stars rise and fall in Hollywood. James Dean was still rising and certainly didn’t fall. He managed to earn a well-deserved legendary status through his short-lived career and has remained timeless.