Afterlives of the Rich and Famous

James Dean

The brilliant, complex, and iconic actor James Dean, who managed to become a legend through a career that only lasted three short years, was born James Byron Dean on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. His father, Winton, was a dental technician. His mother, Mildred, was particularly close to her only child and yearned that he become a performer someday, seeing to it that he began learning tap dancing and the violin before he started kindergarten. Winton Dean moved with his wife and son to Santa Monica, California, when James was six years old. Three years later, in July 1940, Mildred died of cancer, and Winton, unable to care for James, sent him back to Indiana to live with his sister and brother-in-law, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, in Fairmount. James’s years in the Winslows’ Quaker household were fairly happy and unremarkable, filled with school, baseball, basketball, swimming, and drama classes.

He graduated from Fairmount High School on May 16, 1949, packed a bag and his beagle, Max, and moved back to California to live with his father and stepmother. After briefly focusing on prelaw at Santa Monica College, James followed his heart and transferred to UCLA to major in drama, signing up for additional classes at actor James Whitmore’s esteemed acting workshops. He dropped out of UCLA in July 1951 to devote all his energy to the pursuit of his career. His first professional appearances included a Pepsi commercial, an Easter television special called Hill Number One, bit parts in the films
Fixed Bayonets and Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, and a few lines of dialogue in the Dean Martin–Jerry Lewis comedy
Sailors Beware. To help make ends meet, he was a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios.

With the encouragement of James Whitmore, James moved to New York in October 1951 and appeared in several television series until he was admitted to the most prestigious theater school of its time, the Actors Studio, where he studied method acting under the great Lee Strasberg. His career escalated, with more television appearances and theater work, leading to his role on Broadway in The Immortalist in 1954.

It was James’s performance in The Immortalist that led director Elia Kazan to cast him as Cal Trask, the dark, emotionally troubled teenager in 1955’s East of Eden. His on-set behavior included changing the interpretation of his character at any given moment and challenging his cast mates, but his performance was so mesmerizing that he received an Academy Award nomination for his first leading role in a motion picture.

He was immediately hired to play Jim Stark, a defiantly sensitive teenage misfit aching to belong in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, costarring Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, and Natalie Wood. His brilliant interpretation of this complicated character raised him to heroic status among a young generation that related to Jim Stark’s angry desperation to be understood and accepted. James won the Best Actor Academy Award for Rebel Without a Cause—the first posthumous Oscar in Academy Awards history, as it turned out. His next and final film was Giant, with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. James completed the film, but died before it was edited, and he received another Best Actor Oscar nomination posthumously in 1956, the year the film was released.

Throughout the tragically brief course of his film career, James had begun buying himself a succession of cars with which to pursue his love of racing. He raced his Porsche 356 Speedster in Palm Springs, Bakersfield, and Santa Monica while filming
East of Eden, then traded the Speedster for a Porsche 550 Spyder during Rebel Without a Cause. His Giant contract prohibited him from racing, but when his work on that film had wrapped, he was free to compete in races taking place in Salinas, California. Legend has it that on September 23, 1955, the distinguished British actor Alex Guinness told James that the Porsche Spyder looked “sinister” and warned him, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”

Seven days later, on September 30, 1955, James Dean, driving west on what is now state route 46 near Cholame, California, collided head-on with a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe and was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 5:59 P.M., at the age of twenty-four. Contrary to decades of rumor, the officer on the scene noted that there was no indication that James was speeding at the time of the collision. He was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, after a funeral attended by three thousand people. To this day more than fifty thousand attend a festival in Fairmount dedicated to James Dean and held on the anniversary of his death, and Forbes Magazine estimates that his estate continues to earn approximately $5 million a year.

From Francine

James came Home at the exact instant of the collision and, he says, never felt a thing. He was greeted by a thrilled herd of animals, including his beloved Max, by his mother, and by a throng of friends from the Other Side. (Animals always are the first to arrive at reunions, by the way.) There were no friends from James’s previous incarnations, for the interesting reason that James had no previous incarnations. His brief lifetime as James Dean was his first trip to earth, which explains why he didn’t seem to live his life; he seemed to devour it. Because everything was new to him and he chose Experiencer as his primary theme (with a secondary theme of Loner), he had very few boundaries and tireless curiosity. In his words, “You name it, I wanted to try it. Acting? Great! Drugs? Great! Sex? Great! Racing? Great! I didn’t intend to hang around for very long anyway, so saying no honestly just didn’t occur to me.”

He came away from the Scanning Machine shaking his head in amazement at his years on earth, the good and the bad. One of the many things he marveled at was that he had any career at all, not due to a lack of talent—he was pleased with his performances—but due to some of his behavior. He mentioned a television audition early in his career when he actually dozed off while meeting with the casting director. “She was such a nice woman that she assumed I was exhausted from bartending till all hours of the night. I didn’t have the heart to break it to her that I was falling asleep because I was stoned.” As for his sexuality, he never grasped the concept that his career could be compromised by it one way or the other. “If I wanted to have sex with someone and they wanted to have sex with me, I didn’t see why it mattered.” He also carefully studied his deep sensitivity, which he felt often manifested itself in moodiness and the occasional need to “shut everyone out,” typical of the Loner theme. “I showed up with no calluses, from never having been there before,” is his way of putting it. “I was easy to bruise, and I didn’t always handle it well. I’ll do better next time.” In other words, he does intend to reincarnate, in 2017. He’ll be an actor again, but next time he wants to “work hard, play it safe, have a wife and kids, and live till I’m ninety.”

He had no need for Orientation or cocooning and instead immediately returned to his happy, busy life here, which he says will come as no surprise to anyone—he’s a valued member of one of our teams of engine designers, developing motor vehicles fueled by something to do with common crops that will produce no pollutants and make farming a reliably successful vocation again.
He’s resumed the acting classes that prepared him for his incarnation as James Dean, taught by an actor named William Rowley, he’s a voracious reader of historical biographies, and he loves horseback riding on the trails near his Craftsman-style house in the mountains, where he lives alone.

He was among the first to welcome Home his old friends Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, and Sal Mineo, and he wants his friends in Indiana to know that he never misses the Fairmount festival.

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