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James Dean: Biography of a Rebel Without A Cause

VO: Rebecca Brayton
James Byron Dean lived from February 8th, 1931 to September 30th, 1955. He rose to prominence for his incredible ability as a method actor, experimental way of living and high profile relationships. During the course of his short but remarkable life, he transformed into a cinematic legend that came to define an entire generation. Join as we learn more about the life and career of James Dean.

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James Dean: Biography of a Rebel Without A Cause

He was the original rebel without a cause. Welcome to, and today we’ll be learning more about the life and career of James Dean.

James Byron Dean was born February 8th, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. Dean’s close relationship with his mother was a sense of comfort to him during his somewhat turbulent youth; however, after his father relocated the family to California in order to find work, his mother died following a battle with cancer when he was only nine.

Dean was then sent to live on his aunt and uncle’s farm in Indiana. During this period he developed an interest in pursuits like car racing, bullfighting and – of course – theater. Though he was a below-average student, he did excel in sports like baseball and basketball.

After graduating high school, Dean reunited with his father in California. There, he enrolled at Santa Monica College to study pre-law, before transferring to UCLA to pursue his love of drama. Unfortunately, the decision to follow his passion caused an unexpected rift with his father.

Despite this tension, Dean worked hard to hone his skills. His talent was recognized when he beat out hundreds of other young hopefuls to win the part of Malcolm in a stage production of “Macbeth.” He also joined an acting workshop, and landed a spot in a Pepsi commercial. These early successes prompted him to drop out of college to seek full-time work in the arts.

Dean’s gamble paid off when he was cast in the television special “Hill Number One,” before he landed several minor parts in films like “Fixed Bayonets!,” “Sailor Beware” and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”

Despite these roles, Dean was still a starving actor who worked menial jobs to support himself. Because of his struggles, his mentors suggested he relocate to the Big Apple to find work.

While in New York, Dean was admitted to the Actors Studio and studied under Lee Strasberg. By performing hi several plays both on and off-Broadway, he also found the confidence to take on more dramatic parts.

Dean was in his way to stardom. His big break came when director Elia Kazan cast him as Cal Trask in his 1955 feature film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.”

In that film, Dean played a troubled young man in search of his own identity, while also competing with his brother for their father’s admiration. Dean is credited with lending the film much of its emotional impact by ignoring parts of the script and basing his improvised performance on pure instinct. One example of Dean’s influence was felt in the scene where his character tearfully hugs his on-screen father: the original script actually called for him to flee.

Dean’s role was so well-received he earned the first ever posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the part.

Even after only one film appearance, Dean had become famous as a symbol of 50s-era youth. He then starred in two more iconic films, each of which brought him more praise and recognition. The first of these was the generation-defining American drama “Rebel Without a Cause.” That story followed Dean’s rebellious Jim Stark as he entered a new high school and began to butt heads with the local bullies.

Dean’s next performance ultimately proved to be his last. Beside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, he went through a turbulent and exciting transformation from a simple Texas cowboy into an oil tycoon in “Giant.” He earned a second posthumous Oscar nomination for this part.

With just three major film roles under his belt, Dean was a well-loved superstar on his way to the top. That’s why his tragic death on September 30th, 1955 at the young age of 24 was such a shock to so many. This untimely accident occurred when a reckless motorist hit his Porsche Spyder head on.

James Dean’s life and career were the stuff of legend: a sudden rise to superstardom, a so-called “experimental take on life,” high-profile relationships, rumors of homosexuality, and the ability to truly personify the youth of his generation. Even today, James Dean is recognized and praised for his glorious, albeit short, moment in Hollywood.

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