James Byron Dean was an American film actor. He is a cultural icon best embodied in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without a Cause, in which he starred as troubled Los Angeles teenager Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his stardom were as loner Cal Trask in East of Eden, and as the surly farmer Jett Rink in Giant. Dean’s enduring fame and popularity rests on only these three films, his entire output in a starring role. His death in a car crash at an early age cemented his legendary status.
He was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and remains the only person to have two posthumous acting nominations. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Dean the 18th best male movie star on their AFI’s 100 Years?100 Stars list.
James Dean was born on February 8, 1931, at the Seven Gables apartment house in Marion, Indiana to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. Six years after his father had left farming to become a dental technician, James and his family moved to Santa Monica, California. The family spent several years there, and by all accounts young Jimmy was very close to his mother. According to Michael DeAngelis, she was “the only person capable of understanding him”. He was enrolled at Brentwood Public School in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles until his mother died of cancer when Dean was nine years old.
Unable to care for his son, Winton Dean sent James to live with Winton’s sister Ortense and her husband Marcus Winslow on a farm in Fairmount, Indiana, where he was raised in a Quaker background. Dean sought the counsel and friendship of Methodist pastor Rev. James DeWeerd. DeWeerd seemed to have had a formative influence upon Dean, especially upon his future interests in bullfighting, car racing, and the theater. According to Billy J. Harbin, “Dean had an intimate relationship with his pastor. which began in his senior year of high school and endured for many years.” In high school, Dean’s overall performance was mediocre, however was a popular school athlete having successfully played on the baseball and basketball teams and studied drama and competed in forensics through the Indiana High School Forensic Association. After graduating from Fairmount High School on May 16, 1949, Dean moved back to California with his beagle, Max, to live with his father and stepmother. He enrolled in Santa Monica College and majored in pre-law. Dean transferred to UCLA and changed his major to drama, which resulted in estrangement from his father. He pledged the Sigma Nu fraternity but was never initiated. While at UCLA, he beat out 350 actors to land the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. At that time, he also began acting with James Whitmore’s acting workshop. In January 1951, he dropped out of UCLA to pursue a full-time career as an actor.