The life and death of James Dean sent shockwaves through Hollywood that are still felt today. When he lived he was admired for his striking looks and naturalistic acting. When he died in 1955 at the age of 24 he became an icon, cut down in his prime with still so much to give.
Part of Dean’s power comes from the fact that two of his major big-screen roles, in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, were shown after his death. The intensity of those characters was matched by the sudden and violent manner of the car crash that killed him.
The incident occurred on September 30th. Dean and Rudolf Wütherich, a German racer and engineer, were burning rubber on the way to Salinas, California. They had reason to be in a hurry — Dean was developing another career as a racing driver, and a big race was taking place there.
Dean and Wütherich were in a Porsche 550 Spyder convertible, nicknamed “The Little Bastard” by the young star. The name was possibly appropriate, sharing the actor’s reputation for rubbing the establishment up the wrong way. A Mail Online article reporting on a 2014 James Dean season at BFI Southbank featured a recollection by the actor Dennis Hopper.
When filming East Of Eden, Hopper claimed that “before shooting Elia Kazan told the cast and crew that they were about to meet a young actor who might be strange and difficult, but would be ‘pure gold on screen.’ In walked Dean, issuing a volley of four-letter expletives. Raymond Massey, who was playing Dean’s father in the film, turned to Kazan and said, ‘What price is gold?’”
The lead up to the accident was similarly fraught, with an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come when the Porsche was stopped by a traffic cop. Approximately two hours before his death at 3.30 p.m. Dean was handed a speeding ticket in Bakersfield.
The ticket is unremarkable, save for the artful handwriting. It would escape many people’s attention were it not for what’s written next to ‘Driver’s Full Name’… one James Byron Dean.
A small article about the crash in the Springfield Union paper dated October 2, 1955 states that he was charged with “driving 65 miles an hour in a 45-mile zone of the winding grapevine grade ridge route road south of Bakersfield”.
Dean should have known better if only because of the public service announcement about road safety he’d shot alongside fellow actor Gig Young. According to Wütherich, the irony wasn’t lost on his friend.
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150 miles later a Ford Tudor driven by Donald Turnupseed, a student who was a year younger than Dean, made a left turn at an intersection on Route 466. Some believe the movie star’s Porsche came hurtling towards him at such a speed there was no stopping it.
The Springfield Union goes on to say that “Checking time of the citation with that of the fatal accident many miles to the north, officers reckoned the 24-year-old actor must have driven his… sports car all the way at an average speed of nearly 75 miles per hour.”
Witnesses at the scene thought Dean’s speed was reasonable and that Turnupseed was maybe at fault. Either way, Dean couldn’t brake in time and smashed into the side of the car. Miraculously the student escaped, relatively unscathed. As for the others, they didn’t fare well.
Wütherich was thrown from the car, double-fracturing his jaw, damaging his femur and tearing his hip. Dean’s extensive injuries, including a broken neck, meant he never stood a chance. His immortality in Hollywood had been achieved in the worst possible way.
Movie fans often wonder how his career would have progressed if he’d survived, or never stepped into the Porsche in the first place. Even so, James Dean’s image and performance are celebrated around the world, meaning something good came out of this terrible tragedy.
Steve Palace is a writer, journalist and comedian from the UK. Sites he contributes to include The Vintage News, Art Knews Magazine and The Hollywood News. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.