80 Things You Didn’t Know About James Dean


There’s a chance that James Dean would have turned 80 years old today. There’s a chance that after starring in the three films that made him famous — East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant — Dean’s career would have waned. But these are only chances. What we know is that James Dean is dead; he died in a car crash at the age of 24. We also know that he is one of the most celebrated pop culture figures of all time, right up there with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. After the jump, learn more about the man whose brief life has come to represent what it’s like to be young and anxious in modern America.

1. Dean once said, “Being a good actor isn’t easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I’m done.”

2. While filming Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s director, Nicholas Ray, 44, had an affair with his costar, Natalie Wood, who was 16. Also, Sal Mineo, a closet homosexual who played the role of John “Plato” Crawford, was hopelessly in love with Dean.

3. As a child, Dean would disassemble and then reassemble his bicycle over and over again.

4. Dean told more than one friend that he did not expect to live past 30. When discussing the risk involved in racing cars, he said: “What better way to die? It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.”

5. Dean was once suspended from high school for three days after attempting to throttle a heckler during one of his readings for an upcoming acting competition.

6. Before he was famous, Dean would sleep in his car if he couldn’t afford rent, and go on dates with gay men to get a free meal.

7. Dean died before the release of his most well-known film, Rebel Without a Cause.

8. While shooting Giant, Dean wore the same shirt for two weeks straight without washing it.

9. In high school, Dean was a champion pole vaulter.

10. The first Broadway show Dean starred in, See the Jaguar, closed after only six days.

11. At a Hollywood party, Dean once put an apple on his head and told an archer to shoot it off with his bow and arrow. The host, Joan Davis, put an end to the dare just before the archer released the string.

12. A few weeks before his death, Dean appeared in a short public announcement about road safety, where he said, “Take it easy driving. The life you save might be mine.”

13. Dean kept a copy of The Little Prince on his nightstand and frequently quoted from it.

14. Dean claimed his middle name, “Byron,” came from the Romantic Poet, Lord Byron.

15. For a time, Dean dated Liz Sheridan, an actor who later become well-known for her role as Helen Seinfeld, Jerry’s mother on Seinfeld.

16. George Stevens, director of Giant, preferred to shoot each scene from a variety of locations. He quickly grew frustrated with Dean’s unwillingness to deliver the same performance twice.

17. More men than women have claimed to have slept with Dean.

18. Growing up, Dean enjoyed imitating the voices of radio personalities, such as Jack Benny and Bob Hope.

19. As a child, Dean knocked out his front teeth in an barn accident and had them replaced with a dental bridge. As an adult, Dean liked to remove the bridge and place it in the bottom of different people’s drinking glasses as a prank.

20. Martin Sheen once said, “…there was a saying that Marlon Brando changed the way actors acted, James Dean changed the way people lived. I believe that.”

21. The last time Dean signed his name was for a speeding ticket after being caught driving over 65mph in a 55mph zone.

22. In his senior year of high school, Dean joined the debate team, where he quickly became known for making up sources during competitions. He was caught on one occasion, but simply shrugged off his infraction.

23. Director Nicholas Ray filmed an alternative ending to Rebel Without a Cause where Dean’s character, Jim Stark, is shot and killed by the police.

24. As a child, Dean’s uncle, Marcus, rigged some light bulbs along a frozen pond so Dean and friends could continue playing hockey after dark.

25. When Dean first met Elia Kazan, who would go on to direct Dean in East of Eden, Dean offered to take him on a motorcycle ride. Kazan accepted.

26. George Stevens, director of Giant, banned Dean from racing while the film was in production. Just before the ban was enforced, Dean entered a Memorial Day race in Santa Barbara, where he blew a piston on the last lap while driving his Porsche Speedster.

27. Dean’s love of motor racing was sparked by his Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend James DeWeerd, who took him to the Indy 500 as a boy.

28. Dean was capable of instantly falling asleep, taking many naps throughout the day.

29. Dean was the first to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

30. As a boy, Dean won several prizes and medals for acting, including a trophy for recitation.

31. Dean had a passion for bullfighting.

32. Unlike previous directors, Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause, encouraged Dean’s wild behavior while shooting the film because he believed it suited Dean’s character, Jim Stark.

33. While Dean was preparing to film Rebel Without a Cause, one critic wrote, “Jimmy dresses like an unmade bed.”

34. Dean assumed he would eventually become bored with acting, and planned on becoming a director.

35. Dean once said, “The only way to make a scene realistic is to do it the way you know it would really happen.”

36. During his early days at college, Dean would carry around a dictionary because he wanted to engage in high-level conversations, but felt he lacked the vocabulary.

37. For a time, Dean hosted a few shows on his college radio station.

38. At UCLA, Dean joined the Epsilon Pi chapter of Sigma Nu, but was a reclusive member of the fraternity. He was kicked out soon after.

39. Dean’s role model was Marlon Brando.

40. In high school, Dean was a star basketball player.

41. As a child, Dean suffered from myopia, rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, nosebleeds, and listlessness. He was also diagnosed with anemia.

42. Dean delivered the benediction at his high school commencement.

43. Dean spent a great deal of his childhood on his uncle’s farm, where he swept the barn, fed the chickens, collected eggs, milked the cows, and planted seeds.

44. Al Pacino once said, “Actually, the person I related to was James Dean. I grew up with the Dean thing. Rebel Without a Cause had a very powerful effect on me.”

45. Dean was a founding member of his college’s jazz club.

46.) One of Dean’s favorite instruments to play was the bongo drums.

47. Marlon Brando was originally considered for the lead in Rebel Without a Cause, and even went through testing.

48. Dean once said, “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”

49. Dean had a difficult time reading.

50. Before shooting his first scene with Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, Dean was so nervous that he decided to unzip his pants and urinate in front of the whole cast and crew. When later asked to explain his eccentric behavior, Dean said that if he could do that, he could do anything with Taylor in front of the camera.

51. In the 4th grade, Dean once burst into tears before the whole class and blurted out “I miss my mother.” His mother, Mildred Wilson, had died of cancer when Dean was nine years old. Students who had teased Dean prior to the incident, stopped soon after.

52. As a teen, Adeline Brookshire, Dean’s acting teacher, described him as manipulative, capable of always getting his way.

53. When Dean first arrived in New York, he spent most of his time watching movies at the theater, sometimes up to three per day.

54. At a National Forensic League competition, Dean was penalized for going two minutes over the time limit. Dean had refused to shorten his piece because he believed this would compromise its integrity.

55. On a school trip to Washington DC, Dean broke away from the group to visit Ford’s Theatre, the place of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

56. Family members noticed that Dean had a pattern of getting completely absorbed in a new activity, and then he would suddenly drop it to move onto something else.

57. Dean nearly enrolled in Indiana University’s drama department, but decided against it when he found out majors were also expected to graduate with teaching certificates because the chances of becoming a professional actor were minimal.

58. Photographer Dennis Stock, who took the iconic images of Dean walking through Times Square and around New York City, once said of Dean: “He lived like a stray animal… come to think of it he was a stray animal.”

59. During the preview screenings for East of Eden, the instant Dean appeared on screen, girls would begin to scream.

60. Weeks before Dean’s death, artist Pegot Waring was teaching Dean how to sculpt. Waring grew frustrated with Dean’s endless questions, saying, “He wanted to know just about every single fact, idea, and theory that had been discovered by man clear back to the stone age.”

61. One of Dean’s first times acting in public was for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, where he demonstrated the evils of alcohol by portraying the ruined life of a drunk.

62. As a teen, Dean was a member of 4-H, and even won a blue ribbon for a soil project.

63. For most of his adult life, Dean was an insomniac.

64. The first time Natalie Wood, Dean’s love interest in Rebel Without a Cause, met Dean, she was immediately intrigued when he arrived at the first day of rehearsals through an open window rather than the front door.

65. When the press criticized Dean for being only 5’8″ tall, Dean responded by saying, “How can you measure acting in inches?”

66. On the final day of shooting for East of Eden, Dean was found sobbing in his dressing-room, saying, “It’s over.”

67. Dean’s father, Winton, was a Quaker whose lineage is believed to go back to the Mayflower.

68. Dean began taking tap lessons at the Marion college of Dance and Theatrical Arts at the age of three.

69. While struggling in New York, Dean would often eat for free at a place called Jerry’s Bar on Sixth Avenue at 54th Street because the owner, Jerry Lucci, liked having conversations with him. When the restaurant was full, Dean would eat his meal in the kitchen.

70. Dean got his lucky break and several acting gigs after entering a homosexual affair with Rogers Brackett, a radio director.

71. For a time, as a child Dean would write a wish on a piece of paper and put it under his pillow before he went to sleep. At night, his mother, Mildred, would read the wish and make it come true the next day.

72. The first time one of Dean’s closest friends, Bill Bast, saw Dean performing Shakespeare in college, Bast thought to himself, “James Dean: A name to forget.”

73. After appearing as the disciple John in an hour-long television program for Easter, students at Immaculate Heart High, a Catholic school for girls, created a James Dean Appreciation Society and invited the then 20-year-old actor to their inaugural meeting. Dean showed up and signed autographs.

74. It’s believed that Dean never entered the Korean War because he was a conscientious objector due to his Quaker upbringing.

75. When Dean and friends hitchhiked back to New York from Indiana, their last driver, a man from Texas with a big Cadillac, was so drunk that Dean had to drive in order to finish the journey.

76. In college, Dean and his roommate, Bill Bast, would talk girls into providing them with supper in exchange for original sketches and dramatic readings from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

77. After East of Eden, Dean wanted to play a psychopathic patient in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, but Warner Bros. prevented him from taking the role.

78. In college, for a time Dean became an avid fencer.

79. In all three of Dean’s major films, he played characters with monosyllabic names: Cal Trask, Jim Stark, Jett Rink.

80. A friend of Dean’s, David Diamond, once said Dean was the “loneliest person I ever knew.”