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James Dean Unforgettable Even 50 Years After Death

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James Dean Unforgettable Even 50 Years After Death

James Dean Unforgettable Even 50 Years After Death

James Dean Unforgettable Even 50 Years After Death

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of James Dean. NPR's Bob Mondello has a remembrance of the actor who became an icon after making only three movies.


This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of James Dean, Hollywood's `rebel without a cause.'

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. JAMES DEAN: You're tearing me apart!

Unidentified Woman: What?

Mr. DEAN: You, you say one thing. He says another. And everybody changes back again!

BLOCK: Even though James Dean made only three movies, he became one of Hollywood's biggest icons after dying at 24 in a car crash. A box set of his films has just been released, digitally restored with extras, including screen tests, documentaries and even a soft drink commercial that was Dean's first appearance on film. This weekend more than 100,000 people are expected to descend on the town where he was born--Marion, Indiana--for a James Dean Festival. Bob Mondello has this remembrance.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

"East of Eden" introduced James Dean to the world as Cal Trask, throwing stones at his mom's window, tossing huge blocks of ice at his dad. He was teen rebellion made flesh, awkward, moody and basically still a kid.

(Soundbite of "East of Eden")

Mr. DEAN: Let me talk to you, please. I've gotta talk to you.

MONDELLO: For a teen rebel, Dean seems awfully innocent when you look at "East of Eden." It's hard to believe how vulnerable he was, those liquid eyes, the shy smile surfacing hesitantly as if he's sure he'll be hurt, looking for parental love with such naked yearning.

(Soundbite of "East of Eden")

Mr. DEAN: Drop something to eat! Drop something to eat, please. Mother!

MONDELLO: Today exposing so much emotion would be decidedly uncool, but in an age when Mickey Rooney was Hollywood's idea of a teen-ager, Dean was the essence of cool, whether you wanted to love him or to be him. He was ever the rebel, causes be damned.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. DEAN: You are not going to use me as an excuse again.

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't.

Mr. DEAN: Every time you can't face yourself, you blame it on me.

Unidentified Woman #1: That is not true.

Mr. DEAN: You say it's because of me, you say it's because of the neighborhood.

Unidentified Woman #1: No.

Mr. DEAN: You use every other phony excuse. Mom, I just--once I want to do something right, and I don't want you to run away from me again. Dad...

Unidentified Man #1: This is all going too fast for me.

Mr. DEAN:'re going to give me something, you'd better give me something fast.

MONDELLO: Dean was a comet streaking through Hollywood's firmament of stars. He didn't have time to fail or dim or disappoint. Other screen icons--say, Humphrey Bogart--worked for decades and made dozens of films. Even River Phoenix, who seemed a latter-day Dean when he died in his early 20s, made 16 movies. Dean's film career barely lasted 16 months, just three pictures, but such an impression he made, an impression press agents tried to reinforce by painting him as a rebel off-screen, too. But if you read his letters to a much younger cousin, you see a different side of him. `Have your daddy help you read this,' he urges in a thank-you note to little Marcus for some drawings. `I beg of you, please do not draw buildings of confinement: jails, castles, zoos. Anyone at all can draw guns and barred gates with locks on them. Rather, draw tools, things that build. They're harder to draw because they were harder to grow.' With rebels like this, you could build a better world.

(Soundbite of "Giant")

Mr. DEAN: My welcome ...(unintelligible). (Laughs)

Unidentified Man #2: Fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, that's wonderful, Jett.

Mr. DEAN: Everybody thought I had a duster? You all thought I would spin the top and ol' Burt and Burnett(ph) was the only ones, didn't you? Well, I'm here to tell you it ain't, boy. It's here. And there ain't a dang thing you're going to do about it.

MONDELLO: In "Giant," his last film, Dean was an important but secondary player. He finished his final scene and decided, fatefully, to drive his new Porsche 550 Spyder from LA to Salinas, where he was hoping to race it the next weekend. Watching "Giant" today is weird because the film's story spans more than three decades, and its stars, all then in their 20s, grow old. There in the last few scenes are the Rock Hudson we remember from his later years, gray and tired, and Elizabeth Taylor, matronly in a more slender way than she managed in real life, and James Dean, hairline receding, cheeks hollow, skin leathery, eyes narrowed to slits. The character he's playing was an alcoholic, so Hollywood's makeup artists did their worst and showed audiences what real life never would, the wizened old guy who would have somehow betrayed the promise of his youth on TV's "Dynasty" maybe or in a John Waters movie or just by growing old. Rebellion fades; Dean did not. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. DEAN: No! Don't turn on the lights. Don't. You--it's too bright. Please do--turn out the lights!

Unidentified Woman #3: Jim! Jim!

(Soundbite of music; gunshots)

Mr. DEAN: God! I got the bullets!

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: Let him alone.

Unidentified Man #4: Who are you?

Unidentified Man #5: Come on, get out of here.

Unidentified Man #6: All right, fellas. All right, Lieutenant.

(Soundbite of music)


BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): And I'm Michele Norris. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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