Honoring James Dean, 50 Years after His Death Actor James Dean died in a car crash on a rural road in central California 50 years ago this Friday. He was just 24, and even though he had only acted in three movies he was considered a superstar. His death may have served to add to his legend.
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Honoring James Dean, 50 Years after His Death

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Honoring James Dean, 50 Years after His Death

Honoring James Dean, 50 Years after His Death

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

`Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse,' a phrase often associated with the late actor James Dean. He died at age 24 in a car crash. Today is the 50th anniversary of his death. DAY TO DAY's Steve Proffitt has this report on the actor's undying legend.

(Soundbite of "Rebel Without a Cause")

Mr. JAMES DEAN (Actor): (As Jim Stark) Mom, a boy--a kid was killed tonight! I don't see how I can get out of that by pretending that it didn't happen!

STEVE PROFFITT reporting:

James Dean from the 1955 film "Rebel Without a Cause." By the time audiences saw the movie, Dean was dead, killed in a car crash in the central California town of Cholame.

Mr. MARCUS WINSLOW (James Dean's Cousin): On September 30th, 1955, at approximately 5:45 PM, Jimmy's life came to an abrupt and sorrowful end.

PROFFITT: That's Marcus Winslow, James Dean's cousin, at a ceremony this week in Cholame, where officials dedicated a pair of road signs marking the site of his death as The James Dean Memorial Junction.

Mr. WINSLOW: In '55 it was a rural intersection. The lanes were just 10 feet across. So since then it's been rechanneled and widened for safety. It's always been a dangerous place.

PROFFITT: Warren Beath is a high school teacher in nearby Bakersfield who spent most of his life trying to understand the Dean mystique. The author of a book called "The Death of James Dean," he's been collecting evidence and ephemera about the accident for 35 years, things like a copy of a public service film Dean made with actor Gig Young. Its theme: safe driving.

(Soundbite of public service film)

Mr. DEAN: Take it easy driving. You know, the life you might save might be mine.

(Soundbite of engine)

PROFFITT: By 1955, James Dean had developed a passion for auto racing. On the day he died he was driving a hot lot little German sports car, a Porsche 550 Spyder with an aluminum body and an engine just behind the two seats, heading to Salinas, where he planned to race the Spyder for the first time. Warren Beath.

Mr. WARREN BEATH (Author; High School Teacher): He came out of those hills to the east, and it's a pretty steep decline and probably revved it up, passed a car, ran another car off the road, and perhaps in that moment of distraction he lost his concentration, and a college student coming from the other direction turned in front of him. They collided. And I believe Dean was killed instantly.

PROFFITT: And that college student was Donald Turnupseed.

Mr. BEATH: Donald Turnupseed of Tulare, a Navy veteran who was going to school and had a pregnant wife at home.

PROFFITT: Donald Turnupseed never spoke about the accident, never granted an interview, and died in 1995. The legend of James Dean, meanwhile, just grew and grew. I meet Jeff Hodgson(ph), who's driven up on a silver Harley. He's a 30-something fireman from the San Diego area and he builds tiny scale models of the crash site.

Mr. JEFF HODGSON: I have the crashed version of James Dean's 550 Spyder and crashed version of the car that hit him, which was a 1950 Ford two-door driven by Donald Turnupseed.

PROFFITT: Like Dean fans before him and probably after him, Jeff thinks of the actor as, well, more than a an actor. To Jeff, Dean is a presence, one that's very real.

Mr. HODGSON: It's my responsibility in some ways to kind of further on the legend. That's exactly what he wanted. And I kind of feel like I'm a disciple, and...

(Soundbite of car engine revving)

Mr. VICTOR BINDT(ph): Well, I got a '55 Porsche Spyder replica, and I built it just like James Dean and I put the 130 on it and...

PROFFITT: Victor Bindt is another Deaniac. His full-size car is a perfect replica, right down to the name Dean had painted on the rear of the Spyder, `Little Bastard.'

Why did you do this?

Mr. BINDT: I love James Dean. I mean, I became a fan in '55 and so I got a '49 Mercury like "Rebel Without A Cause" and I wanted to build a Spyder also. I think Jimmy'd be proud of it. I think what I've done, he's proud of that.

PROFFITT: What is this living connection to an actor who died 50 years ago, just a kid really, only 24? Obviously, a big part of it is that he was a hero cut down in his prime. He made just three films: "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant," the last two released after his death. Writer Warren Beath says had James Dean not met such an early end, he would've lived on only to disappoint.

Mr. BEATH: Like Brando and the rest of them, maybe, you know, become a fat actor in self-indulgent vehicles. And I think you were seeing even at the end of "Giant" the sort of limitation of his talent as he tried to portray someone who was older. And what he did, he did better than anyone, but that's part of the enigma and mystery. We'll never know what really he was capable of.

PROFFITT: Beath likens Dean to the great Romantic poet John Keats, who also died in his 20s.

(Soundbite of engine revving)

PROFFITT: But Keats is probably not on the mind of most people who make the pilgrimage to Cholame. Watching and talking with them, you begin to understand that their connection with Dean is more than an appreciation for a cool, good-looking guy who personified the struggles of growing up in the '50s. It's more than the image of a take-no-prisoners bad boy, or even the natural human nostalgia for times past, because in death, James Dean never had to lose his hair, never had to lose his cool and, 50 years after that car crash in Cholame, he has something we'll never have again: our youth. For NPR News, I'm Steve Proffitt.

BRAND: Pictures from this story on our Web site, npr.org.

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