James Dean was youth culture’s first modern anti-hero

Wavelengths By Jim Kempton
By Jim Kempton

“Dream as if you have forever. Live as if you have today.” —James Dean

“He’s got to see us.”

On Sept. 30, 1955, on a long straight stretch of Route 466 near Paso Robles, James Dean spoke those last dying words to his friend in the passenger seat as they hurtled out of Los Angeles en route to the road races in Salinas, California. The next day’s front page photos around the world showed the mangled remains of “Little Bastard, Dean’s Porsche whose 100-mph collision with an unwitting farm truck left him crushed on the steering column. He was 24.

Only days after completing work on Giant and with only two other films to his name (East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause) James Dean became a new cultural archetype; the defiant yet charismatic angry young man, the iconoclastic world-wounded rebel. He would be a defining inspiration for Elvis, Bob Dylan, Morrissey, The Clash, John Lennon (who noted that without Dean, “The Beatles would never have existed”) and successive generations of film actors. This dark, brooding, magnetic anti-hero could never have imagined the emotional effect his roles would have on the next half century.

For more than a year after his death, Dean received over 2,000 fan letters a week at Life Magazine, and Warner Brothers was still receiving 7,000 fan letters a month as late as 1957. When a bowling alley in Los Angeles decided to exhibit the remains of his Porsche, they sold 800,000 tickets—and would have sold a million—had they not cut off the offer. The cult that has grown out of his short life is staggering. Dozens of documentaries, biographies, TV programs, songs, fan clubs and a slew of products continue right to this day.

Dean was not only an extraordinarily gifted actor; he was a metaphor for the new youth culture that would become the baby boomer legacy—and his. Watching Dean’s roles today, one can’t help but marvel at the depth of his talent—and the power of his portrayals. His instinctive interpretations of the complexly confused Cal Trask in East Of Eden, the troubled, driven Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and the proud but deeply scarred Jett Rink in Giant mirrored the looming changes occurring in American society.

Dying so young sealed Dean’s fate as a cultural icon, but it was more than that. Call it timing or destiny, Dean’s emergence coincided with much of our identity today; our entire culture has embraced him as the original anti-hero who is the essential model of modern stardom. Dean did not see the farm truck pulling into his path, nor could he have ever foreseen the impact of his ground-breaking portrayals.

In 1977, a Dean memorial was erected in Cholame, California. The sculpture features a handwritten epitaph, one of Dean’s favorite lines from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Jim Kempton saw “Rebel Without a Cause” many years after the actor’s death, but like most young men his age he dreamed of being James Dean if for no other reason than to have driven a car with Natalie Wood.

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  • Correction, my Dear Mr. Kempton: Dean did not collide with a farm truck. He collided with a customized two tone black and white 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe, driven by 24 year old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed. Please check your facts.

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