“Jim Stark”* – You Were A Big Hit! by Mike Thies

*James Dean’s role in Rebel Without A Cause    "Dream as if you'll live forever, and live as if you'll die today." – James Dean

James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, IN.  He went to school for a time in Santa Monica, but went back to Indiana after his mother died, where he finished high school.  Myth and truth were mixed early for Dean as it told that his interest in racing and acting stemmed from a very “close” relationship he had with a local Indiana church pastor. The rumors were not favorable.

After high school he went back to California where he went of college to UCLA to study acting. He didn’t stay in school long, quitting as soon as he got a part in a Pepsi Cola commercial.  His first speaking part was in a Jerry Lewis comedy, and to make ends meet, Dean worked as a parking-lot attendant at CBS Studios, where he met Rogers Brackett, a director who became his mentor.  Roger got him into New York’s Actors Studio in 1951 where his career began to pick up.  He worked in some 1950s television shows like Omnibus and Kraft Television Theatre.  It was in 1954, his success in theatre and TV led to interest from Hollywood.

Over the next 18 months, Dean starred in three major motion pictures! First, the East of Eden Director Elia Kazan chose Dean for a role after Dean met with John Steinbeck, the writer, who thought he was perfect for the part. As a “Method Actor”, Kazan allowed Dean to have many scenes in the film to be unscripted improvisations. He was later nominated for an Oscar for this movie.  He was the first actor in history to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination. Dean then starred as the troubled teenager, Jim Stark, in Rebel Without a Cause. It was this role that truly endeared him to the American youth culture and defined his image.  His last movie was a role in Giant, playing an older, oil-rich Texan. It was released after his death.

His short, highly successful career and his tragic demise gave the backdrop for the numerous stories, myths and fictions told about Dean. With him not being there to clear up any fabrications, misperceptions and misunderstandings, it is hard to know what is true and what is not. For over 50 years, since his death in a car crash on September 30, 1955, he has been portrayed as a daredevil driver who’s speeding and recklessness on the road caused his own death.

It is agreed by all that he loved cars and racing and admitted that speed was a thrill for him. However, he was a well trained race driver and even raced professionally for some sponsors on weekends. He loved motors and owned both cars and motorcycles. His Uncle Marcus bought him his first motorcycle, a 1947 Czech Whizzer. Ultimately, his collection included an English cycle, a Harley, a 500cc Norton, an Indian 500, an Italian Lancia scooter and a British Triumph T-110, which had "Dean's Dilemma" painted on the side.

His first car was a used 1939 Chevy his father bought him. In 1954 he bought a red MG and later purchased a white ’55 Ford station wagon with wood paneling. Early in 1955 he bought his often photographed Porsche 356 Speedster convertible; and in September 1955 he bought the infamous silver Porsche 550 Spyder.  On the back end of the car, he commissioned car customizer George Barris to paint his nickname "Little Bastard," the nickname he got from his dialogue coach on Giant.  The car has a race number 130.

One of the myths is that he was driving the 356 Speedster when he crashed. Actually, he was on his way to a race in Salinas, CA with his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, towing the 550 Spyder, “Little Bastard”, in which he planned to race.  Somewhere along the way they stopped and decided to drive the car the rest of the way, for the fun of driving it.   While driving along Route 466, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed suddenly turned his Ford Custom in front of them. The two cars collided almost head-on, flipping the Spyder in the air and landing it on its wheels in a gully. Dean was killed almost immediately. He was 24.

The common myth is that Dean, with Rolf Wütherich in the car, was driving very fast, in excess of 90 miles an hour, while other myths say that he wasn’t even driving.  Rolf survived the cash but was very badly injured and hospitalized for months after.  He was one person who could have solved the enduring mystery, but when he recovered he returned to his native Germany and never would talk of the crash. He died in another car crash in 1981. Subsequent research indicated that, whoever was driving was not speeding, and most agree that it was Donald Turnupseed who caused the crash. 

Some of the great “bar” tales involving James Dean, are about what happened to James Dean’s car, the “Little Bastard”.  After the crash, George Barris, who painted the name on the car, bought the wrecked vehicle for $2500 and soon after it reportedly slipped off a tow trailer and broke a mechanics leg.  Barris soon loaned the wrecked car to the California Highway Patrol to use as a drivers safety exhibit. From there the tales vary greatly, depending on who is telling the story and how much they may have drunk.  Some have parts being sold and contributing to other deadly crashes in other cars, including exploding tires, etc.  They call it the “Curse Of  The Little Bastard.”  It doesn’t appear that there is a reliable or creditable history written yet.  What is true however, adding significantly to the mystery, is that while the CHP was transporting he car to be returned to George Barris, it has disappeared!  We may never know.

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