Rebel Without a Cause: James Dean

An older picture of Dean’s Grave – due to visitors, the “J” is almost gone from people rubbing the stone

To say it was raining when Zech and I arrived in Gas City, Indiana would be an understatement. The walls of water prevented us from seeing more than ten feet in front of us and the wind rocked the vehicle wildly. Finding a place to get off the road, I pulled into a parking lot to wait out the red cell.

Once the storm passed through, we ventured out again and headed through Gas City. Not familiar with the history of area, I was surprised to see a large Garfield statue standing guard near the entrance of the local library. I had not realized that Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comic, was from this same area.

But we arrived to visit the grave of another James who called the area hometown.

Passing through the community, we took Fairmount Avenue south towards the community of the same name. As we arrived at the cemetery, Zech asked. “How are we going to find him in a cemetery this large?”

The answer was simple. As we entered the cemetery, a sign announced the way to his grave – stay to the right, take second drive. In a matter of seconds, we had arrived at the gravesite of an actor taken from the silver screen at a young age.

We got out of the vehicle and walk over to the grave of James Dean, who was just feet from the roadway. We stood there in silence. Zech finally broke the silence when he asked,” Who’s James Dean?”

James Byron Dean was born February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. At a young age, Dean’s father moved the family to Santa Monica, California. When Dean’s mother died of cancer, James was sent back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle. When Dean graduated high school in 1949, he moved back to California to attend Santa Monica City College. He eventually transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in theater. He never graduated, but dropped out to pursue professional acting.

Dean’s first acting roles were in television commercials and would make uncredited appearances in Fixed Bayonets! (1951) and Sailor Beware (1952). During this time, Dean would appear in minor roles on various television shows.

In 1955 James appeared in the first of the three films he starred in – East of Eden. Many of Dean’s scenes were unscripted improvisations and Dean’s personal turmoil of trying to appease his estranged father made him ideal for the role of Cal Trask. He would be nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal, making Dean the first actor to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.

His next role was Jim Stark in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, the role which most people identify James Dean as playing. Dean once again found himself portraying a young man at odds with his parents. He would co-star with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Nick Adams. Note: More about Natalie Wood can be found here: Natalie Wood.

His final role would be in Giant (1956). He starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the epic. But his death before filming was finished in 1955, left his friend Nick Adams to step in for the final shots, whose scenes were mostly with his back towards the camera or in the distance so it was not revealed that Adams was standing in for his dead friend. Dean would posthumously receive an Academy Award nomination for this role. Note: More about Nick Adams can be found here: Nick Adams.

James Dean would be the first to die in what many call “The Curse of Rebel Without A Cause.” The so-called “curse” had received attention because of the characters of the film having died at a young age in mysterious ways. The three main actors, Dean, Wood, and Mineo – along with co-star Adams – all died due to this “curse.”

On Friday, September 30, 1955, Dean would be the first of these actors to die. That day Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, were driving Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, known as “Little Bastard,” to a weekend race in Salinas, California. Around 5:45 pm, as Dean sped southward on Route 466 in Cholame, California, when they collided with a vehicle driven by Donald Turnipseed. Wutherich was thrown from the Spyder as it flipped through the air – though seriously injured, he survived. Dean was killed almost immediately – he was just twenty-four years old and had owned “Little Bastard” for just nine days.

We finished paying our respects as another vehicle pulled into the cemetery and paused at the sign that directed visitors to Dean’s grave. Knowing others had waited out the storm to pay their respects to the young actor whose roles captured a generation, we finished our time at his resting spot as the vehicle pulled in behind us and the older couple stepped out to take their spot before the grave of the actor.

Note: In the aftermath of the death of James Dean, the Porsche Spyder has become a part of American folklore. According to legend, most of Dean’s friends warned him to stay away from the car. The most popular story is Alec Guinness warned Dean if he got into the vehicle he would be dead within a week.

After the crash, it was purchased by George Barris, who loaned it to the California Highway Patrol, who displayed it to discourage speeding. Barris would sell the engine to Troy McHenry and William Eschrid, two physicians who also were racing enthusiasts, and the two surviving tires to a young New Yorker.

On October 21, 1956, the two doctors were at a race in at the Pamona Fairgrounds in Los Angeles when McHenry’s Porsche Spyder hit a tree, killing the doctor instantly. While it was never determined if the engine was the same one that had been in “Little Bastard,” most believe it was the same engine.

According to legend the New Yorker who bought the tires was injured when both tires blew out at the same time.

In an attempt to make money, the Porsche Spyder went on tour around the United States so James Dean’s mourning fans could see the vehicle that robbed them of their idol. Just some of the stories involved with the vehicle included: a man seriously cut his arm while attempting to steal the vehicle’s steering wheel; while being stored in a Fresno, California garage, the garage caught fire and destroyed the building; at least two fatal accidents involving the trucks transporting it happened; and while it was being displayed in New Orleans the car simply fell to pieces.

After the incident in New Orleans, Barris ordered the remaining parts of the Spyder to be shipped back to California. Somewhere along the way, the car vanished.

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