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Remembering James Dean, Part One: 
From Method Actor to Screen Idol


February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955

"Dream what you want to dream, go where you want to go, be what you want to be," James Dean has been quoted as saying. "Because you have only one life and one chance to do all the things you want to do." Another time, he stated, "The only success, the only greatness is immortality."
By that standard, Dean has achieved immortality. Long after his untimely death in 1955, the fascination with Dean lives on. It’s almost unthinkable, given the boldly handsome images we have of the actor, that on February 8, 2018, the forever young Dean would be turning 87.
Most tend to think Dean made only three films: Elia Kazan's production of Steinbeck's East of Eden, Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause, and George Steven's production of Edna Ferber's Giant— all shot within 18 months from 1954-1955. But he'd long been paying his dues for quite a while.

Dean, an only child, was born in Marion, Indiana, but early on the family relocated to Los Angeles. Friends have noted how close he was to his mother. When she died of uterine cancer, he became a lost child. His father sent him to live on the Fairmont, Indiana farm of his Quaker aunt and uncle. Sources close to the family reported that Dean “came under the influence of a Methodist minister and became engaged in a sexual relationship for several years.”

He was active in high school sports, was in a drama class, and competed in debate. Following graduation, he returned to California and enrolled in college with a major in pre-law. He transferred to UCLA, changing his major to drama. Dean acted in college, but dropped out after a semester. He did readings, workshops, and made the rounds auditioning. Friends said he “always stood out as someone uniquely different” and casting directors didn’t know what to think of him “because of intensity.”
He worked countless jobs, including being a parking attendant, until he finally got a break doing commercials. His first speaking role was in a TV Easter special where he played a disciple; then, was cast to play Malcolm in Macbeth. This led to an invite to join James Whitmore’s acting workshop.

From 1951-1953, he had uncredited roles in five features. In 1951, Dean became bi-coastal. In New York, he was a hit with the Bohemian crowd in Greenwich Village, where he frequented the coffee houses and jazz clubs. He hung with actors at Rockefeller Center’s long-gone Cromwell’s drug store who were auditioning for NBC Television. He secured a behind-the-scenes job in TV, but was soon in front of the camera. In the age of live TV dramas, he co-starred in over 20 programs and a made-for-TV movie.


Constantly told he was “unique” and “different,” Dean became convinced that the Actors Studio was the one place he'd fit in. He began showing up and, according to the late Eli Wallach, hung around so much that he was granted membership. 

Dean wrote to his father Winton and aunt and uncle that "It's the greatest school of the theater. It houses people like Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Arthur Kennedy, and Mildred Dunnock." He noted that "very few get into it" and that "It is the best thing that can happen to an actor." He was one of the youngest to be accepted.

He performed with Brando, future co-stars Harris and Carroll Baker [respectively, East of Eden and Giant], Herbert Berghof, and became not only quite close to but also quite attracted to Montgomery Clift, and mesmerized by a young Marilyn Monroe.
Wallach knew something of method acting. He studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner before becoming a charter member of the Studio at its founding in the late 40s by Kazan [later joined by Lee Strasberg. He spoke in glowing terms about Dean: "We knew we were in the presence of a blithe spirit, someone unique."

Martin Landau, who met Dean there, said, "As young actors, we walked the streets, talking about theater and wondering about our next job; reading books and discussing them; seeing plays and films; doing workshops; and being serious about the thing we loved: acting. Jimmy and I had an amazingly instant rapport … We became part of a sort of a surrogate family."
Colleagues were in awe of Dean’s "uniqueness, extreme concentration, and exceptional imagination." Dean, however, was in awe of Brando. 

The techniques he learned at the Studio enabled him to make even minor roles his own.  Dean made his Off-Broadway debut in 1953, in the short-lived The Scarecrow (seven performances) at the Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in a cast that included Wallach, Anne Jackson (Mrs. Wallach), 22-year-old Bradford Dillman, Albert Salmi, and Tony winner Patricia Neal. Directing was Frank Corsaro, later an esteemed opera director [who was the original director of Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar, until sidelined by an automobile accident].

In an interview, Neal said, "Jimmy was an unknown, but was jolly good in every way — such a refreshing presence. We immediately bonded at the first reading. I knew he was born to become an actor. But I also quickly learned you never knew what to expect from him. Playing opposite him wasn’t always easy." 

In fact, he soon became a director’s nightmare – thinking his instincts and insight into character were better than theirs. Usually, he was right.

DeanJaguar2Next, came Broadway. His debut was in N. Richard Nash's 1952 play See the Jaguar at the Cort Theatre – co-starring with Arthur Kennedy, Constance Ford, and Cameron Prud'homme.  The play closed after five performances. Playwright Nash was later famous for The Rainmaker and the musical Wildcat.

Betsy Palmer, stage/screen/TV actress, acted in live TV with Dean. Not only that, but she revealed they had an eight month affair – she even lived with him -- before her 1954 marriage. “Jimmy was very mercurial,” said Miss Palmer, who passed in 2015 at 88. “He could be very high and he could be very, very low. He could be very sweet and he could be very, very funny. And he could be very nasty. He was all of those things and you never were quite sure just how the lay of the land was going to be.  On set, Jimmy took so much time to do all these nuances, and only he seemed to know what they meant. The viewing audience may have caught it and might not. He had an inner story going on. That’s what made Jimmy the most fascinating performer he was.”   

Dean was back to TV in 1954. On the General Electric Theatre, hosted by future California Governor and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, he performed live opposite Mr. Reagan in Dark, Dark Days. “Jimmy was an intelligent young actor who seemed to live only for his work,” Mr. Reagan recalled. “He was completely dedicated and although a shy person, he could hold a good conversation on many wide-ranging subjects. He was at the top of his game. You always knew you were with a formidable presence.”

Mr. Reagan was instrumental in bringing Dean back on the program to star in I’m a Fool opposite Eddie Albert, Roy Glenn [an early African-American on TV shows and later a long-working character actor] and 16-year-old Natalie Wood, with whom he was to spend a lot more time with.

The same year, onstage, Dean was cast in The Immoralist, directed by Daniel Mann; and adapted from the French Nobel Prize winner Andrè Gide’s 1902 controversial autobiographical novel [set in Normandy and North Africa] by Augustus and Ruth Goetz (The Heiress). Producing was none other than Billy Rose. Dean appeared opposite suave French idol Louis Jourdan, making his Broadway debut, and Geraldine Page, in her second Broadway outing. They portrayed a couple honeymooning in Tunis, as the husband recuperates from tuberculosis.

While Dean and Page hit it off immediately, Jourdan complained to Mann that Dean, ever exasperating, “ignored his blocking and was a distraction moving about the stage a lot and upstaging me.” He may have been peeved that Dean, in the role of an as a "pandering an Arab houseboy and prostitute, got better reviews. Mann spoke to Dean, but it did little good. The Frenchman and the rebel only spoke onstage. It wasn’t an ideal situation because Jourdan’s character becomes romantically obsessed with him – and his obsession with Dean was in a whole other direction.

Frustrated, Dean gave notice after two weeks. The play, way ahead of its time, didn’t attract audiences. It folded after 96 performances.
Dean’s timing was fortuitous. Back at the Actor's Studio, Kazan was about to set off for California to cast East of Eden, as adapted and sanitized for the screen, a sort of Cain and Abel allegory loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s 1952 best-seller, and told the screenwriter and Broadway playwright Paul Osborn that he was looking for "another Brando" to play moody, insecure Cal Trask. Osborn responded, “You have someone exactly like that right under your nose here at the Studio.”

"It was perfect casting," stated Wallach, who recalled Kazan's notes on Cal. "He said, 'Everything this kid does should be delightfully anarchistic, odd, original, imaginative, eccentric, full of longing, and with sudden mood alterations. He is the unexpected personified. He goes directly to the heart of the matter.' That was Jimmy, always reaching out."

Kazan went with his instincts. "I had this intuition about Dean,” said the director. “He had a real sense of himself. He wasn’t polite. He didn’t try to butter me up. When I discussed the role with him, he found it difficult to talk. His auditions were filled with bold choices, which really attracted me. I saw his as this twisted, extremely grotesque figure.”

When Dean got the job, added Kazan, “He invited me for a ride on his motorbike. That was his way of thanking me.”
When the director and Steinbeck met to discuss the arc of the script, the author whom didn't care for Dean, after hearing Kazan describe Dean, shift the focus of the onscreen story to Cal instead of Adam [the stern, religious father]. He wrote Kazan: "Cal is the character [whom] the audience has got to know and understand. This moody, complex young man is perfect for the part."


Dean and co-star Harris bonded quickly. Their scene on the Ferris wheel is one of the most poignant in moviedom as Dean, classically serious, digs deep for the heartfelt emotion he shows her.

 In an interview, Harris, who plays Abra [Aron’s love interest who falls for Cal], stated, “Jimmy was very exciting – not only enormously charismatic, sweet, and kind but also a very intelligent, gifted actor. He reminded me from the very beginning of Tom Sawyer, a guy who’d always get you to paint the fence and get you in terrible scrapes. It’s was all ‘What’s life for?’ It’s not just to go plodding in the same places. It’s an adventure.

“I likened him to a star or a comet that fell through the sky,” she continued, “one everybody still talks about it. Ahhh! Remember that night when you say that shooting star! He had enormous appeal and magic.”

She spoke of a moment in their screen test where he questioned her about a hand movement. “I wanted to say “You son-of-a-bitch,’ but I didn’t. From then on, it got into my head that things like that were a device to keep you off guard so that everything was alive.”

Miss Harris and co-stars Burl Ives and Albert Dekker reported that Dean often surprised everyone by doing the unexpected, which led to some rough going. Raymond Massey [Adam], an Oscar nominee and one of movies most acclaimed actors, was quite disciplined and had little patience with Dean, who found him stern and inflexible. Massey complained he was throwing him off by changing lines and doing them as he felt. He called Dean “shameless” and told him “I can’t stand your Actors Studio mentality” – which didn’t faze Dean one bit. Time and again, he flummoxed Massey. You can see one particular and intense moment in a take that crafty Kazan left in the film.

In the scene, Dean pulled what Massey called “one of your sudden mood alterations.” Dean/Cal has amassed a large amount of money in a slick business move and goes to present it to his father in hopes that Adam will love him more than favored son Aron. But Adam accuses him of stealing the money.

As Massey pleads with him to be a good son, Dean contorts, turns away, and crumbles into a ball. Waving the money, he approaches Massey and, in an unscripted moment, lunges at him, jabbing him into a wall. He begins sobbing, throws his arms around Massey in a tight bear hug. 

Massey, fuming, exclaims “Cal! Cal!” but Dean doesn’t let go. The camera caught the shock on Massey’s face. 

“I’m sure Jimmy respected Raymond Massey,” said Miss Harris in an interview, “but he was always trying to make him feel upset and flustered. Just for the fun of it.”

Dean, however, was totally unapologetic. Massey threatened to walk. He  complained to Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner, who advised Kazan to tame Dean. When Kazan addressed the matter, however, he told Dean, “Raymond’s getting really irritated. Keep it up! That’s what I want.” [Whether Massey changed his opinion of Dean isn’t known, but at the New York premiere, as he’s interviewed upon arriving, he highly praised him.]

Lois Smith, who was making her feature debut at 24, had the role of Anne, a shy bordello worker. Dean insisted on screen-testing with her. She has her own complex memories of him. "When Jimmy looked at you with those gorgeous blue eyes, you melted like ice cream sitting in the sun. He was a sweet, rustic person. I used to imagine him sitting on the porch at the family farm back in Indiana. On the other hand, there was this suspicious, taunt, guarded young man. Both seemed always present. There was this thrilling tension within him. Jimmy brought a new sensibility to acting.”

Kazan, viewing the daily rushes, saw “Dean’s star power exploding” and “jumping off the screen.” Dean’s performance overshadowed his co-stars, especially the soft-spoken, delicate Harris, and Richard Davalos, playing his brother. It even came close to overshadowing Jo Van Fleet, in a fierce role as his morphine-addicted mother Kate, a madam, whom his father said was dead. [The role won her a Supporting Oscar.] Though cold to Dean at first, they began to bond. She told friends that she felt Dean saw her as a mother figure.

On location in Mendocino, California, in the Salinas Valley on the Pacific coast near Fort Bragg, Dean, in his first starring role in a major motion picture, often acted as if he was already one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. With his moving about sets, he drove Oscar-nominated cameraman Ted McCord, already beset with problems of shooting in the new wide-screen CinemaScope, crazy. He thought nothing of going off on his motorcycle, holding up production for hours. Search parties would be sent to get him back to the set. He’d be found bonding with young townspeople. Kazan later admitted, “Dean was quite a handful.”

In an interview, Julie Harris spoke of Dean’s emotion on the last day of shooting: “I wasn’t certain I’d be able to attend the wrap party, I went over to Jimmy’s trailer to say goodbye. He was crying. I tried to comfort him and asked why he was so upset. He said, ‘The production is over.’ It was his first starring role, and all, but there was already so much talk and publicity about him that I knew this wouldn’t be the end.”

Dean’s “date” for the star-studded and televised New York premiere of East of Eden at the long-gone Astor Theatre [taken over by the Marriott Marquis Hotel] was supposed to be Marilyn Monroe – but she didn’t even show. However, for reasons unknown, neither did Dean, which so angered WB studio chief Jack Warner, already “fed up with his antics and all the trouble-shooting during filming, who stood outside the theatre on the red carpet awaiting his arrival. Warner was so angry it almost cost Dean the lead in Rebel without a Cause.

End of Part One

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