(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)

A Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)


IN CALIFORNIA Dean rejoined his father, and for a short time everything went well.  Still living in Santa Monica, Winton Dean was now a supervisor at the Veterans Hospital, having returned to his job after his discharge from the army.  He had remarried in 1945; his wife was a woman named Ethel Case, whom he had known before.

Winton was glad to have his son back home, but it soon became apparent that the years of separation had taken their toll.  A gap had grown between them that father and son found impossible to bridge. Later, Winton said: "My Jim is a tough boy to understand." To make matters worse, Jimmy resented his stepmother, and Ethel Case, a proud, strong-willed woman, was quick to sense it.

Over dinner, Winton and his son quarreled frequently over Jimmy's plans for the future.  To Winton, acting was "a waste of time." He urged his son to consider something practical, like becoming a physical education instructor, or studying law---a field in which he could utilize his talent for public speaking and, moreover, earn a good living.  In fact, Jimmy himself went back and forth between his yen for acting or becoming an attorney.  He later said that stories of Clarence Darrow and Earl Rogers, two legendary trial lawyers, had whetted his interest in criminal law.

Dean and his father also disagreed over which college Jimmy should attend in the fall.  Jimmy had planned on UCLA, which had an excellent theater department-and a good basketball team, too.  His father preferred Santa Monica City (now junior) College, a two-year school, which was closer to home and where tuition was lower.

Things, however, were not all bleak.  Jimmy had discovered the existence of a theater group nearby and was accepted into its ranks.  The group was made up mostly of housewives and businessmen, amateur actors drawn together by their love of the theater.  They met in the evenings, using whatever facilities they could obtain for their rehearsals.

Dean painted scenery and helped with the props.  "I seem to be getting a very cheap theater education," he wrote exuberantly to his aunt and uncle in August.  "The work I am doing is easy and advancement is unlimited as to talent... (but) we get very little pay if any.  I am certainly impatient, but getting a foot in the door of the movie world is a long, tough job...... He went on to humorously characterize his newfound comrades in the theater as "the most catty, criticizing, narcissis­tic bunch of people you ever saw, always at each other's throats.  But let an outsider try to interfere and they flock together like a bunch of long-lost buddies .... What a life."

"I learn a lot from them," he added. "I've just got to be patient, I guess.  They never made it until their twenties, thirties, and even forties."

For his efforts backstage, Jimmy was rewarded with a small walk-on role in a musical melodrama called The Romance of Scarlet Gulch.  In the program he was listed as Byron James, which he then considered adopting permanently as a stage name.  For all his feigned sophistication, Jimmy was still a naive young boy, struck by the glamour of the acting profession.  At this time, Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones were among his idols; Stanislavski and the Method meant nothing; the Actors Studio might as well have been on the moon.

Winton Dean got his wish and Jimmy enrolled in Santa Monica City College for the summer session that began on June 20, 1949.  He took a cross section of required liberal arts courses: English, geology, physics, and Spanish.  As an elective, he signed up for a class in theater arts.  During this time he lived with his family at their Sixth Street apartment, in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood.

Santa Monica was a small school with an enrollment of sixteen hundred.  It had been

'A big fish in a little pond'
'a tolerable good guard'

founded in 1929 and was then located in a temporary cluster of buildings on Seventh Street and Olympic Boulevard while awaiting completion of its new campus across town.

Jimmy found himself very much a big fish in a little pond.  He announced for the school's FM radio station and during his first semester was elected to the college Honor Society.  He even made the Santa Monica basketball team as a substitute guard.  The college belonged to the Metropolitan Conference, playing such opponents as Ventura and Los Angeles City College.  Dean got in about half the games.  Sanger Crumpacker, the team's coach, remembers him as "a tolerable good guard" and "a leader who went for the ball."

He also found time for dating and went steady with a girl named Diane Hixon, a willowy blonde who was elected home­coming queen.

Dean rooted for the football team, the Corsairs, seldom missing a home game.  When several students chartered a bus to San Diego to see the Corsairs play, Dean and Diane went along.  Jimmy had too much to drink at the game and was ill on the ride back.

Since Dean did not have a car, he often double-dated with Larry Swindell, a classmate who owned a black Chevrolet coupé.  They often took their dates to the Cave, a dark coffeehouse frequented by students, or drive out to the Point, a place where they could drink beer overlooking the ocean.

Swindell and Dean were both in the school jazz club, and some afternoons they would go down to Ray Avey's Record Roundup, then on La Cienega Boulevard.  Dean liked Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton and would pick out old 78s on the Brunswick label.  He bought records by Kid Ory, the New Orleans sidegate trombonist, and Frank Trumbauer, the saxophonist who played with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke in Chicago.

Swindell, who is now a book critic on a Fort Worth paper, recalls, "Dean fancied himself as sort of a Renaissance man.  He was interested in everything and had the idea that he could do a lot of things well."

Once Dean and Swindell went to hear a lecture, "Is Progress Real?" given by Will Durant at the Santa Monica Auditorium.  Durant concluded that indeed much progress had been made in this century.  Dean was very impressed and later quoted Durant around campus.

Despite all these other activities, however, Dean still found time for his interest in drama.  "He would study continually in all areas of dramatics," his teacher, Mrs. Jean N. Owen, recalls, "and was enormously self-educated, a self-starter, and very self-motivated." One project he tackled was a radio comedy that he worked on with a friend.  They tried to sell it, but were unsuccessful.

Along with classmate Dick Mangan, Dean organized and acted in a May Day production of She Was Only a Farmer’s Daughter.  The show was put on at the Santa Monica Theater Guild.  Mangan later acted under the name Richard Shannon and appeared in several Hollywood movies.  “Jimmy was like the rainbow," he said.  "You don't ever see one color; you see a maze of them.  Nothing stands out in my memory of Jimmy but the bright light."

At the end of the year, hoping for bigger game, Dean decided to transfer to UCLA.  To help pay his tuition Dean worked as an athletic instructor that summer at a boy's camp in Glendora and in the fall of 1950 entered UCLA as a sophomore.

His major was now listed as theater arts, but again, perhaps as a compromise with his father, he took a cross section of academic courses: art history, geography, Latin American history, and general anthropology.  He also took a course in basic air science as an Air Force ROTC cadet.

To help make friends on the large, sprawling campus, Dean went through rush week, and in September pledged a fraternity, Sigma Nu.  He moved into the Sigma Nu house, a rambling Tudor-style dwelling on Gayley Avenue, and lived in a room with eight other pledges.

Jimmy wrote his aunt and uncle, telling them of his fraternity membership, and taking the opportunity to kid his uncle about UCLA's recent upset of Purdue.  "You'll have to come West," he told him, "where they really play football."

At the fraternity house, Dean became friendly with Jim Bellah, son of novelist James Warner Bellah.  Today a successful novelist himself, coauthor of the Avenger Tapes, Bellah was then a theater arts major who had transferred from Johns Hopkins.  He was an ardent fencer and was trying to start a team at UCLA.  Dean quickly took up the sport.  "The first time he had a foil in his hand he damn near beat me," Bellah recalls.  "He was the kind of guy who had to win.  He had to be best at everything he did."

This spirit, however, did not endear him to some of the other brothers, and soon they and Dean were at odds.  Dean was criticized for skipping pledge meetings and being chron­ically late for meals.  Manuel Gonzales, the chapter president, who later became a corporate lawyer, remembered: "He spent a great deal of time in individual endeavors rather than taking part in any cohesive activities.  Apparently, he was not comfort­able in our group." A less articulate brother dismissed Jimmy simply as "a hick."

Matters came to a head one day when Dean got into a shoving match with another member.  Dean later apologized and the incident was temporarily smoothed over, but it was obvious that the Indianan's days at the Sigma Nu house were numbered.  Jim Bellah, who remained friends with Dean throughout his short life, later delivered this verdict: "He was a nice guy but fucked-up."

In early October, after a week of auditions, Dean was chosen to play Prince Malcolm in a campus production of Macbeth.  He described this as "the biggest thrill of my life" in a letter to his aunt and uncle, proudly informing them the play would have almost a week-long run.  "God!  It's a dream," he wrote.  "Don't anyone wake me up."

The part was not large, but it was important, and Dean threw himself into it with his customary enthusiasm---earning the customary response from his fellow actors.  "He was ego centric...," one complained.  "He wouldn't act with the rest of us. He always pretended that he was alone on stage." Dr. Walden Boyle, the chairman of the theater arts department, who directed the production, was more understanding.  In 1973, he reflected, "As I recall, Jim ... had not had much acting training when he came to us.  I suspect he found out that the university wasn't what he wanted.  He wanted and needed a strong conservatory-type training and I believe he received that at the Actors Studio.  When he was with us, he already had a fine presence on stage, but was disturbed, or perhaps bewildered, at not receiving more attention and direction than I could afford to give him in the part."

Rehearsals began on Thursday, October 12.  The play opened at the Royce Hall Auditorium on November 29 and ran through December 2, 1950.  Jimmy proudly noted that the hall sat sixteen hundred people.  Tickets for evening perform­ances cost $1.20, matinee seats were sixty cents.

Reviewing the production in the December issue of Campus Theater Spotlight, the organ of the theater arts department, critic Harve Bennett Fischman, a former radio Quiz Kid, expressed great disappointment.  Fischman wrote: "Void of exciting movement, actor thought processes, and overall con­ception, the production neither snapped, crackled, nor popped. It just laid there."

Dean's own notice was buried toward the bottom of the page.  It was brief and to the point: "Malcolm failed to show any growth and would have made a hollow king." Dean, however, saw things in a different light.  Writing to his aunt and uncle in December, he informed them: "The play was very much of a success .... I was very much rewarded and proved myself a capable actor in the eyes of several hundred culture-minded individuals.  Man, if I can keep this up, and nothing interferes with my progress, one of these days I might be able to contribute something to the world (theatrically)."

One evening during rehearsals for Macbeth Dean had met William Bast, another student in the theater arts department, who had dropped by to pick up his girlfriend.  At first, Bast later recalled, he barely took notice of his new friend; he had seen Dean on stage and had hardly been impressed by his slouching posture and Indiana drawl.  James Dean: a name to forget, he decided.

Over coffee, however, the two got to know each other better and discovered their common background.  Both were from the Midwest and transfer students.  After two years at the Univer­sity of Wisconsin, Bast had come to UCLA, hoping, like Dean, to become an actor.

By the time Macbeth completed its brief campus run, they were fast friends.  It was a friendship that lasted until Dean's death and which Bast recounted in a long and engaging memoir (James Dean, Ballantine Books, 1956).

The two decided to share an apartment off campus, a small three-room flat that Bast had accidentally happened upon one afternoon.  As soon as he showed it to Dean, they agreed to take it. To the relief of his fraternity brothers, James Dean moved his belongings out of the Sigma Nu house that same afternoon.  It was later discovered he left an unpaid bill of forty-five dollars.  One of Dean's fraternity brothers, Jim Bellah, also didn't care for Bast, whom he considered effeminate, and who "seemed to have his feet firmly planted in the air."

The apartment was conveniently close to campus.  Located on the top floor of an old Spanish-style house, it had a slanted, beamed ceiling that sloped from one end of the apartment to the other.  There was a chest-high kitchen sink, designed in hand-laid Italian tile, and even a small redwood bar.  The decor was all carefully chosen by the landlady, a middle-aged woman with a master's degree in art from the University of West Virginia.

Her new tenants quickly put these facilities to good use.  Girls from the theater department were invited over to share home-cooked meals, sometimes dining to soft music and can­dlelight.  Things were definitely on the upswing.  Frequently, Bast recalled, these informal gatherings lasted well into the night, and one memorable get-together ended when the boys and their dates decided on a whim to drive ninety miles up the coast to have breakfast in Santa Barbara.  On the way back the car broke down and they were stranded for several hours along the scenic highway overlooking the Pacific.

All this took its toll on their studies, and the boys' attend­ance records, which at best had been haphazard, grew worse.  As the semester neared its end and exams approached, both Dean and Bast realized they were in serious academic trouble.

Bast was determined to buckle down and get through the welter of term papers and exams that suddenly faced him.  Jimmy continued to let things slide.  "I wanted to be a profes­sional actor," he said later.  "I couldn't take that tea-sip­ping ... academic bull." He was undoubtedly telling the truth.  The only professor listed on Dean's official transcript, Dr. Joseph B. Birdsell, his anthropology teacher, claims to have no recollection of "a James Dean" as ever having been among his students.

In January, Dean wisely decided to withdraw from college, a decision with which university officials concurred.  Yet, once his decision to leave school had been made, Dean's spirits lifted.  Now, at last, he could dedicate himself to becoming an actor.

"I don't want to be just a good actor," he told Bast determinedly.  "I don't even want to be the best.  I want to grow, grow so tall nobody can reach me."

Through Jim Bellah, Dean met an independent theatrical agent, Isabelle Draesmer, who had a small office on Sunset Strip.  She agreed to take Dean on as a client.  She was not the biggest agent in Hollywood, but she was his.  Furthermore, in the last few weeks of school Dean's father had gotten him a car: a slightly beat-up and dilapidated 1939 Chevrolet.  It was not the sleekest of vehicles, but it ran.  And now it would get him to auditions.

Dean's first professional job came deceptively easily.  Bellah had heard of a television producer who needed some kids for a Pepsi commercial and invited his friend to come along.  The commercial was shot in Griffith Park.  Dean and the others rode around on a carousel, smiling contentedly.  When the director said he also needed an actor to jitterbug in another sequence, Jimmy stepped forward and demonstrated his tech­nique.  He got the job and was paid twenty-five dollars to dance around a jukebox with a pretty girl and a guy named Nick Adams, who later appeared with him in Rebel Without a Cause.

In the evenings, Dean started to attend a drama workshop that had been organized by actor James Whitmore at Bill Bast's suggestion.

Whitmore had come to Hollywood after a successful career on Broadway, where he had appeared in the play Command Decision.  Earlier he had studied at the Actors Studio and had developed a great admiration and respect for its cofounder, Elia Kazan.  In Hollywood, Whitmore missed both the mental stimulation of New York and the opportunity to seriously study his own art.  The idea of starting a class in which he could help young actors to grow, as well as sharpen his own skills, appealed to him at once.

Whitmore's class was informal.  Students and teacher met two or three times a week, using an abandoned meeting room above the Brentwood Country Mart as a classroom.

"Acting is a craft, a serious profession," Whitmore told his young charges, "and to learn any craft you have to apply yourself. It takes time, study, practice.... If it's glory you're after, you won't find it learning to act."

Much of the classwork was rudimentary: concentration techniques, improvisations, all the basic exercises.  But for the first time Dean and the others became aware that acting was not merely a form of masquerading; it was a process that required them to think and feel deeply.

"You have to work at being an actor," Whitmore kept repeating.  "Work until you're ready to drop, and then go on and work some more."

For one improvisation, Dean did a pine tree caught in a storm; he did another together with Bast, in which Dean played a thief who is trapped by a wary jeweler in his store.  After an initial unsuccessful run-through, the two did the scene again, this time becoming so involved in their roles they almost came to blows and had to be restrained by other students.

Meanwhile, life back at the penthouse continued apace.  Bast was in school again and also working part-time at CBS as an usher to help pay his tuition and support himself. For Dean, each day was an endless round of activity: sessions with a photographer to assemble an actor's portfolio, meeting with his agent, auditions.

Even when their second month's rent payment fell due, and the boys were sobered by the dent it made in their resources, they managed to squeeze by without too much sacrifice; meals were more meager, but girls from the theater department were still invited over to share them; dining by candlelight now had even an added charm: It cut down on the utilities bill.

Then, after several discouraging weeks in which nothing came Dean's way, Draesmer sent him and Bellah to audition for a television film being made by the Jerry Fairbanks studio.  The film, Hill Number One, had a religious theme, and Dean read for the part of John the

He was cast
as Christ's youngest

Apostle, the youngest of Christ's disciples.  The casting director was impressed enough to choose Dean at once; Bellah was cast as a Roman soldier.  Dean rushed back to the apartment and told Bast the good news, almost tipsy with joy.

An hour-long film, Hill Number One was to be taped for local showing during the Easter holidays.  It was sponsored by Father Peyton's Family Theater, a well-known Catholic organi­zation whose slogan "The Family That Prays Together Stays Together" had become almost a national byword.

The film's plot combined religion and patriotism.  A group of weary GIs in Korea are bombarding a difficult objective, ­Hill Number 46.  During a lull in the battle, a chaplain appears on Easter Sunday and comforts them by narrating the story of Christ's crucifixion on Calvary (Hill Number One).  After the chaplain tells of the Resurrection, the soldiers learn that Hill Number 46 has fallen and the battle has been won.

The cast was surprisingly noteworthy.  Raymond Burr played the Apostle Peter, and Leif Erickson Pontius Pilate.  Roddy McDowall was one of the GIs; Ruth Hussey and Gene Lockhart also had roles.

The director, Arthur Pierson, had done a number of Hollywood films, including Dangerous Years, which had helped launch the career of Marilyn Monroe.

As the day of shooting approached, Bast remembered, his friend's nervousness increased until it became almost impos­sible for anyone to be around him.  "I sometimes had the feeling," Bast wrote, "that he thought that by talking about the job, or admitting that it even existed, he would lose it.  Once or twice it seemed ... that he was hoarding his pleasure and excitement for fear that I, or someone else, might steal it from him, if he left it unguarded."

The shooting, however, came off well, and the film was completed within the week the studio had allotted for it.  Dean appeared in a number of scenes and was confident he had done a good job.  Dressed in a flowing robe and headdress, he spoke his lines crisply and in a deep, theater-trained voice.  In one scene, he lectured his fellow Apostles, "Surely, we did not spend these years following the Master to return again to our nets." There was no trace of that twang which later marked his film performances.  Toward the end of the film, Dean delivered a speech in front of Christ's tomb and Arthur Pierson even complimented him on his handling of it.  The director proudly recalled:

"He gave a fine, simple, straightforward perfor­mance," adding ruefully: "A year later he was in New York learning to be a mumbling rebel."

Both Dean and his agent hoped that the film would lead to bigger and better offers, and in the week before it was aired Draesmer was busy urging various producers to watch her client's performance.  But after the film's release no other offers materialized.  The production received several respectful re­views in local papers, and a notice even appeared in Variety.  It did not mention Dean's name.

The only recognition Dean received was a letter from a group of girls at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles whose teacher had required them to watch the show.  They were starting a James Dean fan club, they informed him, and wanted him to be present at their first meeting.  Dean went to this meeting and several others the girls held in their homes before the club quietly disbanded due to lack of funds.

When no new job offers appeared, Jimmy fell into a state of depression.  His remarkable self-confidence seemed shaken.  He would sit in his room for hours, silently staring into space or gazing out the window at the treetops beyond.  At night he took long walks alone, strolling down to the Venice Amuse­ment Pier to watch the people or walk along the beach, sometimes not returning till dawn.

"If I had thought it difficult to communicate with him at other times," Bast wrote, "I had never known such lack of communication as existed during his fits of depression.  For my own peace of mind I found it wise to ignore him, or avoid him completely, going on about my business."




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