Freeze Frame: James Dean’s Life in Pictures

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, James Dean, 1955

Let these facts sink in: James Dean starred in only three movies, his Hollywood career lasting just 18 months. He was already dead when Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released. Yet 60 years after his death in 1955, the actor from Fairmount, Indiana, is still one of the most instantly recognizable stars in movie history. The celebrated images of Dean captured by such photographers as Roy Schatt, Dennis Stock and Sanford Roth are what have ensured his immortality. As Schatt once fittingly said, he hoped his photographs of Dean would “transmit a glimpse of his most insistent, and perhaps eternal, presence.” 

Dean followed the advice of his drama coach and left Indiana for New York City in September 1951. He appeared in television dramas and on Broadway, and a year later he was accepted into the Actors Studio organization. Still struggling in New York in 1954, Dean met Schatt, the official photographer for the Actors Studio. He first perceived Dean as “a squinty schlump of a person all bent over.” But when Dean suddenly stood up, Schatt found “this ugly person became a dream, an Adonis who started to dance around the room.” Dean agreed to pose for him only if Schatt would teach him about photography. Schatt soon took the iconic “torn sweater” photos of Dean, arguably the most famous images of the young hopeful.

EAST OF EDEN, James Dean, 1955In March 1954, Dean flew to Hollywood to star in director Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. He signed a contract with Warner Bros., and with a $700 advance on his $10,000 salary he bought a used MG TA, his first sports car. He soon met 26-year-old photographer Dennis Stock at a party thrown by Nicholas Ray, who would direct Dean in his next film, Rebel Without a Cause. After seeing a sneak preview of East of Eden, Stock was so impressed by Dean’s performance as moody Cal Trask that he begged his editors at Life magazine to let him shoot a “visual biography” of the still unknown actor. “I knew this guy would take off,” Stock said.

The pictures he took of Dean in New York City and during a visit to his hometown became legendary. In Stock’s obituary, The New York Times mentioned, “Perhaps his most emblematic image, taken in 1955, was that of a young Dean, on the cusp of stardom, walking through the rain in Times Square, shoulders hunched, a cigarette jutting from his mouth.” The new movie by Anton Corbijn, Life, opening on December 4, recounts the friendship between the two men. Robert Pattinson stars as Stock, with Dane DeHaan as Dean.

Dean next joined the cast and crew of Giant, which was already filming in Marfa, Texas, in June 1955. He had been cast as Jett Rink opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in director George Stevens’s sprawling Texas epic. Warner Bros. had forbidden Dean to take his Porsche Speedster on location and instead rented the daredevil star a Chevrolet sedan. Dean became fast friends with Sanford Roth, the official photographer on the Giant set. According to James Dean: On the Road to Salinas by Lee Raskin, “Jimmy would often be invited to have Friday night dinner at the Roths’ L.A. residence.” On September 21 Dean obtained a $3,800 advance from Warner Bros. to buy a new Porsche 550 Spyder and had the name Little Bastard painted across the back of the car: Dean’s boss, studio head Jack Warner, was said to have called Dean a “little bastard” when he heard the actor wouldn’t vacate his East of Eden trailer on the Warners lot.

Raskin’s book is illustrated with the powerful photos Roth took while traveling with Dean on September 30, 1955. Roth documented what were to be Dean’s final hours, as he drove his Porsche from Los Angeles to a race in Salinas, California. At an auction of Roth’s photographs, Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, described the last official photo of Dean, which came from this shoot, as a “forever powerful and compelling image, with Dean clasping his mechanic’s hand in a gesture of triumph.” But triumph turned to tragedy when the star was killed hours after Roth snapped the picture. Dean died in a car crash on a California highway. He was just 24 years old.

Photo by Colin Warnock
Photo by Colin Warnock

On a recent trip to California, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to the Dean crash site. The accident location itself is a barren strip of U.S. Route 466 now renamed as the James Dean Memorial Junction. Fans had left behind packs of cigarettes, Jack Daniel’s bottles, a bra, lipsticks and, of course, photographs of Dean. Glancing at all this debris, I felt sad and a little disappointed. Down the road is a more formal memorial designed by the artist Seita Ohnishi, where a stainless steel and concrete sculpture encloses a specially planted tree of heaven. The sculpture is simple and dignified, but I still felt something was missing.

When we visited the nearby Blackwell’s Texaco gas station, I finally smiled. Blackwell’s was Dean’s last fuel stop, and marking the spot are two giant billboards. One features a close-up of Dean wearing the red windbreaker from Rebel Without a Cause. The other shows Dean in his cowboy outfit from Giant. Both are kitschy and touristy and totally wonderful—iconic reminders of the power of an image.

Photos: Everett