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James Dean: After 60 Years, Still the Coolest Icon of Teen Angst

James Dean shocked the world when he appeared in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” in 1955. And he shocked the world again when he died on Sept. 30, 1955, at age 24.

Sixty years after these events, he remains an icon, based on only three films. Dean hit a nerve because he was the right star in the right roles at the right time. After the Depression and World War II, many American adults wanted things to be “nice” and trouble-free. The affluent middle class moved into new suburban developments, while Madison Avenue started targeting teenagers as a distinct demographic with their own spending money.

The 1950s are often painted as a period of “Happy Days” innocence, but the optimistic attitude only partially masked fears of communists, the atomic bomb, polio and the growing awareness that the American Dream might be more complex than it seemed. And nobody was more suspicious of their parents’ illusions than teenagers.

In “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” Dean became the embodiment of teen angst, questioning adult values and openly defying his parents, who turned a deaf ear to his needs. With his ever-present cigarette, sexy wounded stare and bad boy reputation, he became the embodiment of cool for many generations to come.

The two films turned the actor into an instant star and paragon of cool, and there were big hopes for his third starring role, in Warner Bros.’ “Giant.” Shortly after he completed filming, Dean was killed when, while driving from Los Angeles to a car race in Salinas, Calif., a car entered his lane on highway 46. Unable to move out of the lane in time, his Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” crashed, killing Dean although his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich survived.

Dean was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, where he had spent much of his youth.

In his Oct. 3, 1955, column, Army Archerd wrote, “It’s still hard to believe James Dean’s quick, tragic passing. Dennis Hopper, one of Dean’s close friends, is in a complete daze … Kathy Case fainted when told the news; Lori Nelson collapsed in tears … Steve Rowland, who had been invited to accompany Dean on the ride north, is curbing his reckless side and sold his motorcycle…”

These were Dean’s friends and co-workers, but even strangers had a deep personal reaction to his death. A year later, Aug. 2, 1956, Daily Variety ran a front-page headline “WB Consults Psychologists On Handling ‘Giant’ Problem Of James Dean Cultism.” The story said even after his death, Dean was receiving 5,000 to 6,000 fan letters a week, and the studio was trying to deal with the fans as it prepared the release of “Giant.” The problem was how “to channel the adoration of Dean into affirmative directions rather than let the macabre aspects get out of control. The amazing popularity of Dean goes beyond ordinary dimensions. He is some sort of a symbol — though exactly what sort is not yet fully evaluated.”

Some skeptics wondered if the “cultism” problem was cooked up to generate publicity. The story said, “Old-timers groping for a comparison go back to Rudolph Valentino and wonder if the fabulous success of another ‘modern’ youth — ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ Presley— doesn’t have an affinity.” And there was an affinity. Presley also died too young and also inspired mass mourning, along with conspiracy theories. His death also parallels that of “Fast and Furious” star Paul Walker, another car racing enthusiast who died driving a Porsche before his latest film was released.

Hollywood continues to probe the James Dean mystique, via telefilms starring Stephen McHattie (1976) and James Franco (2001), with a bigscreen look at the actor in the upcoming “Life,” starring Dane DeHaan. In 1977, James Bridges (“Urban Cowboy”) wrote and directed “September 30, 1955,” which explored a group of young people reacting to Dean’s death. The posters promoted the film as a look at “the day that shook up a generation!”

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