In James Dean’s twenty-four short years on earth, he was able to make a lasting impact on Hollywood and American pop culture. Just as his career was starting to take off in 1955, he was killed in a fatal car accident. There’s no telling how the young actor might have made his mark in the history of film.
Dean expressed an interest in theater at an early age. He had the passion but lacked an inherent knack for the craft. He dropped out of UCLA after only one semester to pursue acting full-time. His first gig was a television commercial for Pepsi. After that, he scored minor roles in a couple of films, Fixed Bayonets! and Sailor Beware.
After relocating to New York City and enrolling at the Actor’s Studio, Dean’s career picked up. His roles on popular television shows of the era were well-received by a young, teenage audience, but those in the industry found his technique lacking.
It wasn’t until Dean transitioned to Broadway that he finally caught Hollywood’s attention. During the last year of his life, he starred in three major motion pictures: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.
Following his death, Dean was nominated for two Oscars for his performances in both East of Eden and Giant. Even after his untimely passing, Dean made history—he was the first film actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination, and, to this day, he’s the only actor to receive more than one.
Before his short-lived success, Dean relied on a lucky charm as an undiscovered actor: his yellow gold Elgin pocket watch. He purchased the watch in New York City just before moving back to the west coast and making the three films that secured his place as a Hollywood legend. Believing it brought him good fortune, he insisted on wearing it while filming East of Eden, against the director’s wishes. In 2013, the iconic timepiece was auctioned at Antiquorum. It was only estimated to sell for around $5,000, but ended up selling for over eight times that at $42,000.
Before Dean’s fatal car crash, he celebrated his growing success with the purchase of a LeCoultre PowerMatic Nautilus. He was wearing the watch when he lost his life along Route 466.
Dean’s untimely death only solidified his lasting legacy in pop culture. He was too young and too green in the industry to have made the mistakes of many of his counterparts, from failed marriages to other scandals. When his life was tragically cut short, Dean was frozen in time as a character—the quintessential sullen and non-conforming yet sensitive and misunderstood boy next door. It’s an image that lives on today—the image of the American teenager, who has become the focus of countless television shows and films.
Image Credits: Header; Ur Cameras Flickr.