Memoirs & Bios

How good was James Dean?

A chance viewing on Youtube moved me to write this story 58 years after James Dean died. In that viewing I discovered a connection to my past going back sixty years which I never knew existed until now. It is tempting to dismiss it or put it down to coincidence or just one of those things, as we are often prone to say. But it did set me thinking, what a small, strange world we live in and how we are so closely linked, one way or another.

james-dean-9268866-2-402 How good was James Dean?
James Dean (23)

In my youth I had a strong inner feeling about actor James Dean (1932 -1955) who sadly only made three movies. He starred in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel ‘East of Eden’ for which he received an Oscar nomination posthumously. Then the definitive ‘Rebel without a cause’ which made him an icon and role model for many young people and finally ‘Giant’ with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. He again received a posthumous Oscar nomination for ‘Giant’ and became the first actor to be nominated twice posthumously. That feeling or connection; call it what you will, has stayed with me throughout my life. It is certainly not an obsession but is nevertheless powerful. I was certainly not alone as he possessed such a powerful persona and a charisma that deeply affected many of his generation and generations thereafter. Many in the film industry believed that he was destined to be a great actor. Certainly his performances in such a short career were compelling so it is not unreasonable to think that we missed the best of a great talent.

james-dean-9268866-2-402 How good was James Dean?
James King (23)

I was only thirteen when he died in 1955, aged twenty four, but I remember well, a few years later, when I became the proud owner of a red bomber jacket which I wore over a white ‘T’ shirt just like he did.

Everybody called him Jimmy and that was what I was called until I was old enough to become Jim and then later graduate to my real name James. So in my young, and very real, fantasy world Jimmy and I were inseparable. There were differences of course. He was an icon, a heart-throb and a big star; I wasn’t. But he was only 5’8” and I was 6’1”! Jimmy raced cars professionally as well as acting and I was devastated when he was killed in a road accident driving his brand new ‘Porsche 550 Spyder’ to a race meeting in California.

james-dean-9268866-2-402 How good was James Dean?
Porsche 550 Spyder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the greatest English character actors Sir Alec Guinness who died at the age of 86 in 2000 recounted a strange encounter with Jimmy Dean on the Parkinson TV show. The story is of how he met Jimmy a week before the accident and of how he warned him not to drive his brand new Porsche ‘Spyder’.

james-dean-9268866-2-402 How good was James Dean?

Sir Alec recalls:

“It was my very first night in Hollywood. It was very odd. I’d just arrived off the plane. I was alone that evening and a woman I knew phoned and invited me to dinner. She was wearing trousers and they wouldn’t let her into any of the smart Hollywood restaurants. We finally went to an Italian restaurant which was full. As we walked on I said, ‘I don’t mind just a hamburger.’ Then I heard feet running down the street and it was James Dean. He said, ‘I was in that Italian restaurant and you couldn’t get a table. My name is James Dean; will you come back and join me.’ I said, ‘Yes. That’s very kind of you.’ Going back to the restaurant he said, ‘Before we go in I must show you something. I’ve just got a new car.’ And there in the courtyard of the restaurant was this car. I don’t know what it was but it was all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet. I said, ‘How fast can you drive in it?’ He said, ‘I can go 150’. I said, ‘Have you ever driven it?’ He said, ‘No. I’ve never been in it at all.’ Some strange thing came over me; like a different voice and I said, ‘Look, I won’t join your table unless you really want me to but I must say something. Please do not get into that car, because if you do; and I looked at my watch. If you get into that car at all, it’s now Thursday ten o’clock at night and by ten o’clock next Thursday night you’ll be dead if you get into that car.’ Then we had a charming dinner together and he was dead the following Thursday afternoon. It was very odd and spooky.” (Source):

So now I have established a spooky connection, I never knew existed, between two actors whom I have always admired greatly, the really interesting part of the story, for me, is the joining of the triangle. Jimmy lived in Hollywood and I was a thirteen year old boy living in England when he died; so the chances of me ever meeting him were extremely remote. But I did meet Sir Alec sometime in the 1970’s in the Bunch of Grapes pub in King Street, Bristol. Many actors playing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre frequented the popular pub at lunchtime. He was alone and I introduced myself, we had a brief chat and I remember buying him a pint of Guinness which seemed quite the appropriate tipple! Strange, coincidence, or just one of those things?

2 thoughts on “How good was James Dean?

  1. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and memories about Sir Alec and the two James. When I first came to California I drove by the crossroads where Jimmy D had the accident; it has turned into a freeway and the small towns nearby have grown into large towns or cities.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. To the rational person the connections are, of course, purely coincidental but fun nevertheless. I’ve just finished watching Smiley’s People on Youtube for the umpteenth time. Alec was such a fine actor. Keep well Cinda. Regards James

Your comments are welcome