James Dean was just 24 when he died in a car crash back in 1955, but his legacy lives on forever. These iconic photos are all the proof you need.
Decades after his death, James Dean remains an enigma. Dean's sudden demise right before his iconic movie Rebel Without A Cause was released propelled his fame to legendary status.
"To us teenagers, Dean was a symbol of the fight to make a niche for ourselves in the world of adults. Something in us that is being sat on by convention and held down was, in Dean, free for all the world to see," read a fan letter published in an issue of Life magazine on Oct. 15, 1956.
We explore the troubled star's unexpected rise to fame, his tragic death, and his enduring influence on pop culture today through some of the most iconic James Dean pictures, which can be seen in the gallery above.
James Dean: The Rebel Actor
In contrast to his big-city style, James Dean grew up a farm boy in Indiana, where his aunt and uncle lived. His father sent him there after Dean's mother died of cancer. According to his cousin Marcus Winslow Jr., the death of Dean's mother was partly to blame for his trademark moodiness.
Nonetheless, James Dean was a creative kid and he excelled in the arts, showing a knack for sculpting, painting, and acting. After graduating high school in 1949, Dean headed to California, attending UCLA before moving to New York City, where he was accepted into the prestigious Actors Studio.
He landed several roles on television and Broadway before finally catching his big break starring in his first feature film East Of Eden as Cal Trask — a troubled young man entangled in a family rivalry with his brother.
"I'm a serious-minded and intense little devil... Terribly gauche and so tense I don't see how people stay in the same room with me. I know I wouldn't tolerate myself."
James Dean's role as Cal Trask showcased his emotionally raw acting, which was an unorthodox method among Hollywood stars at the time. His natural talent is what drew director Elia Kazan to cast him in the first place.
While casting, Kazan wrote a letter to author John Steinbeck, whose novel the movie was adapted from, describing the young actor as a "bum."
"I looked through a lot of kids before settling on this Jimmy Dean," Kazan wrote candidly of his new lead. "He's a good deal younger [than Marlon Brando] and is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a 'real problem' somewhere in his guts, I don't know what or where."
The role was James Dean's big break into Hollywood and later earned him an Academy Award nomination after his death, making him the first actor to receive a nomination for the prestigious award posthumously.
James Dean's Death
On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean and a group of friends made their way to a race in Salinas, about 90 miles south of San Francisco. The young actor had a taste for car racing and he was eager to get back into the game.
He had purchased a new Porsche Spyder, which he nicknamed "Little Bastard," and planned to take it to the race. The actor drove the car with his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, in the passenger's seat.
At around 5:45 p.m., Dean noticed a Ford heading toward his car that was preparing to make a left turn at the junction ahead. After Dean supposedly reassured Wütherich, "that guy's gotta stop, he'll see us," the two cars collided head-on.
Weutherich had been thrown out of the car, but Dean was trapped inside the crumpled Porsche, his neck broken and his body mangled. Later that same evening, James Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
"What better way to die? It's fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory."
A month after his death, James Dean's second film Rebel Without A Cause was released. Though Dean's career was only beginning to take off, the young star's broody portrayal of protagonist Jim Stark combined with his untimely death catapulted Dean's persona into mythical status.
The fascination behind the alluring actor morphed into a high-pitch fever. A year after, industry polls showed James Dean was the most popular actor in Hollywood, outranking other actors who were still alive.
Thousands of fan letters poured in while those close to him were hounded by fans requesting James Dean pictures and his possessions, any absurd item they could get their hands on.
Magazines capitalized on the craze with special edition issues covered in photographs of James Dean and emblazoned with headlines, like The REAL James Dean and Jimmy Dean returns!
Life magazine dubbed the posthumous frenzy as "delirium." One of his friends called it "a creepy, almost a sick thing," saying, "Everybody mirrored themselves in Jimmy's fame and Jimmy's death."
James Dean's Iconic Look
James Dean's Rebel character, Jim Stark, was an emotionally intense teenager whose rebellious air was reflected through his wardrobe — an understated yet stylish ensemble of white T-shirt, denim jeans, and coiffed hair emblematic of the 1950s. But the star piece of the look was no doubt the signature red jacket Dean wore throughout the film.
According to Caroline Young in Classic Hollywood Style, James Dean's iconic Rebel look was the brainchild of costume designer Moss Mabry, who collected inspiration from real high school and college students.
Outside the movie sets, photos of James Dean show the actor's style wasn't much different from his on-screen alter ego. He was often photographed in a plain white shirt or casual long-sleeves, a leather jacket, and rimmed sunglasses still suitable for today's fashion.
"He was everything the 1950s wanted him to be: Davy Crockett, Holden Caulfield, Jean-Paul Sartre, General Eisenhower, with a little Oscar Wilde and Jesus Christ thrown in," Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote in the magazine Out in 1996.
James Dean's enduring iconography, Martin argued, was likely deliberate given the actor was famously meticulous about his image.
The Legacy Of James Dean
James Dean's influence can still be spotted today in pop lyrics from artists like Taylor Swift ("Style") and Lana Del Rey ("Blue Jeans"), movies like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and of course, the old classic James Dean pictures that still capture the public's imagination.
There are festivals held in his honor featuring James Dean look-a-like contests while his pretty-boy-with-an-edge look is a staple of every fashion icon listicle imaginable.
But Dean's immortal persona as the sensitive rebel comes at a cost as Hollywood plans to resurrect the deceased actor in the 2020 film Finding Jack using CGI technology.
Although the filmmakers have received the green light from Dean's family, many have criticized the posthumous casting as exploitative and distasteful. It's emblematic of the price of fame even long after death.
"Dean is absolutely at his peak — forever. He was already immortal before most of us saw him and that's part of the fascination," film historian David Thomson said. "Everyone's got their own notion of what would have happened to James Dean if he had not died."