Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Death of a Cultural Icon

On this day in 1955, actor James Dean was killed in a head–on collision near Cholame, Calif.

Dean was 24 when he died. He made a few uncredited film appearances in the early 1950s, but he is remembered for the three films he made in the mid–1950s — "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant." His performances spoke to angst–ridden teenagers of the time, and he is still remembered, more than half a century after his death, as a symbol of that awkward time of life.

While Dean was working on his final film, he was interviewed by actor Gig Young for an episode of "Warner Bros. Presents." After Dean's death, the segment was not aired, but you can see it in the attached clip. It has often been misidentified as a public service announcement.

Another interesting story involves actor Alec Guinness. As I understand it, Dean introduced himself to Guinness and showed him his new Porsche 550 Spyder. Guinness reportedly thought the car was "sinister" and told Dean, "If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week."

The conversation occurred on Sept. 23, 1955, exactly one week before Dean's fatal crash.

This date always brings back unique memories for me because, when I was a teenager, director James Bridges came to my hometown of Conway, Ark., to make a movie about the impact Dean's death had on teens of the time. Bridges grew up in Paris, Ark., which wasn't exactly a stone's throw from my hometown, but it was fairly close, and, as I recall, he chose my hometown because it was a college town and he wanted to use the academic setting as a backdrop.

The movie was semi–autobiographical for Bridges, who was 19 when Dean died.

The original title of the movie was "9–30–55." When the finished product came to the screen, the title had been changed to "September 30, 1955."

Prior to filming, Bridges held auditions that drew literally hundreds of local wannabe actors, and he actually wound up casting a local girl who was often said to be a star in the making.

I don't think she ever made another movie, but there were some noteworthy folks in the cast. The most familiar was Richard Thomas, who was the star of the TV series "The Waltons" at the time.

Two other actors made their debuts in the film — Dennis Quaid (who may be best known for his work in "The Right Stuff") and Tom Hulce (who is probably best known for his appearances in "Animal House" and "Amadeus").