Dean began his life in Marion, Indiana, born to Winton Dean and Mildred Wilson. Dean’s father, who was originally a farmer, moved to California to become a dentist, and six years later, Dean’s family joined his father in Santa Monica, California. Dean had a very close relationship with his mother, who some said was the only person capable of understanding him. When Dean was only nine years old, his mother started experiencing stomach pains and soon after died of uterine cancer. His father doubted his abilities to take care of his young son alone, and sent Dean to live with his Quaker aunt and uncle on a farm in Fairmont, Indiana.
During his struggling adolescent time, Dean looked to Rev. James DeWeerd, a local Methodist pastor, for advice and friendship. It is thought that DeWeerd had a major influence on some of Dean’s interests later in life like bullfighting, car racing, and theater. After graduating high school, Dean moved back to California where he studied law at Santa Monica College, but quickly switched to the University of California, Los Angeles to pursue a degree in theater. He was picked from a group of 350 other actors to play the part of Malcolm in Macbeth, and after just this one stage performance, he dropped out of college to take on a career in acting full-time.
The newbie actor made his first television appearance in a commercial for Pepsi, and earned a speaking part in Sailor Beware, alongside Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. He was convinced to move to New York City in 1951 to further pursue his career by his then mentor, Roger Brackett. His career began to take off after he was accepted into the Actor’s Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg. A series of performances in episodes of television shows like Kraft Television Theatre and Robert Montgomery Presents began to make Dean a recognizable force in the acting world.
In 1953, director Elia Kazan was searching for someone to fill the role of the emotionally complex ’Cal Trask’ in a screenplay adaptation of East of Eden by John Steinbeck. After Steinbeck met Dean, he thought the young actor was perfect for the role and he was immediately cast. Probably his most prominent film portrayal was that of the misunderstood teenager, Jim Stark, in Rebel Without a Cause. This role instilled him in the heart of American youths as a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment.
His last film was Giant, which he scooped up a supporting role for as an oil-rich Texan alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. On September 30, 1955, Dean, who was a non-professional car racer on the side, took his new Porsche 55 Spyder out to a race with his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. On the way to the race, he received a speeding ticket, and not much later he was involved in a deadly head-on collision with a 23-year-old Cal Poly student. Dean’s car flipped in the air, and he and Wütherich were killed almost immediately.
After his death, Dean was nominated for two Oscars for his work in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He became the first actor to receive a nomination posthumously and the only actor to receive two nominations posthumously in history. Because of his death at the age of 24, he remains one of those celebrities who will be viewed as forever young, and his cinematic impact on American teens lives on through today.