13 December 2010

Accidents: James Dean

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

"Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider
Took him down the road to eternity..."
~ Lyric from "James Dean" (by J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Don Henley)

Nothing secures a place in the land of legends more securely than exceptional talent extinguished by violent, untimely death.

James Dean had accumulated a relatively small but impressive body of work by the time of his tragic death at age 24 as the result of massive injuries sustained in a car crash, including starring roles in three films that have gone on to become recognized as classics: Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant.

A student of the famous Lee Strasberg Actor's Studio, the gifted method actor was a renowned racing enthusiastic, and his racing career ran concurrently with his film projects. He purchased a race-ready MG TD when he secured the part of Cal Trask in East of Eden, and later upgraded to a Porsche 356 Speedster, earning second, third, and fourth placements on the California racing circuit.

While filming Rebel Without a Cause, Dean began searching for the perfect race car, settling on a Porsche 550 Spyder when production on his first choice, the Lotus MK X, was delayed. The level of personal risk associated with racing fast cars was not lost on the Hollywood studios that employed him, and Dean was contractually forbidden to race while filming Giant.

Ironically, once filming was completed, Dean was free to race again, and he died on September 30, 1955 while in route to compete in a car race being staged in Salinas, California. His final film, Giant, was released posthumously in 1956.

The car in which Dean was killed, the Porsche 550 Spyder, has attracted its own share of myths and legends, including rumors that the car was cursed. Dean hired designer George Barris (who would later design the original Batmobile) to add custom touches. The finished version included racing stripes and the moniker "Little Bastard" painted on the car.

As with any tragic event, there are always the eventual "what-ifs" that arise. What if Dean had stuck with his original plan to drive his station wagon and tow the race car, instead of making the last minute decision to drive the racer, in order to become more familiar with the car before the race? What if the other driver, 23-year-old student Donald Turnupseed, had not crossed into Dean's lane when moving to take the fork onto State Route 41 near Cholame, California, hitting Dean's vehicle nearly head on? What if Dean had heeded the warning impulsively offered by actor Alec Guinness? His words to young Dean upon viewing the racer were, "If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week."

In a final irony, it was announced in 2010 that the strip of highway known as "Blood Alley" where Dean met his end fifty-five years earlier, will be widened due to its notorious history of fatal car crashes.

Lisa Marie Wilkinson is an IPPY Gold Medal winning author of historical adventure-romance. Her latest novel, STOLEN PROMISE, featuring vibrant Gypsy characters and breath-taking romance, is available now.