James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. His father Winton was initially a farmer, but decided to become a dental technician instead and moved the family to Santa Monica, California. His mother, Mildred, developed cancer and died when James was only nine years old.
His mother's death had a major impact on James and his father sent him to live with relatives in Fairmount, Indiana. During school, he participated in numerous electives, including forensics, basketball, and drama. Over the years, his relationship with his father became distant, but that did not stop him from moving in with his father and new stepmother in 1949, at the age of eighteen.
James chose to move back to California to pursue a degree in pre-law at Santa Monica University, although he actually wanted to study acting. He asked his father to support him in studying acting, but his father refused to pay for acting school under the belief that it would get James nowhere in life. He decided to switch his major to acting anyway, but ended up getting kicked out of his father's house as a result.
Forced to support himself, James worked a series of dead end jobs, including one as an attendant at a parking lot. He was able to star in a commercial for Coca-Cola and get a job testing stunts for a game show, but none of them led anywhere. James eventually decided to move to New York City to pursue his dream of acting.
In New York City, James applied to the famous Actors Studio for acting classes. Lee Strasberg saw something in James' acting and decided to accept him as a student at little or no cost. James quickly learned the ropes of acting and landed more roles on shows such as Kraft Television Theater and Robert Montgomery Presents.
He developed a great reputation for his ability to apply his own inner tension to his acting, creating very realistic and emotional performances. Rave reviews began appearing in acting journals, leading to job offers from Hollywood to star in films. His first film roles were very small, but he was given a leading role in 1955's East of Eden, playing Cal Trask.
As a result of his performance in East of Eden, James was nominated for Best Actor in a leading role at that year's Academy Awards, leading to even better roles. In 1956, he was cast as the lead character in Rebel Without a Cause, the first drama to take a serious look at the growing problem of teen angst. Later that year, he starred in the epic film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
James made many efforts to reconcile with his father, but encountered some difficulty. James had clearly made a successful career out of acting, but his father was still disdainful of his achievements and avoided meeting him. It is believed that sometime during the filming of Giant, James learned that Winton was not his biological father, but they were able to put aside their differences and restore their relationship.
By this time, James was a major celebrity and he began enjoying his money by entering the world of automobile racing. He purchased a Porsche 550 Spyder and participated in several auto races before meeting his untimely death. On September 30, 1955, James died in an auto accident when a car cut across his lane to turn, colliding with his Porsche. Also in his car was auto enthusiast and friend Lance Reventlow, who was riding with James to a race in Salinas, California.
Despite his very short career in acting, James Dean has become a major figure in American culture. His deep and complex personality has intrigued nearly everyone who has seen his performances, making one wonder how different the world would be if he had lived on to produce more great films.