Reel Reviews

The Death of James Dean in a Car Accident

James DeanA Cause Without a Rebel - Just How Did James Dean Die?

James Dean was arguably one of the freshest young faces on the Hollywood scene in the 1950s. But because he died at such a young age, he was probably known more for the films he didn't make, than the ones he did. With just a scant three movies filmed and only one released before his death, it's quite impressive that his legacy still burns so brightly. In fact James Dean's popularity remains higher in death than it did during his short life.

Early Life

James Byron Dean was raised on a farm in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931 to Winton and Mildred Dean. Winton would eventually leave the farming life behind for a career as a dental technician and move his family to Santa Monica, California. Dean would enroll in Brentwood Public School.

Mildred would die when James was only nine years old, prompting his father to send James to live with his Aunt Ortense Winslow in Fairmount, Indiana where James would, ironically, receive a Quaker upbringing. James would eventually enroll at Fairmount High School (Class of '49) where his drama teacher encouraged him to enter a public speaking contest. He would not only win the contest, but would eventually take the state championship in public speaking. James would graduate from Fairmount High School in 1949 and move back to California with his father and stepmother.

Hollywood Calls

Encouraged to pursue a career in law, the young Dean would enroll at Santa Monica City College before eventually transferring to UCLA and changing his major to drama. His decision to pursue acting over law would anger his father and lead to a spat, resulting in Dean being thrown out of his father's house.

 James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Giant.While struggling as an NBC page, Dean's roommate, actor William Bast, would eventually get Dean a spot as an extra in a Coca-Cola television commercial followed by a brief spate as a stunt tester in the Television game show Beat the Clock. But Dean would eventually drop out of college and was forced to take small jobs to pay his bills.

Heeding the advice of actor James Whitmore, Dean would move to New York City in the fall of 1951 to not only "find himself" but to pursue a career in stage acting. Dean would audition for and receive a role in Broadway's See the Jaguar, marking his Broadway debut. But the show was a flop. Before receiving his next role in Broadway's The Immoralist, Dean would do a great deal of television work including Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, General Electric Theater and others.

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

While working in New York, Dean would receive the opportunity of a lifetime. Director Elia Kazan would hire him for East of Eden (1955) in which he would play Cal Trask, a role that would ring true with teenage moviegoers throughout the country, cementing James Dean as a new Hollywood hero. While shooting his Academy award nominated role in East of Eden, Dean would fall in love with the beautiful Italian import Pier Angeli, then a rising young star in the MGM studio system. The two mixed like oil and water however, forcing Angeli to break off the relationship before she announced her marriage to singer Vic Damone. This rejection would only strengthen Dean's resolve, sinking him headfirst into his acting career.

James Dean Spyder 550James Dean would film two more movies, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, the first of which would propel him into the stratosphere as not only a major Hollywood actor, but also as a new spokesperson for the entire teen generation. James Dean was now more popular than Marlon Brando.

Little Bastard

Always the rebel, Dean's real life hobbies would reflect his daredevil on-screen enthusiasm. In addition to collecting guns and riding motorcycles, Dean loved his car, a silver Porsche 550 Spyder that he nicknamed "Little Bastard." But unfortunately, "Little Bastard" would turn on him on a cool September evening.

James Dean Car CrashIn the early afternoon hours of September 30, 1955, Dean would head out with Porsche factory mechanic, Rolph Weutherich to an auto rally in Salinas, California. Dean and the "Little Bastard" were pulled over for speeding by a Bakersfield police officer, who issued a citation for doing 65 in a 55 and cautioned Dean to slow down and be careful. Dean and Rolph would continue their journey to the Salinas rally and headed out on Highway 466 towards Cholame, California, unaware of their fate that lie before them.

Meanwhile, near Paso Robles, 23 year-old Cal Poly student, Donald Turnupseed was heading home in his 1950 Ford Tutor. He was making a left turn at the intersection of Highways 41 onto State Route 466 (later State Route 46) unaware of the Spyder approaching from the opposite direction. At the last moment, Turnupseed pulled back to the right to get out of the path of the approaching Dean. James Dean yelled to his friend seated next to him "He's Got to See Us." (Some sources cite the quote as, "That guy's gotta stop... He'll see us.")

"Little Bastard" plowed into the broad side (read this report and this one from our lovely Morbidly Hollywood readers, that contain further information about the details of how the two cars impacted one another) of the Ford Tutor. "Little Bastard" and its occupants would come to rest near a telephone pole fifteen feet off the road.

Contrary to the reports that have since stated Dean's speed in excess of 80 miles per hour, California Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson (one of the first law enforcement officers on the scene) said "the wreckage and the position of Dean's body indicated his speed at the time of the accident was more like 55 mph."

Rolf, thrown from the car, survived with a broken leg and serious head injuries, but he would survive. Donald Turnupseed, escaped the accident with only a gashed forehead and bruised nose. But James Dean, America's rebel without a cause, would suffer fatal injuries, including a near decapitation. His body would be taken via ambulance to Paso Robles War memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival by Deputy Coroner Paul E. Werrick. The Coroner's report would list Dean's death as broken neck, multiple fractures of upper and lower jaw, multiple fractures of left and right arm and other internal injuries caused by a 2 car collision. James Dean was but 24 years old.

James Dean's wrecked out PorscheKuehl's Funeral Home in Paso Robles, California would prepare the badly mangled body for its return back home to Indiana. His funeral would take place at the Fairmount Friends Church on October 8, 1955.

James Dean is buried in Fairmount's Park Cemetery where his tombstone has been stolen 3 times, the last in July of 1998.

Ironically, Rolf Weutherich would be killed in a car accident in 1981, after surviving several failed suicide attempts. Donald Turnupseed would die in 1995 of lung cancer.


UPDATE: Morbidly Hollywood friend Marsha Boyer provides the following update in the Death of James Dean discussion forum:
"i found a couple of errors on the article concerning james deans accident, first it was discovered that he had not been speeding at the time of the accident , donald turnupseed was on his way home to tulare and was on hwy466 turning onto hwy 41 the two cars hit drivers side to drivers side, dean was not flown to passo robles war memorial hospital he was taken by ambulance the doctor who attended dean was dr. bossert who was our family doctor.

thank you
marsha b.
"


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More James Dean Stuff:

James Dean ambulance
The ambulance that transported Dean's body from the scene of the accident.

 

James Dean Memorial
The James Dean memorial near the scene of the crash in Paso Robles, California.

 

James Dean Memorial Junction
The intersection of Highways 41 and State Route 466 (later changed to State Route 46) as it appears today. The small road sign to the right says "James Dean Memorial Junction. There is also a small plaque to the side of the road commemorating the site. (would love to have a pic of it... hint, hint)*
*Thanks to Morbidly Hollywood friend Bert D. we have some great pics of the commemorative plaque
James Dean Roadside Plaque
James Dean Roadside Plaque

 

James Dean's wrecked Porsche
The wrecked Spyder after the accident.

 

James Dean in ambulance
James Dean's body being lifted into the rear of an ambulance at the scene of the crash.

 

Donald Turnupseed
Donald Turnupseed

 

Highways 466 and 41 just outside Paso Robles - James Dean
"X" marks the intersection of Highways 466 and 41 just outside Paso Robles. Hwy 466 has since been renamed 46. San Francisco is to the north and Los Angeles is to the south.

 

James Dean handwritten letter
A hand-written letter left behind by Dean as instructions for feeding his cat while he is away at the car rally at Salinas, California.
1 teaspoon white Karo
1 big can evaporated milk
equal part boiled water or distilled water
I egg yoke (sp.)
mix and chill
Don't feed him meat or formula cold
1 drop vitamin solution per day
Take Marcus to Dr. Cooper on Melrose for shots next week.
Author's note: That's one spoiled cat!

 

Last photograph ever taken of james dean
The last official photo taken of James Dean on the morning of his fatal car crash.

 

Here's a pretty cool video recreation of James Dean's car crash near Cholame, California. Also includes footage near the site, interviews from those involved and an actual recreation of the crash.

 

Here's another video that refutes the long-held claim that James Dean was driving at the time of the crash. Interview with the last living witness to rolJames Dean's fatal car crash claims he saw mechanic Rolf driving.

 

Hollywood Ranch Market

The intersection of Vine and Fountain streets, where the Hollywood Ranch Market used to sit. Dean reportedly ate a doughnut from here on the morning he died. Many erroneous reports have Dean eating at the Farmer's Market (below) on Fairfax.

Farmers Market

 

Rebel Without a Cause Griffith Observatory Location
A key scene (see inset) of Rebel Without a Cause was filmed on the balcony of the observatory. Notice how the background landscape has changed since 1955.

 

Griffith Observatory James Dean Plaque
A plaque outside the Griffith Park Observatory commemorates the filming of Rebel Without a Cause.


Some James Dean External Links:

The Official James Dean Site
The Curse of James Dean's Porsche
Dean's Last Ride over at American Legends
About James Dean at Wikipedia
The Formal Dedication of the James Dean Memorial Junction of California Highways 41 & 46
James Dean's death car at Unsolved Mysteries
James Dean at Findadeath.com
James Dean's grave

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