COLUMN SIXTY-NINE, MARCH 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
IN THE SPRING OF 1953 MGM offered to fly James Dean to Hollywood for
a screen test. On the advice of
Jane Deacy, he turned the offer down. Miss
Deacy felt that her client was not yet ready for films, and that his TV career
was going well enough so that he could wait.
Hollywood would beckon again, she assured him, and
the next time their offer would have to be a better one.
In a single week in April, Dean had the lead in two
separate television shows. In the
first, he played a safecracker; two days later he appeared as a "reform
school graduate" named Arbie Ferris on T-Men in Action.
The show, entitled Case of the Sawed-off Shot Gun," was
sandwiched in between Amos & Andy and a Yankee-Senators baseball
game. Another young actor, named
Ben Gazzara, was also in the cast.
The program notes state simply: "Arbie learned
the hard way, almost too late, that crime does not pay."
But Dean was learning crime did pay---or playing
criminals did, anyway. Usually he
commanded between two and three hundred dollars for a show, which was not bad,
considering it only involved four or five days' work, including rehearsals.
Invariably, Dean played offbeat roles.
In Keep Our Honor Bright Jimmy was a college student who
masterminded a cheating scandal; the show appeared opposite Dragnet, the popular
cops and robbers drama that starred Jack Webb as the no-nonsense Sergeant
Friday. In A Long Time Till
Dawn, Dean played a hot-tempered youth in trouble with the law.
The latter show was aired in November 1953.
The opening scene is set in a diner, and Dean appears hunched over a
table, mumbling his lines and twirling a cigarette, his trademark mannerisms
that later became famous.
As Dean had almost no head for money, Jane Deacy
wisely held on to all his earnings, and he lived off an allowance she gave him.
Whenever he wanted something extra, he had to ask her.
Reluctantly, she permitted him to have a motorcycle, and Dean bought an
Indian 550, a sleek machine he dashed around the city on, often with a pretty
girl seated behind him.
He now moved out of his hotel, too, first subletting
an apartment on West 56th Street from an airline pilot, and then taking a small
flat of his own on the top floor of a brownstone at 19 West 68th Street.
Right off Central Park, the building was in a neighborhood Dean could
rightly call his old one. The apartment soon became a gathering place for other
"The same people were always there,"
someone said, "and nobody ever wanted to go home."
The regulars included Marty Landau, a friend from
Dean's days on Beat the Clock, and Bill Gunn, a young Negro who
introduced Dean to the bongo drums. (Actor Dean Knell claimed that after Dean's
death, Gunn went to his apartment and removed some poems that might have proved
embarrassing to his friend. If so,
the poems have disappeared.)
But Dean himself moved in many different worlds and
various milieus; he seldom introduced his friends to each other and each one
knew him as something different.
"He had a vital gift for bringing people into
their own focus," said Rusty Slocum. "When
you were with Jimmy, he could make you feel like you were the one person in his
Slocum was an eighteen-year-old would-be actor who
hung around with Dean and was part of his circle. It was a crowd he later cryptically, or maybe not so
cryptically, described as "Jimmy's little girlfriends and boyfriends."
Anyway, women moved in and out of Dean's life in
rapid succession; friends soon lost count of them. He would meet a girl at Walgreen's or Cromwell's Rockefeller
Center drugstore in the morning, and by the evening she would be replaced by
Some lingered longer. He went out with Betsy Palmer, with whom he appeared on a
television show, and spent a good deal of time with Arlene Sax.
"He could make a moment," Arlene said.
"Just walking down the street with him was like an adventure."
Betsy thought Dean was basically disinterested in
the sex act. But Arlene has
different recollections: "He was an Aquarius and I'm an Aries," she
said, "and the two of us really got it on together."
Once, Arlene remembers, they got carried away and
were surprised in the middle of lovemaking by a friend who had gone out to buy
groceries. When Dean was dating
Arlene, she was still in high school---a junior.
Around the same time, he was seeing a wealthy debutante, too.
Intellectually this was also an exciting time for
Jimmy. He read Kafka and T. E.
Lawrence, Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, and even I Go Pogo.
He hung out in Greenwich Village at places like Minetta's and the San
Remo, and went to film showings at art houses, seeing the movies of Gerard
Philipe and Harry Baur.
"Anyone who hasn't seen Harry Baur doesn't know
what movie art can be," Dean said of the French actor who had appeared in
the French-language version of Crime and Punishment.
Now that Jimmy had some money, the city was truly his.
He admired the Picassos at the Museum of Modern Art and dined at the
Russian Tea Room. Sometimes he
would hop in a cab and tell the driver to just throw down the meter and ride.
But Dean never lost track of his primary
purpose---to grow as an actor.
"His appetite for life was enormous," the
director Herman Shumlin remarked, "but acting was his place in this
As a change from the criminals he was playing on television, Dean sought other roles. Jane Bowles wanted him for the lead in her play In the Summer House, but producer Oliver Smith thought he wasn't right for the part. Through Frank Corsaro, however, Dean landed a small part in an off-Broadway production of The Scarecrow, a play that was based on a short story by Nathaniel
One friend found Dean 'a strong personality cloaked under the mask of a young fawn'
played a ghost. The show opened at
the Theater De Lys June 16, 1953, for a limited two?week engagement, and Dean
appeared along with Eli Wallach, William Redfield, and Patricia Neal.
Corsaro was a Yale
graduate who became known for his innovative opera productions. He found Dean
"a strong personality cloaked under the mask of a young fawn." Corsaro
later said of his friend:
"No matter what other mediums he worked in,
Dean would have eventually returned to the stage. He needed the applause, the sympathy with an audience.
How do you think his memory has survived all these years, if he hadn't
had that ability to communicate with people?"
At Corsaro's suggestion, Dean did something he swore
he would never do: He made peace with Lee Strasberg and returned to the Actors
Studio. The peace was never more than an uneasy one.
"Jimmy was always talking about the
Studio," remembers Claire Heller. "One
minute he'd say how terrific it was. Then the next minute he'd tell you the whole thing was a lot
of crap. He was very
His opinion of Strasberg also varied; the director
would be a "genius" or a "phony" depending on jimmy's mood.
Strasberg took note of the young actor and his work.
He believed that Dean had "a sense of not caring what happened to
him" and that he radiated "nervousness, doubts, and concern." But
to the Studio's director this "ferment" was part of the creative
process since "an actor and his instrument cannot be separate."
Dean appeared as the cadet Starkson in the original
Studio production of End As a Man, and played Pierrot in a
production of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria Da Capo.
Director Fred Stewart wanted to do the play in public, but Miss
Millay's sister Norma, her literary executrix, considered the production too
Dean also did a scene from Chekov's The Sea Gull
with Joseph Anthony, who later directed The Rainmaker on Broadway.
Dean played Treplev, and, according to Anthony, "Dean totally
identified with the character, a fellow wanting to be a writer, on the outs with
society, and in trouble with his family." To think himself into the role,
Dean told Anthony he pretended the redoubtable Stella Adler was his mother.
Strasberg said afterward he thought the scene was "lovely."
Dean's reputation as an actor grew, so did his reputation as a personality.
Within New York acting circles he was now known as something of a
character, an eccentric. Ever since
his school days in Fairmount, Dean had stood out from the others, and now in the
most diverse city in the world he continued to do so.
It was no small feat.
Sometimes he might drop by a friend's apartment, say
hello, take some food from the refrigerator, eat, and then depart without saying
another word. Peanut butter and
pickles were a favorite dish. He
brought his drums to his friend Jerry Lucce's restaurant and played them to the
annoyance of other diners.
At photographer Roy Schatt's apartment, Dean once
took a chair and sat in the street on it, disregarding the traffic.
Another time, Schatt recalls, Dean somehow wound up stand?ing in the
nude on the sidewalk.
"He was a mess," Schatt said.
Their friendship ended in a quarrel when Dean
refused to loan the struggling photographer money for a camera.
After Dean's death, Schatt was always available for an interview.
Sometimes his comments were malicious---and untrue, e.g., that Dean did
not like Negroes. However
unjustified, perhaps Jimmy's arrogance in success invited such revenge.
Dean would go days without shaving and carried
around a revolver with one bullet in it. He
bought a porkpie hat and wore it indoors and out until he tired of it.
One friend remembers waiting for Dean in a hotel lobby and having him
show up dressed in a dyed-black trenchcoat, wearing a Swedish candle ring on his
head. He had just bought the
ornament in a thrift shop, he explained.
"You were supposed to respect your craft,"
Richard Grayson explains. "If
you showed up at a casting office without a jacket and tie they might not let
But Jimmy dressed as he pleased and acted as he
pleased. During a rehearsal for a Studio
One drama entitled Sentence of Death, director Matt Harlib was
startled to find Dean in a corner standing on his head.
He found it relaxing, the actor said.
At an interview with casting agent Marion Daugherty, Dean went to sleep and had to be revived with coffee. His chronic lateness drove directors and fellow
as a 'crazy boy'
actors crazy. Once
he missed a dress rehearsal entirely; he was sitting alone in a coffee shop and
forgot about it. Another time,
kidding around at an audition, he knocked a female producer's hat off.
"He was a crazy boy," she later
After a meeting with Dean, producer Lawrence Langner
drew a caricature of him and hung it on his office wall.
He labeled it "a commentary on the sad state of the modern
actor." The drawing looks remarkably like one of Saint-Exup?ry's
illustrations for The Little Prince, Dean's favorite book, the story of
the little man "who laughs, who has golden hair, and who refuses to answer
Still, Dean continued to work, and directors
continued to seek his services.
"If you knew your job," claims John Peyser,
"Jimmy respected you and gave no trouble.
It was a pleasure to direct him."
Pointing Dean out to a friend, director Homer
Fickett said, "To look at him you wouldn't think he's playing with a full
deck, but he's really quite sharp." One director, Bob Simon, even found
Jimmy "fun to work with."
Paul Huber remembered that, one night at the Lambs
Club, another actor began a conversation about Dean by saying, "That little
son of a bitch."
Such was Dean's inventiveness that he would seldom
do a scene twice in the same way. He
was forever experimenting, searching for ways to get deeper inside a role or
make a scene come alive. Even
decades later, actors would recall touches Jimmy brought to his roles.
Jay Barney remembered that on Studio One Dean played a condemned
man. During an interview with the
prison chaplain, Dean wanted to giggle "to show a lack of contact with
reality," but the director had him play the part straight. In one
television show in which Dean played a young man hospitalized after a suicide
attempt, he suggested he play with a toy while lying in the hospital bed.
"It was a lovely piece of business,"
writer George Roy Hill remembers, "and just right for a scene that might
have otherwise been somewhat on the maudlin side."
Dean liked the effect so well that he later employed
it again: The movie Rebel Without a Cause opens with Dean lying
intoxicated on the sidewalk, playing with a toy monkey---the innocent youth in a
cold, hard world.
But all that was still in the future; television was
Dean's present m'tier and his career moved along without so much as the
The early 1950s was an exciting time in television;
some would later regard it as the medium's Golden Age.
Original dramas filled the airwaves, shows like Studio One,
Kraft Television Theatre, and Armstrong Circle Theater enjoyed
appeared on all of them, working with performers like Dorothy Gish, Jessica
Tandy, and Ed Begley; doing scripts by promising new writers like Hill and Rod
Serling. And Dean's reputation continued to grow.
In August 1953, Producer Franklin Heller cast him in
a drama, Death Is My Neighbor, with Walter Hampden, the distinguished
Shakespearean actor and president of the Players Club.
Heller admired Hampden and regarded him as "one
of the fine gentlemen of the theater." Although he had known the actor for
many years, he had never called him anything but Mr. Hampden.
He was therefore shocked "when Jimmy, upon being introduced to him,
instantly addressed him as Walter." When Heller took the young actor aside
and chided him for his familiarity, Dean told him that he didn't understand
"why everyone was making such a fuss over 'some old cat."" Then,
Dean abruptly walked out of the studio "without saying a word." Always
unpredictable, he reappeared the next day and got on with rehearsal as though
nothing had happened.
Dean quickly learned why Hampden was treated with
respect, even veneration, by those who recognized a true pro.
Director John Peyser recalled that after the cast had gone over the
script, he called Dean and Hampden together to block the first scene.
It was a highly dramatic one in which Jimmy told the old man of his
misdeeds, and the old man felt pity.
Peyser recalled that as Hampden began speaking his
lines, tears welled up in the old man's eyes.
His voice sounded choked and everyone appeared deeply moved.
Then, abruptly, Hampden stopped and turned to the director.
In a clear voice, he asked, "Is that what you want, Mr. Peyser?"
Peyser replied, "Yes, thank you, Mr. Hampden." Dean seemed stunned by
the old actor's technique; his jaw dropped and he gazed at Hampden in amazement.
Peyser recalled afterward that "from then on, during rehearsals, Mr.
Hampden could not start to sit down unless Jimmy was there placing a chair for
The show aired on October 6, 1953.
Jimmy played a disturbed youth who plans the murder of a young girl who
had spurned his advances. Betsy Palmer played the girl, whose life is saved when the
police unravel her admirer's plot.
"A comparative newcomer, James Dean, stole the
spotlight," Variety wrote, "delivering a magnetic performance
that brought a routine meller [slang for melodrama] alive.
He's got quite a future ahead of him." Hampden told the producer:
"That young man put me on my toes and I'll
wager he'll have the same effect on any other actor he works with, and though I
won't live to see it, someday he'll be listed on the rostrum of truly great
At the time he said this, Hampden was in his seventies and had little more than a year to live; Dean had slightly less than two. ##
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