Rebel With A Cause – My Journey With James Dean
It would change my life.
Little did I know that two years later I would be sitting in Dean’s living room chatting with his first cousin and wife in the farmhouse where he grew up in Fairmount, Indiana.
Never before or since has an actor spoken to me so personally or moved me so deeply. I was totally unprepared for such a reaction, as I had this vague idea that he was somehow a “Fonzi-like” character full of swagger and braggadocio, based on the way some people talked about him.
Seeing James Dean changed my life the same way hearing the Beatles did. John Lennon once said, “Without Jimmy Dean, the Beatles would never have existed.”
A few weeks after seeing “Rebel” I saw Dean’s first film, “East of Eden”, and was even more impressed and blown away by his talent. To me, his searing performance in that movie is one of the greatest debuts in film history. The birthday sequence remains, for me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever filmed.
James Dean was the first actor to portray a teenager realistically. No one captured the angst, the confusion, better than he. Before he came along, the only real representation of young people was the silly, idyllic, Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney. James Dean changed all that. If anyone could legitimately say, “I’m you”, it was James Dean.
“To me, acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves, in this great need we all have to express ourselves.” – James Dean
In the ensuing year, I read just about everything I could about James Dean and his life and found that I could relate to him as a person, as well as an actor. He was just as screwed up as I was. My heroes have always been actors, writers and artists. In any era, their contributions are the lasting ones and the ones that define us. Nobody remembers an economist.
After my first year of college, I conned my parents into driving from Connecticut to Indiana under the pretense of possibly transferring to Ball State University (where I had no intention of going), but the goal was to visit James Dean’s home town of Fairmount. And they knew that.
I didn’t really know how much of James Dean was left in Fairmount, other than his grave, but I wanted to see the town and pay my respects to an actor who’s work had affected me to the core and my mom and dad, God love ‘em, obliged me.
We soon learned of the existence of the Fairmount Historical Museum, which housed many of Dean’s personal belongings and awards, including a self portrait sculpture that he was working on at the time of his death in September of 1955. I would later turn a photo of him working on that sculpture into a painting.
After leaving the museum armed with souvenirs, the plan was to swing by the cemetery briefly and then head on to Indianapolis for the rest of the day.
But that was not to be.
A car was leaving the cemetery as we were pulling in and my dad asked the woman in the car “where Jimmy Dean was buried.” She smiled and told us where his grave was as she pulled away. We parked the car and walked toward his grave, not noticing the car had turned around and was now pulling up behind us. Being from the tri-state area, I immediately smelled trouble and thought we would be scolded for intruding on a gravesite. I couldn’t have been more wrong as the woman introduced herself, with a smile, saying, “I’m Mary Lou Winslow. I’m married to Jimmy’s cousin. If you have time, just follow me back to the house.”
Indianapolis could wait.
I had come into this town not knowing anything about it except that James Dean had grown up there and now I was in the very house he grew up in. For the next two hours, Mrs. Winslow shared her memories of James Dean and showed us letters from his fans all over the world. As we left the farmhouse, even my parents remarked that this was the most amazing travel experience they had ever had. As fate would have it, this would also be our last family vacation. My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 and passed away a year later in 1986 at the age of 56.
As much as I could personally identify with James Dean, the one aspect I thought I was spared from was the loss of his mother at the age of 9. When my own mother died, I told my father, “Now I know how James Dean felt.”
“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it his problem, and to express it his dedication.” – James Dean
After a lost year, I decided to further my pursuit of the arts by studying acting in New York City, enrolling at HB Studio, a well known acting school in Greenwich Village. For my teacher I chose William Hickey because I had recently seen his brilliant performance in Prizzi’s Honor, not knowing he had been a friend of James Dean until a few weeks into the class. It was an honor to be in Hickey’s class for two years. I learned more about life and myself than I ever did in any other class, college included. I even wrote my second screenplay during this special time in my life. When I told Hickey I was writing a second screenplay, he remarked, “Well, you’re a true writer, then.” A comment I treasure to this day.
Another artistic outlet I shared with James Dean was drawing and painting, which I’ve done all my life. In 2004, I had the opportunity to visit Fairmount, Indiana once again. I took with me a charcoal portrait I had done of Dean some years earlier. In the screenplay in my head, this drawing would one day be on display at the Fairmount Historical Museum alongside Dean’s own things. Hoping to fulfill this dream, I showed them the drawing and they liked it very much. It’s been on display at the museum since 2005 in the same room as Dean’s Triumph Motorcycle. (The drawing is seen just above Marcus Winslow’s head starting at the 15 second mark)
”Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that’s all you have.” – James Dean
Several years before I had come across a book called “Dizzy and Jimmy, My Life with James Dean, A Love Story” by Liz Sheridan. The book is a memoir of her relationship with him in the early fifties in New York City when he was a struggling actor trying to make it and she was a dancer. After reading numerous biographies of Dean written by people who didn’t even know him, her book for me was like “being there” and gave a glimpse of the real James Dean before he was James Dean. His wit and humor shone through the pages as well as the vulnerability and sensitivity that the world has come to know. Finally I felt I had met the real James Dean and I could relate to him even more. Liz would go on to become a successful actress herself, playing many roles such as the nosey neighbor in “Alf” and Jerry Seinfeld’s mom on “Seinfeld”. When I found out she had a website, I wanted to send her an email just to let her know how much I had enjoyed the book and to thank her for writing it. She replied the next day and we struck up a friendship. I sent her some of my paintings of James Dean and other paintings via email that she liked very much. In return she sent me an autographed copy of her book.
“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.” – James Dean
My final (so far) intersection with James Dean’s inner circle came in the form of LIFE photographer Dennis Stock, who took the iconic photo of James Dean in Times Square. On the advice of Marcus Winslow (James Dean’s first cousin) I contacted Magnum Photos, who Stock worked for, to ask for copyright permission to sell copies of my paintings of James Dean that were based on his classic photographs. Stock not only gave me permission, he also signed an 8 x 10 digital print of my two paintings.
Dennis Stock passed away in January of 2010 at the age of 81.
“But you can’t show some far off idyllic conception of behavior if you want the kids to come and see the picture. You’ve got to show what it’s really like, and try to reach them on their own grounds.” – James Dean
James Dean inspired me to devote my life to the arts and to never give up on my dreams. Still does. He also showed me that this would be a lonely road and a thorny path, but that it was the only journey for me, as well.
Had my teacher not shown us “Rebel Without a Cause” in 1982, I wonder if any of this would have happened.