Sixty-eight years ago today, iconic actor James Dean woke up in the rustic log cabin home he rented at 14611 Sutton St., in Sherman Oaks.
His landlord, Nicco Romanos, the maitre d’ at the Villa Capri restaurant, stopped by about 7:20 a.m. and made Dean coffee. About 25 minutes later, Dean left to pick up stuntman Bill Hickman so they could collect his race car and head north for a car race Dean was to compete in.
As he left home, Dean was probably anticipating the race with his new Porsche 550 Spyder. What he wasn’t anticipating was that this would be the last day of his life.
His cabin was torn down long ago. The gas station on Ventura Boulevard near Beverly Glen where he stopped to gas up his car is now a flower shop.
But his towering status as an actor performing in bad boy roles remains. He had major roles in only three movies:
- “East of Eden” (1955), in which he played Cal Trask, one of twin brothers who could never win his father’s affection. He won the first posthumous Best Actor Academy Award given to a male actor for this role.
- “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), which made him a cultural icon for his portrayal of teenager Jim Stark. Dean’s performance in that role was honored with a bust in front of Griffith Observatory, where many of the movie’s scenes were shot.
- “Giant” (1956), in which he played Jett Rink a vengeful cowhand who strikes oil and suddenly becomes rich. Filming was just winding up when Dean accidentally collided with another car on the road near Cholame, Calif., and died at the age of 24. He won his second posthumous Oscar nomination for this role.
The American Film Institute has ranked him 18 best male movie star on its “100 Years 100 Stars” list. Before his death, he had signed a $1 million, six-year, nine-film contract with Warner Bros. Roles he was slated to have in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) and “The Left-Handed Gun” (1958) were given to actor Paul Newman.
Dean loved motorcycles and fast cars. In 1954, after winning his role in “East of Eden,” he bought a Triumph Tiger T110 motorcycle. Later that year, he bought a used, red 1953 MG sports car. The following March, he traded it for Porsche Super Speedster at Competition Motors in Hollywood.
On March 26, just before filming started on “Rebel Without a Cause,” he entered the Palm Springs Road Races with the new Porsche, placing first overall in the Saturday novice class and second overall in the main event on Sunday. He raced again in Bakersfield in early May, placing first in class and third overall. On Memorial Day he competed in Santa Barbara, working his way from 18th to fourth position before blowing a piston.
Warner Bros. put its foot down and barred Dean from racing while “Giant” was being filmed June through mid-September 1955. In July, Dean made down payment on a Lotus IX sports racer, slated for delivery in the fall. As filming wound down, Dean traded his Speedster for a faster, more powerful Porsche 550 Spyder on Sept. 21 and signed up for the Salinas Road Race Oct. 1 and 2.
Several people foresaw only the worst from Dean’s infatuation with racing. A week before his death, Dean met actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri and showed off his new Spyder. Guinness reportedly told Dean, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”
Dean had planned to tow the Spyder behind his station wagon to the Salinas race. German auto mechanic Rolf Weutherich suggested instead that he drive the Spyder to put more break-in miles on the car and get more time behind the wheel before the race.
They left Competition Motors in Hollywood around 1:15 p.m., stopped for gas at a Mobil station at Ventura and Beverly Glen boulevards around 2 p.m. and then caught Interstate 5 to go north over the Grapevine.
At about 3:30 p.m., just south of Bakersfield, a California Highway Patrol officer ticketed Dean for driving 65 miles an hour in a 55 zone. Followed by stuntman Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford H. Roth in the station wagon, Dean turned west onto Route 166/33 to avoid having to slow down through downtown Bakersfield.
At about 5:15 p.m. they were driving west on California 46 to Paso Robles, about 60 miles away. Dean hit the accelerator on the Spyder, flying down the road at about 85 miles an hour toward the junction with Route 41.
At about 5:45 p.m., a black and white 1950 Ford Tudor driven in the opposite direction by 23-year-old Donald Turnupseed, a Cal Poly student, made a left turn onto Route 41.
When Dean realized the two cars were going to collide, he tried to use a racing maneuver to get around the Ford, but the cars crashed almost head-on. the Spyder flipped into the air and landed on its wheels in a gully northwest of the junction. Turnupseed’s car slid 39 feet down Highway 46 in the westbound lane.
Dean, who took the worst of the crash, suffered a broken neck, a crushed left foot and multiple other injuries. Weuthrich was thrown from the car. The two were taken in the same ambulance to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where Dean was pronounced dead at 6:20 p.m. Turnupseed had injuries so minor he was able to hitchhike home that night.
Turnupseed was absolved of wrong-doing at the Oct. 11, 1955, coroner’s inquest. Aside from one interview with his hometown newspaper, he never spoke publicly about the event. He died of lung cancer in 1995. Wutherich underwent several, complicated surgeries on his hip and thigh. He returned to German in 1957. He died in a 1981 car crash in West Germany very similar to the one that killed Dean.
Roth, the photographer, documented the scene. His photos are now owned by Japanese businessman Seita Ohnishi, who designed and built a stainless steel memorial to James Dean at Cholame about a mile west of the crash site.
A public service announcement in which Dean was interviewed by actor Gig Young about traffic safety for the National Safety Council was never aired. The piece ends with Dean admonishing teens against fast driving, adding, “The life you save might be mine.”
Perhaps the best summation of Dean’s life comes with these words of his: “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”