I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.
Prior to discovering Dean, I was embarrassed by having come from a farming family. That was déclassé where I grew up, but if James Dean had been a farm boy, maybe it was okay for me to be one. Meanwhile, even though I wasn’t impressed with Dean’s acting, I was pleased to be told I resembled him, since he was a classic movie star, with the kind of arty pedigree I craved for myself.
And so, to coax further comparisons, I entered my James Dean phase. I slouched like Dean, and mumbled like Dean, and had my hair cut like his. I aped his expressions, and chewed the tip of my shirt collar, which Dean used to do, or so I’d learned. I also learned where he used to live—a garret on West 68th Street—and a couple of times I stood outside, staring up at the window, as if that could cause him to appear and provide pointers on how to better imitate him: “Okay, when you’re doing that thing with your eyebrows? Try to look hurt, not angry. Like this.” Bear in mind that I was still in my teens; and I personally knew a number of actors similarly obsessed with Dean. One of them was a roommate, and he relocated soon after his sort-of girlfriend announced that I looked more like Dean than he did.
Dean continues to influence actors, though those now in their twenties, disinterested in history, may not realize how much they owe him. His idiosyncratic approach to acting has never been replicated (despite, in some cases, considerable effort); it’s his image—the misunderstood, beautiful, sensitive yet dangerous loner—that goes on being recycled, as per Robert Pattinson, of the Twilight movies, and James Franco, who played Dean in a made-for-TV biopic. Dean was acutely aware of his image; he cultivated relationships with photographers who documented his every mood and move, and some of the results, such as Dennis Stock’s shot of Dean walking in a Times Square downpour, are familiar to people who’ve never seen Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, or Giant. Even Dean’s final moments, on September 30, 1955, were caught on film. He was on his way from Los Angeles to a car race in Salinas, California (the setting of East of Eden), in a silver Porsche Spyder, and following in a second car, at Dean’s request, was photographer Sanford Roth. Dean wasn’t well acquainted with the Spyder, which he’d recently purchased, and the drive to Salinas was intended to prepare him for the race. He was ticketed for speeding near Bakersfield, shortly before he stopped for a Coke at a gas station called Blackwell’s Corner on Highway 466 (now 46). At the same time, Donald Turnupseed, a California Polytechnic Institute student, was making his way home from school. He struck the Spyder, which he later insisted he never saw, as he was making a left turn onto Highway 41. Dean, whose neck was broken, was photographed by Roth as he was being lifted into an ambulance, dying or already dead at the age of twenty-four.
My James Dean phase didn’t last long. I developed my own style as an actor, and if I passed one of Dean’s movies while channel surfing, I might stop and watch, but I rarely thought of him otherwise, especially after I moved to L.A., where I focused more on writing than acting. Every so often, if somebody asked me, I would do a part in a movie. I appeared in a number of experimental shorts directed by my friend Burke, once alongside our mutual friend Paul, who reminded me a little of James Dean. It wasn’t because of his looks. He had his Swedish mother’s features and his Filipino father’s dark hair and complexion, so that he was often taken for Hispanic. Still, his soulful intensity evoked Dean, if only, again, a little, and he was one of the best actors I knew, in spite of—or maybe, in part, because of—his indifference to acting. Like so many people, he really wanted to direct, and he was frustrated with his lack of progress in that way, and frustrated with his life in general. He had family problems—a religious upbringing, a disapproving stepfather, and so on—and he meantime felt he was being used by friends who sought his help with filmmaking projects of their own. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in L.A.—“Can you come down to the set and PA for a couple of days?”—and good-natured Paul invariably said yes, while resenting himself for saying yes, just as he resented those who asked for his help in the first place. It was a recurring theme in our conversations. He was giving all his time to others, which meant his own work would never get done, and he was soon going to turn thirty, with nothing to show for himself.
Paul’s friend Jake was another actor with directing ambitions, and Paul had naturally agreed to help on a short film that Jake was planning to shoot in his hometown, Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Jake asked if I would act in the film. I told him yes, as long as I didn’t have to drive to Santa Cruz, suggesting that I ride with Paul.
Then Paul backed out. Then he agreed to help again. Then he backed out again. And so on. I felt bad for Jake, who was a good guy in his own right, and one night I phoned Paul to press him for a final decision. He couldn’t go to Santa Cruz, he said; his car wouldn’t survive the drive.
“Well, you can ride with Jake,” I said. “I mean, you told him you were going to help, right? I think you’re kind of obligated.”
In all the time I’d known Paul, I’d never heard him raise his voice. Now I did.
“All right!” he snapped. “I’ll do it!” He was oddly subdued after that. He sounded half asleep when he spoke at all, as if sapped by his brief outburst.
Jake was driving to Santa Cruz a day ahead of the cast, and Paul was now going with him, so Jake arranged for me to ride with an actor named Howard, who knocked on my door an hour late. He was Chinese and sixty-five, at least, and holding a huge soft drink he’d stopped to buy on the way, being fond of junk food, as I was about to learn. I got into his car and had a look at the directions Jake had sent him. We would be taking Interstate 5 to Highway 46 to reach the 101; and as a touch of local color, Jake had noted the James Dean death site on the 46, as well as Blackwell’s Corner, where Dean stopped before the crash.
Like Paul, I’d had reservations about going to Santa Cruz. I was very busy, and couldn’t spare the time to work on a film for free. Still, once I saw Jake’s directions, I was eager to hit the road. I thought of the trip as a gift to myself as a kid, when I was at the peak of my James Dean phase. That kid would’ve loved to have seen the place where Dean died, and now, through older eyes, he would.
Howard was originally from San Francisco, he told me, and he worked for a long time in finance in New York, turning to acting late in life. We naturally talked about New York, as well as acting, while zooming past orange groves and fields full of sun-scorched weeds. We also stopped repeatedly for fast food, which Howard unwrapped and ate as he drove, sometimes removing both hands from the wheel, chomping loudly and looking out the window, looking everywhere, it seemed, except at the road. Wouldn’t it be funny if I got killed near the spot where James Dean died? In fact, it wouldn’t be. But the closer we got to that spot, the more I thought about the possibility of crashing, so that the next time Howard removed his hands from the wheel to snack, meantime doing eighty and staring at the scenery as the car edged toward the road shoulder, I said, “Howard, look out!”
“You’re going off the road!”
Of course he now looked at me, not the road. Then he looked at the road and set the car right. Then he unwrapped another snack, taking his hands off the wheel, staring at the snack instead of the road, again while doing eighty.
“Howard, look out!”
Jake called to ask about our progress. I felt like saying that he was soon to be short two actors and might want to think about recasting. Instead, I asked about the James Dean death site at the juncture of the 46 and the 41: was it easy to miss? It wasn’t, he said, and neither was Blackwell’s Corner, which had a huge picture of Dean outside it.
Howard was almost as interested in seeing the crash site as I was. Dean was “family,” he said, meaning he was a fellow actor. We watched for Blackwell’s Corner. We didn’t see it. We also watched for a sign announcing the 41. There were such signs, but then we were in wine country, with vineyards everywhere and signs foretelling the approach of Paso Robles. I had another look at Jake’s directions. If we were near Paso Robles, we’d long since passed the 41.
“Goddamn it!” I said. “We missed it!”
I wanted to turn around, but we’d gotten a late start, since Howard had stopped for fast food on his way to my place, and we’d also lost time due to our frequent stops for still more fast food. Howard said we could see the James Dean death site on the trip back to L.A. Then, spotting a Subway in Paso Robles, he stopped, and we went inside and ate—again.
It turned out that Paul had driven his own car to Santa Cruz, even though he’d said it wouldn’t survive the trip. I, meanwhile, was unconvinced that I’d survive another trip with Howard, so I asked Paul if I could hitch a ride with him after the shoot. Of course, he said, acting strangely. Jake likewise noticed that Paul was acting strangely. I didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing on the set, but I never saw him do anything except stand, with a vacant expression, beside the camera crew. At times, between takes, he and I would talk in the parking lot of the motel where we slept and worked (the motel, near the ocean, was the setting of the movie), and he appeared relatively lively. Then, the break over, he would stand again on the set, doing nothing with a vacant expression.
The morning of departure came. I hated to leave Santa Cruz. I had woken early every morning and walked to the pier, where I would watch sunbathing sea lions loudly quarrel. Then, backtracking, I would linger at the Spanish-style apartment complex where I pictured myself living. I could write such beautiful words there, I thought. I could be so happy.
I was insane, of course. I consider myself, more or less, politically progressive, but I could never be progressive enough for Santa Cruz. After a few weeks, people would storm my place with torches, like villagers in Frankenstein movies of yore. I returned from my final walk on the pier to the motel, where Paul was in the parking lot, zoned out as ever. What was wrong with him? He didn’t know, he told me. He hadn’t slept in days; he felt like he had a brain disorder. It sounded like he was depressed, I said; we could talk about it on the drive. He knew I wanted to see the James Dean death site; and since he, too, had missed it on the drive from L.A., together we would seek the juncture of the 46 and the 41.
We passed artichoke fields and stopped for tacos in a town that bills itself as the artichoke capital of the world. Paul seemed more himself again, and we discussed movies, our families, the people we knew in common—all our usual subjects—as wine country unfurled around us. There were fewer and fewer vineyards on the 46, and almost none by the time we saw signs announcing the 41—but which badly marked turnoff was the 41? Finally, convinced we’d just passed it, I asked Paul to go back. He did. The turnoff road was thin, with a fountain on one side of the entrance. A lush tree shaded the fountain, which advertised a winery, and the bleak fields in the distance were checkered with tiny houses. Nothing about this place recalled photos I’d seen of the crash.
Still, we parked and got out. Paul lay in the carpet grass beneath the tree, apparently napping, while I walked to the stop sign at the intersection of the 46 and the turnoff road, which I now suspected was not the 41. A car slowed and paused at the stop sign, a middle-aged couple inside the car. They were locals, I could tell, and I approached them and said, “Yeah, I’m looking for the place James Dean died?”
“Do you know his address?” one of them asked. “Hell,” I wanted to say. Hadn’t they heard the word died? Hadn’t they heard of James Dean? He was bound to figure prominently in regional lore.
I was too disgusted to ask again. The couple drove off, and I sat for a while by the fountain. The sound of trickling water was peaceful, offsetting the sounds of occasional traffic. Eventually, Paul rose from the shaded grass, and we continued on the 46, and five or ten minutes later, I saw a big green sign that read: James Dean Memorial Junction. Yes, here at last was the 41, looking exactly as it had in the photos I’d seen—how could I have missed it on the drive with Howard?
Paul pulled over, and I got out to snap a picture. I could easily envision the crash. I watched cars speed down the hill on the 46 where Dean had seen Donald Turnupseed’s car, about to make a left onto the 41, and said, “That guy’s gotta stop,” to his German mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, who was accompanying Dean to Salinas, and who was later killed in another car crash. He barely survived the crash with Dean. He was hospitalized for months, and his injuries, compounded by the hate mail he received from Dean’s fans, led to psychiatric problems that afflicted him for the rest of his life.
Paul and I drove on. We stopped at Blackwell’s Corner, where there was for a fact a huge picture of James Dean outside it: a color picture of his head and shoulders. Inside, posters and postcards of Dean were for sale, and the only two people present, aside from me and Paul, were bored teenage staffers. They, I knew, were locals who’d heard of James Dean.
It was dusk when Paul dropped me at my apartment. The whites of his eyes were alarmingly red, but he was in a good mood: I remember him laughing just before he drove off. Our adventure had made us better friends, I thought. He would go home and sleep. His depression would lift. He would embrace his stellar acting talent, as I would certainly encourage him to do.
I never got the chance. I only saw him once—briefly—after we returned from Santa Cruz. He broke contact with me and almost every friend he had, and his former roommate eventually sent me a message about him. Paul was now living with his mother, the message said, and when he left his old place, he left most of belongings behind. The message didn’t say if Paul was now happy; it only said that he was a completely different person from the person he used to be.
We all used to be different people: an actor with designs on directing; an actor who styled himself after James Dean; an actor who really was James Dean and became, in a flash, a memory.
A slightly different version of this piece appears in SUBVERSIA, published by TNB Books.