Friends and former co-stars of James Dean shared bittersweet memories of the late screen legend Tuesday on what would have been his 74th birthday, in a tribute that begins a yearlong celebration leading to his 75th.
Dean, whose fame skyrocketed following his starring role in “Rebel Without a Cause,” died in 1955 at age 24 when his Porsche Spyder collided with another car in the central California town of Cholame.
One of Dean’s fans, Martin Sheen, said Dean’s performance in “East of Eden,” which he first saw as a young boy the year Dean died, inspired him to become an actor.
“All of his movies had a profound effect on my life, in my work and all of my generation,” Sheen said. “He transcended cinema acting. It was no longer acting, it was human behavior.”
Jane Withers, who co-starred with Dean in “Giant,” said working with the sometimes aloof actor was the highlight of her career, but she had to get past his attitude early on.
“He acted like a little kid and when someone acts like a kid, I treat them like one,” Withers said. “I didn’t put up with any guff, and because of it, we had a very warm relationship.”
Dean’s aloofness was a product of his desire to remain focused on work, suggested Earl Holliman, who was also in “Giant.”
“Jimmy was a guy who didn’t care what people think of him,” Holliman said. “He said that wasn’t important. What was important was what was on the screen.”
Martin Landau, who got to know Dean in the early 1950s when Dean moved to New York City from his native Marion, Ind., to become an actor, recalled meeting him at an open casting call.
“We got along immediately,” Landau said. “We would talk about life, career, our values. He was my closest friend.”
Landau dismissed the view that Dean’s rebellious nature was destined to drive him to an early grave.
“We had talked about growing older,” Landau said. “He used to worry that he looked like a kid when he became an actor.”
The photographer Phil Stern, who captured a famous shot of Dean with a turtleneck covering half his face, disagreed.
“Dean was very prescient because he structured his career in such a way that he passed away — which I believe was inevitable — in a way that precluded the possibility of people seeing him as a potbellied, bald man,” Stern said.
Despite his brief Hollywood career, Dean’s image as rebel antihero still resonates with marketers.
Warner Brothers plans to release “Giant,” “Rebel” and “East of Eden” on DVD this year. And Dean’s image will adorn two NASCAR racing cars this summer.
Stage plays based on Dean’s films will also be staged in several cities and the actor’s hometown plans to amp up its annual festival commemorating the star, which typically draws up to 60,000 people.
“I invite you to our area,” Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold said, “where cool was born.”