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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Iconic Actor James Dean Began His Career 60 Years Ago Today

In 1950, the coolest young actor who ever lived, James Dean starred in a soda commercial. Indeed, his first professional acting gig was in a common Coca-Cola commercial, where he handed out bottles of Coke to teenagers riding a merry-go-round. At the same time he also worked as a "stunt tester" on the game show Beat the Clock, testing the safety of the stunts that studio audience members would later perform. And thus began the short, but remarkable career of one of the greatest screen icons Hollywood has ever seen.

James Byron Dean was born February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. Sadly, his mother died when he was just nine years old, and so he was subsequently raised on a farm by his aunt and uncle. Once he left school, he moved to New York to pursue a dream of acting. He received rave reviews for his work and soon move to Hollywood.

His early film efforts were strictly small roles: a sailor in the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis overly frantic musical comedy Sailor Beware (1952); a GI in Samuel Fuller's moody study of a platoon in the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951) and a youth in the Piper Laurie-Rock Hudson comedy Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952).

He had major roles in only three movies. In the Elia Kazan production of John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) he played Cal Trask, the bad brother who could not force affection from his stiff-necked father. His true starring role, the one which fixed his image forever in American culture, was that of the brooding red-jacketed teenager Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

George Stevens' filming of Edna Ferber's Giant (1956), in which he played the non-conforming cowhand Jett Rink who strikes it rich when he discovers oil, was just coming to a close when Dean, driving his Porsche Spyder race car, collided with another car while on the road near Cholame, California on September 30, 1955. He had received a speeding ticket just two hours before. At age 24, James Dean was killed almost immediately from the impact from a broken neck. His very brief career, violent death and highly publicized funeral transformed him into a cult object of apparently timeless fascination.

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