TIME People

What Price Fame: James Dean Was “Barely a Celebrity” Before He Died

James Dean advice
TIME From the Sept. 3, 1956, issue of TIME

Sept. 30, 1955: James Dean is killed in a California car crash

James Dean’s career picked up considerably after he died.

The budding film star was killed on this day, Sept. 30, in 1955 after crashing his Porsche Spyder en route to a road race in Salinas, Calif., in which he was scheduled to compete. Just 24, he was “barely a celebrity” at the time, according to a 1956 story in TIME, which went on to report that within a year of his death he had gained more popularity than most living actors. Magazine and book publishers looking to memorialize the enigmatic icon were preparing “to jump aboard the bandwagon that looks disconcertingly like a hearse,” the piece proclaimed.

When he died, Dean had acted in only three movies: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, only one of which had yet been released. He had worked his way up from smaller to larger roles: from appearing in a Pepsi commercial to working as a “test pilot” for stunts on a TV game show called Beat the Clock — a sort of precursor to Minute to Win It in which contestants competed in absurd timed challenges — to a well-reviewed role as a young gigolo in a Broadway adaptation of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist.

After he died, though, his fame reached new heights. By September of 1956, TIME noted Deans’ bewildering ascent to Hollywood superstardom:

Today he ranks No. 1 in Photoplay’s actor popularity poll, draws 1,000 fan letters a week (“Dear Jimmy: I know you are not dead”) at Warner’s — more than any live actor on the lot. Marveled one West Coast cynic: “This is really something new in Hollywood — boy meets ghoul.” Hollywood’s explanation: Dean not only appeals to a “mother complex” among teenage girls, but his roles as a troubled insecure youth prompted many young movie fans to identify with him.

Business types were eager to cash in on his posthumous popularity. In 1956, the story continued, Dean was still “haunting” newsstands with “four fast-selling magazines devoted wholly to him.”

He hasn’t stopped earning since. Forbes reported that in 2000, Dean’s estate raked in $3 million, very little of which took the form of royalties from his three films. Most came instead from licensing and merchandizing: “The rebellious heartthrob currently hawks everything from Hamilton watches, Lee Jeans, and Franklin Mint collectibles to cards by American Greetings, funneling funds to James Dean Inc., which is run by cousin Marcus Winslow.”

One of the many teenage girls pining for the departed heartthrob wrote to the advice columnist Dorothy Dix in the year after Dean’s death, lamenting, “I am 15 and in love. The problem is that I love the late James Dean. I don’t know what to do.” Dix advised her that time would lessen the sting of love and loss. In this case, however, the platitude’s been proved not entirely true: more than half a century on, society’s love for the late James Dean is still going strong.

Read about James Dean’s legacy here, in TIME’s archives: Dean of the One-Shotters

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