09/29/2008 10:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rock On, Jimmy Dean

Every year, during the last week of September, people from all across America--and countries as far away as Australia--invade the small Indiana town of Fairmount for three days of dancing, races, parades and contests, all in celebration of local hero James Dean.

It was 53 years ago, on September 30, 1955, that Dean's Porsche Spyder smashed into a Ford sedan on California Route 46 and was demolished in an instant. Although the driver of the sedan was unhurt, Dean, whose neck was twisted and broken, had no chance. For just a few seconds, as Dean was lifted into the ambulance, a friend said he heard "a soft cry escaping from Jimmy--the little whispering cry of a boy wanting his mother or of a man facing God." And then there was silence. The troubled young man was dead at 24, and a cult was about to be born.

Sadly, we barely got to know Jimmy Dean. He only made three movies. And prior to his death, he had been seen on-screen in only one film, East of Eden. But four days after the tragic accident, Warner Brothers released Rebel Without A Cause, a melodrama about juvenile delinquency with Dean in the title role. Young people identified with Dean's angst-ridden portrayal of Jim Stark, a middle-class kid frustrated by a domineering mother and a weak father. When Dean appeared onscreen in his trademark red jacket, he was like no one we had ever seen. Rebel was a box-office sensation, and it signaled the evolution of a new generational wave that was about to break over the country.

At the premiere of Giant in 1956, when Dean first appeared on screen, one girl stood up in the audience and cried, "Come back, Jimmy, I love you. We're waiting for you!" There were tribute records and special television showings of Dean's early dramas. Photoplay readers voted him number one in the actor popularity poll--the first time a dead person had taken top honors. And a year after his death, an astonishing 8,000 fan letters were still being sent to him every week. The imaginary had become real. In James Dean, a generation of young people found their own personal sacrament, a god in their own inner image.

In real life, James Dean was much like the character he played in Rebel--a psychologically troubled young man raised in a broken family. Known mostly for his attitude, Dean's life was marked by pain. Sullen and painfully vulnerable, he was tormented by an offensive world and his own internal desolation. "I try so hard," Dean once wrote to a friend, "to make people reject me. Why?"

Dean smoldered as an actor with such heat that the plots of his movies seemed to melt into nothingness around him. Dean was tough but tender, brooding but clownish, and defiantly sloppy in his looks and behavior. He radiated anguish and impudence, not only in the movies but also in nearly every photograph taken of him off the set, candids as well as studio shots.

Dean, however, did not originate the pose of the doomed misfit. His reputation of insolent angel was built on an image that was already a teen paradigm by the early 1950s. However, Dean epitomized the image as a timeless icon. In jeans and a white T-shirt, with his long hair fashioned into an audacious wave (but always unkempt) and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he personified youthful unruliness so absolutely that generations of angry teens (and older mavericks) around the world mimicked his style, sometimes even unknowingly.

More so in death than in life, fans continue to stalk, scavenge and pay tribute to the memory of him. Since 1955, Dean's gravestone in Fairmount, Indiana, has had to be replaced many times because souvenir hunters take pieces for luck. On Highway 46, where the fatal automobile accident occurred, a multimillionaire real estate tycoon from Japan named Seita Onishi erected a chrome cenotaph in 1981, followed by two tablets, a bronze fallen sparrow and a 36-foot-tall limestone bust.

James Dean expressed a changing state of mind that his audiences did not completely understand but intuitively embraced. Dean has been mimicked, consciously or not, by virtually every male teen idol, from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Brad Pitt. In fact, Presley's projected persona was largely based on James Dean. According to Nicholas Ray, who directed Rebel, Presley idolized Dean: "I was sitting in the cafeteria at MGM one day, and Elvis Presley came over. He knew I was a friend of Jimmy's and had directed Rebel, so he got down on his knees before me and began to recite whole passages of dialogue from the script. Elvis must have seen Rebel a dozen times by then and remembered every one of Jimmy's lines."

It was no accident that Dean entered the American consciousness when he did. The country had just emerged from a devastating world war. The atomic bomb had rained death over Japan, and America was in the grip of anti-Communist hysteria. A revolution was occurring in the arts, music, literature and the sciences.

America had fulfilled its long struggle for material progress from the Depression through World War II. The affluent society, however, produced a reactionary subculture that saw it as dehumanizing. Dean and his following were a foreshadowing of the generation crisis that would come to full bloom in the sixties. "Adolescents rejected the repressive conspiracy of conformity and denial on which the material utopia of their parents was built by living out their fantasies through movie stars and rock music," writes David Dalton in his insightful book, James Dean: The Mutant King. "Able to assert their independence for the first time, they created a new vision where language is song, work is play, fantasy is reality and the childhood wishes of violence, sensuality and freedom begin to seem possible."

James Dean was a very good actor, but he has proven to be a much better icon. In death, he has become something he would not have been had he lived--a marred, stained-glass window saint, on whom the frustrations of anyone could be attached. "He became," as Donald Spoto writes in his book Rebel, "the patron of the disaffected, the excuse for many to hide behind a certain type of dark Peter Pan-ism. We will fly away, disappear forever, he seemed to say."