It's hard to fathom why some movie stars become better known after they reach that big sound stage in the sky. In the 1920s, it was the early demise of Rudolph Valentino, the consummate Latin lover who achieved god-like status after his all too-early exit. Marilyn Monroe received similar status that far exceeded her earthly stature.
But perhaps the most celebrated deceased actor, and one who has influenced more generations of young adults than just about any other cult hero, is, unquestionably, James Byron Dean.
Dean's flame was but a brief flicker upon the cinematic landscape. With only three feature-length movies under his belt (two released after his death), his star was still rising. But his moody, brooding acting style - the way he looked, spoke and carried himself - defined the role of the loner and the rebel that remains extensively copied to this day.
Aside from acting, the one thing the Indiana-born Dean loved was racing. His interest for the sport began at the age of 18 in Fairmont, Ind., when his father bought him a 1939 Chevrolet. At the time, he had been riding motorcycles for a couple of years and was to eventually own and race several, including a Harley-Davidson, Norton, Indian, Lancia scooter and a Triumph.
In May, 1954, Dean purchased his first sports car, a red MG TD. Before this, he had been working steadily in New York on the Broadway stage as well as in several TV dramas. After moving to Los Angles, Calif., he had also secured bit parts in a couple of movies, followed by his breakout role playing Cal Trask in East of Eden.
Ten months later, Dean traded in his MG for a white Porsche 356-1500 Super Speedster. This 70-horsepower air-cooled bathtub-shaped roadster helped earn him his first victory, a qualifying race at a track in Palm Springs. The following month, Dean placed third overall, and first in class at an event in Bakersfield. In his final race of his life at Santa Barbara, Dean's car suffered mechanical failure and didn't finish.
By now Dean was hard at work on two new pictures: Rebel Without a Cause with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood; and Giant, which co-starred Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Before shooting both movies, the studio executives at Warner Bros. had banned Dean from pursuing his dangerous hobby.
After Giant was in the can, the no-longer-constrained Dean decided to get serious about exploiting his early success on the race track.
Deeming the Speedster as too slow, he bought a new silver 550 Porsche Spyder in September of 1955. The mid-engine, 550-kilogram Spyder was, in fact, a limited-production race car. Its 1.5-liter engine produced 40 more horsepower than the Speedster's engine, and was capable of 135 mph, which was an impressive number back then. The 24-year-old Dean paid nearly $6,100 for the car, $3,000 in cash plus his 356 as a trade.
Dean took the Porsche to famed customizer George Barris who painted red stripes on the car's fenders and added the number 130 to the hood and sides. Ever the rebel, Dean also had Barris paint name "Little Bastard" across the back.
On September 30, 1955, Dean, along with his friend and Porsche mechanic Rolf Wutherich, began the drive from Los Angeles to a race track near Salinis, Calif. Dean had decided at the last minute that he would drive the Spyder in competition there for the first time.
Just north of L.A., Dean was pulled over by the police who issued him a speeding ticket. A few hours later, at an intersection near the town of Cholame, Dean's Porsche collided with a 1950 Ford driven by a 23-year-old university student with the unlikely name of Donald Turnupseed.
Failing to notice the speeding Porsche, Turnupseed had made a left-hand turn right into the car's path. His Ford hit the Spyder broadside, killing Dean and leaving mechanic Wutherich badly injured.
As the legend of James Dean lived on, so for a while did his last ride.
The mangled Spyder, minus its perfectly usable engine and transmission, wound up touring the United States as a ghoulish, "speed kills" type of exhibit. Today, its whereabouts are unknown.
James Dean, however, remains very well known as an actor idolized by countless fans around the world nearly 55 years after his death. It's impossible to imagine what he could have accomplished, either in the movies or behind the wheel of a race car, but for that one brief tragic event so very long ago.