COLUMN SIXTY-EIGHT, FEBRUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
IN NEW YORK, Jimmy prepared for his audition.
"He had a dream in the back of his mind all these
months," Bast said, "and he was determined to make that dream come
On the night of his reading, dressed in a clean shirt
he had borrowed from Bast and a pair of newly pressed slacks, Dean showed up at
Ayers's office on West 57th. He was
reading for the part of Wally Wilkins, a backward youth who finds himself at the
mercy of a sadistic mountain community.
The part had been an extraordinarily difficult one to
cast; over a hundred young actors had already been interviewed, including
several in Hollywood and Chicago, and almost forty were invited to audition.
"While we'd been considering some of the more
promising ones," the director, Michael Gordon, remembers, "we'd found
none who wholly satisfied us."
Gordon was alone in Ayers's office when Dean arrived.
He later recalled:
"Although Jimmy was strangely uncommunica'tive
at our first encounter---totally unlike the average actor who's hard-selling on
a casting interview---I was instantly alerted to what seemed to me an exciting
potential for the role. He was
young enough to bring to the character the mixture of qualities the role called
for. The question was, could he
Gordon handed Dean a script and indicated one or two
scenes he wanted him to read. Dean
sat in the outer office studying the script for almost an hour.
Then he and Gordon started
going over the first scene.
"It was only a matter of minutes until I saw
that he was what I'd been searching and hoping for," Gordon said.
"His impulses and criteria were right on the beam."
At twenty-one Dean was cast in his first Broadway
play. He joined Arthur Kennedy and
Constance Ford, who had already been selected for the two leads.
Others in the cast included Roy Fant, Margaret Barker, George Tyne, David
Clarke, Florence Sundstrom, and Cameron Prud'homme.
Rehearsals got under way on October 20, and Jimmy
was soon right at home on Broadway, plastering his dressing room with bullfight
posters and picture postcards of toreros he admired.
"He claimed, among other things," the
director remembers, "to have been a novillero in various bullrings south of
the border, and I often saw him make daring passes and farifias at onrushing
taxicabs while crossing Broadway or Seventh Avenue."
For Dean, things went exceedingly well, and he got
on smoothly with the others.
"He was a prince," Constance Ford said,
"and the first time I saw him I knew it."
Originally, Nash had wanted Maureen Stapleton for the lead, but the part went to Miss Ford, a television actress and former Conover model, after the other
for the part by
staying overnight in a closet
actress turned it down.
At the playwright's suggestion Constance had dyed her hair brunette.
When Dean wandered into her dressing room and saw her studying her new
hair color, he told her:
"It doesn't make you Maureen Stapleton."
They became good friends.
Dean also fell under the influence of Arthur
Kennedy, then a well-known stage actor. Dizzy
Sheridan noticed that Jimmy began to walk and talk like his new mentor---a
pattern he was later to follow with Brando.
Alec Wilder thought that Kennedy's influence was "dreadful"
since "to him nobody mattered except for the actor."
In the show, Dean played a young man who has spent
most of his life in an icehouse, hidden away from the world by his half-demented
mother. Upon her death, he emerges
outside, only to be caged by a cruel storekeeper to whom his mother owed money.
To get a feeling of what it was like to be penned in, Dean even locked
himself in a closet and stayed there overnight.
Jimmy's identification with his role won over the
director. Gordon later recalled:
"In discussing the unique quality of an
adolescent coming into a strange world (emerging from the womb, in a sense) for
the first time, I mentioned to Dean the characteristic exploration of
infants---touching, grasping, tasting. He
made marvelously constructive use of this idea and it became a fascinating
ingredient of his character. His
intuitive impulses were beautiful and he had the courage as an actor to go with
them. I never saw him do a job on
TV or film that I felt surpassed the work he did in See the Jaguar."
As rehearsals progressed, however, it became clear
the show was headed for difficulties.
"There are some plays you remember as
light," Margaret Barker later said. "This
was all dark."
The play was undercapitalized, and to save money on
an orchestra, Alec Wilder, who had been signed to write background music, was
forced to write a score using only choral voices that could be put on tape.
Several actors thought the script was too ambiguous
and that there was no rationale for the brutal behavior of the characters they
portrayed. One actor, Tony Krabner,
felt the play was a subtle warning against domestic Fascism, with the mountain
hamlet representing a microcosm of the country as a whole.
As things turned out, that interpretation proved as good as any.
The play opened out of town for a three-day run at
the Parson's Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, before moving on to Philadelphia
for a two-week engagement at the Forrest Theater. Actress Florence Sundstrom recalled that one night in
Hartford the star of the show and his young prot?g? "got loaded on beer
and landed" at her door at the old Taft Hotel.
The three "dished for a while about
everything." Later Sund'strom said: "Too bad he died so young."
In Philadelphia notices in both the local papers
were good and morale improved. Dean
managed to enjoy himself. He and
his understudy, Dane Knell, met some girls from another show who were staying at
their hotel, and each night after the play they went on the town, staying out
until the early morning hours.
On December 3, 1952, See the Jaguar opened at
"We knew it was a flop opening night,"
Alec Wilder said.
In the first act, the stereo equipment on which
Wilder's music had been recorded broke down, and no one was able to fix it.
In the second, the stage manager missed a prop cue and neglected to shoot
a gun, marring a crucial scene. At
the end of the act, Arthur Kennedy came off stage and said quietly, "Well,
At the traditional opening party at Sardi's, the
cast and their friends waited for the morning papers and the critics' reactions.
Ayers and his wife tried their best to remain
optimistic. The room was filled
with people, and there was a great deal of noise and laughter.
Actress Margaret Barker said afterward, "It was the nicest funeral
I've ever been to."
Dean had invited Bast and Dizzy, and the three of
them sat at a small table in the corner. Dean
was ecstatic; his own dressing room had been jammed with well-wishers after the
show and compliments about his performance had filled the air.
Even Alec Wilder was impressed by Dean's performance.
"He was like any other kid---until he went on
stage," the composer recalled. "Then
he was absolutely authoritative."
Every once in a while Dean excused himself and went
off to mingle with the others. As
Dizzy and Bast watched him bounce around the room, accepting congratulations or
posing with his proud agent, they felt strangely depressed. They sensed the good times they had all had together were at
an end, and that their old friend Jimmy was on his way, this time alone.
As expected, See the Jaguar received an
unfavorable press. Brooks Atkinson,
writing in the New York Times, called the production "a mess."
Another critic claimed the play was "obscure," and in the Daily
News John Chapman's review was headlined, "See the Jaguar Lovely
to See and Hear, but It Makes No Sense."
Despite the hostile tone of the reviews, several
critics singled Dean out for a brief word of praise. William Hawkins in the World-Telegram & Sun wrote,
"James Dean is gently awkward as the ignorant boy." John Chapman
called Dean's acting "very good," and Walter Kerr, the respected
critic for the Herald Tribune, stated, "James Dean adds an
extraordinary performance in an almost impossible role."
The play closed December 6 after five performances.
But Dean had been noticed, and indeed he was on his way.
1953 began auspiciously. In January Dean appeared in a brief dramatic segment on the Kate
Smith Variety Show, and also had a role on NBCs T-Men in Action.
Dean played the son of a moonshiner whose mountain still is raided by
Jane Deacy had left the Schurr office in August to start
her own agency and had taken Dean with her.
He soon became her hottest client. Job offers came in steadily, but Miss
Deacy was careful to pick and choose: There were to be no more walk-ons, no more
bits, no more playing bellhops.
In the beginning of February, Dean appeared on You Are There, a popular TV
would tell friends
he always wanted
to make a Western
series that recreated historical events.
The episode was The Capture of Jesse James, and Dean played Bob
Ford, the man who "shot poor Jesse in the back." The show aired on
Jimmy's twenty-second birthday, and he considered it his 'Juiciest" role to
"He loved the part," Sidney Lumet, the
director, remembers, "loved handling guns, and used to practice 'quick
draw' with all the pleasure of a child."
Afterward, Dean would frequently tell friends it was
his dream to make a "great western."
With the money he was earning, Dean permitted
himself a few small luxuries. He
bought a secondhand Leica camera and learned to operate it. He also purchased a glorious tome on bullfighting written in
Spanish, Josie Cossio's Los Toros.
Since he could now afford a place of his own, Dean
moved out of the apartment he had shared with the others and again took a room
at the Iroquois Hotel. He and his
old friends began to see less of each other, as they had expected.
They all began to drift their separate ways.
Dizzy was offered a job with a dancing troupe in the West Indies and
moved to St. Thomas to live. Bast
left for Hollywood, hoping to write scripts for a television show that was going
into production. Before he left,
Dean told him:
"Remember ... don't take any of their guff out
Dean began to spend a good deal of time alone now,
studying, learning, seeking out new experiences.
"An actor must have a cardinal interest in all
things," he liked to say. "To
interpret life you must study every aspect of it."
Music interested him, so he bought a recorder, an
English flutelike instrument, and learned to play it, practicing in his room the
simple tunes Alec Wilder would write.
He studied Roman history and dabbled in hypnosis.
He tried the parachute jump at Coney Island and attended Christian
Science lectures---all just for the experience.
He walked the city streets, stopping to talk to
anyone who looked interesting, anyone he might learn from: shoeshine boys,
newsstand operators, policemen. He
became acquainted with short-order cooks, artists, and even a blind beggar named
Moondog who dressed in flowing robes and made music using dried bones.
A cab driver, Arnie Langer, claimed: "Dean was
always studying working people like me. When
I finally saw him on TV, I realized he used me in some of his acting and he used
other people I knew, too."
Actress Jean Alexander remembers once seeing Dean
standing outside a restaurant for twenty minutes, just looking through the
window at people while they ate; it was this detachment that led artist Ken
Kendall to remember him as "the eternal spectator." Another actress,
Arlene Sax, who met Dean at the Museum of Modern Art and whom he dated, later
said: "When I was in a room with him, I always had the feeling I should
open the window and say, 'Fly, Bird."'
Others were amazed by his intensity.
One performer, Mildred Dunnock, who appeared with him on TV, recalls
Jimmy "charging up the walls with energy."
It seemed anything interested him.
"I think the prime reason for existence, for
living in this world, is discovery," Jimmy later told writer Mike Connolly
in an interview that was published posthumously [Modern Screen, December
1955]. There is a story that he
once watched a parrot in a cage for a full hour, fascinated by the bird's
behavior. There is another story
that a month before his death Dean met a plumber and questioned the man
incessantly, wanting to know everything about pipes and valves and the working
Some who knew the actor claim this insatiable
curiosity amounted to a foreknowledge that he did not have long to live, and
that he wanted to utilize whatever time he had. Others feel differently.
"He loved life so painfully," Arlene Sax
believed, "he wanted to explore everything."
Sometimes Dean liked to boast, "Even if I live
to be a hundred I'll never do all the things I want to do '." But at other
times he would sound fatalistic. "I'll
never make it to the age of thirty," he confided to more than one friend.
In any event, Dean's life in New York was rich and
full; new friends supplanted the old, his circle of acquaintances grew.
There was very little lull between acting jobs, and now when he appeared
on television, it was his name that frequently headed the cast list.
He was not yet a star, but it was a portent of things to come.
A week after one such television show in which he
had the lead, Dean went into a department store to purchase some undergarments.
The friend who was with him remembered that the clerk at the counter
became deferential after recognizing Dean, but the actor was brusque and rude.
"The last time I was in this store," he
explained arrogantly, "nobody paid any attention to me.
I was too small. All of a sudden I guess I've grown a few inches."
Alas, this also was a portent of things to come. ##
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