(Copyright 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)

A Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
(Copyright 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)


IN 1954 JAMES DEAN returned to Broadway.

Terese Hayden, a talent scout who had seen Dean in See the Jaguar and had been closely following his work on television, recommended him to Herman Shumlin the director.  Shumlin was a well-regarded figure who previously had directed Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes on Broadway; he was then casting The Immoralist, a dramatization of Andr? Gide's early autobiographical novel about homosexuality.

At their first meeting, Dean arrived at the director's 48th Street office on his motorcycle, wearing hip-length boots, a fringed jacket, and a huge hat. Shumlin found him "a startling sight," but he was impressed enough by Dean's audition to ask him to read again for the show's authors, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and the producer, Billy Rose.

Dean did, and was cast as the blackmailing Arab, Bachir, in the play.  Jimmy visited local rug stores to study Middle Eastern accents and, to absorb himself in the role, listened to Arab music with his friend and understudy Bill Gunn (who later became a noted playwright).

The cast was small, numbering only eight actors. Louis Jourdan played a young French archaeologist tormented by guilt over his homosexuality.  Geraldine Page was his wife, who naively attributes the barrenness of their relationship to a severe fever her husband contracts on their honeymoon in Africa.

Rehearsals got under way on December 18 at the old Ziegfeld building on Sixth Avenue where Rose had his offices.  Almost at once, Dean fell under Shumlin's spell, adopting him as a father figure.  Shumlin, in turn, found the young actor a 'remarkable and unusual personality whose endless variety in experimenting with his role fascinated me---up to a point.  Then I decided I wanted him to stop and settle on one interpretation, which he did to my satisfaction."

But all was not entirely well.  Jimmy had a habit of disappearing when he was on call.  This delayed rehearsals while other cast members tried to locate him.  Once, he annoyed the stage manager by playing tic-tac-toe on the scenery.  There were also murmurs from other actors that Shumlin was allowing Dean far too much freedom on stage.  Paul Huber, a veteran actor who had appeared in John Barrymore's Broadway production of Hamlet, claims, "Dean played every scene for himself. He tried to make improvisation of the whole damn play."

Adelaide Klein, who had several scenes opposite Dean, remembers simply, "Jimmy was a tough kid to work with." Another actor, Salem Ludwig, stopped speaking to Dean.

Relations did not improve any when Dean began storing his motorcycle in the

Billy Rose said,
'I really don't know
from fairies'

cramped backstage area, and his fellow actors were forced to glide around it.

Adding to the director's problems, the Goetzes were unhappy with his treatment of their script and they urged Rose to intervene.

Initially, the dynamic little impresario had stayed aloof from the production,
explaining, "I really don't know from fairies." But as rehearsals continued to go downhill, he stepped in and fired Shumlin. 

"I like the cast, Herman," Rose is supposed to have said, "but I'm afraid I miscast the director."

A courtly and soft-spoken man, Shumlin bowed out graciously and was replaced by Daniel Mann, who had previously directed The Rose Tattoo on Broadway.  Mann was the opposite of Shumlin: a tough, no-nonsense guy who had grown up in Brooklyn and had served as a tank officer in the Second World War.  He was ready for any contingency and was certainly a match for young Mr. Dean.  The new director joined the company shortly before it left for its January tryout in Philadelphia.

The situation Mann inherited was precarious, and in Philadelphia he and the others worked around the clock to prepare for the opening.

The script was revised and a new ending written.  At a cost of some nineteen thousand dollars, new sets were also ordered after Mrs. Goetz claimed the original scenery had left her "heartbroken."

In the rewriting, Dean's part was cut, and with his mentor Shumlin gone, he now seemed to lose all interest in the production---and all sense of restraint.  He clashed with the producer; he was late on cues. 

"There are other people on stage," the director would remind him.  "Cut that shit out."

There were moments when Dean went dead on the part completely.  When Mrs. Goetz reprimanded him after one rehearsal, Dean told her:

"I think I did all right."

As Dean had a run-of-the-play contract, Rose was reluctant to fire him, since he would have to pay him his salary of three hundred dollars a week until the play closed.

Then, after one encounter with Mann in which the director rebuked him sharply, Dean walked out of the rehearsal hall and his place was taken by his understudy.  As he left, Jimmy murmured:

"Nobody can push me around."

It was assumed that Dean would be automatically fired, as Equity rules permitted, but when he returned to the theater an hour later, David J. Stewart, the Equity representative, miraculously smoothed things over, and Dean rejoined the cast.

"Dean was an actor driven by strange impulses," Mann remembered.  "He was compulsive, difficult to reach, and totally uncooperative.  In The Immoralist he was a destructive force.  And yet at the same time he had flashes of real brilliance."

Others felt this brilliance, too.

"He moved like a snake," Abe Feder said.  "You could literally feel the sensuality pouring over the stage."

Even so, the quality of Dean's work continued to vary.  Opening night in Philadelphia he was at his best, but the next night his performance was so listless that Rose stormed backstage afterward and told him:

"Don't you ever do that to me again."

The critics, however, had only been there opening night, and notices were good.  The reviewer for the Evening Bulletin praised the production for its "restraint" and "sensitivity" and called the cast "extraordinary." Jourdan, Page, and Dean all received glowing reviews. 

"There is an excellent performance by James Dean as an insinuating Arab houseboy," the Bulletin's critic wrote, and added, "He was the caged lad in See the Jaguar last year, you may recall."

After three weeks in Philadelphia, the play returned to New York for a week of paid previews at the Royale Theater before officially opening.

At one preview, an old friend of the Goetzes named Paul Osborn saw the play and was particularly impressed by Dean.

Osborn, a playwright (On Borrowed Time) and screenwriter (Portrait of Jennie), was at work on a movie treatment of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  The next day he phoned the man who was to direct the picture and told him about this young actor he had seen.

The man Osborn called was Elia Kazan.

One of the best-known directors in America, Kazan was then under exclusive contract to Warner Brothers to make a picture a year, and the studio had given him virtual carte blanche to initiate and develop his own projects.

Kazan had started out as an actor with the Group Theater in the 1930s and had appeared in several Clifford Odets plays, but later turned to directing.  In 1947 he had created a sensation on Broadway with his staging of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and had helped make an overnight star of Marion Brando.

Since then, Kazan had been alternating between Broadway and Hollywood, where he had made such films as Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront, the last of which would soon bring him his second Academy Award as Best Director.

Dean's name was not new to Kazan; the director had seen and been impressed with the young actor's audition at the Actors Studio.  He had also seen Dean on television, and at one point had even considered him for the Broadway lead in

Elia Kazan went
motorcycle riding
with James Dean

Tea and Sympathy, playing a prep school student whose classmates falsely accuse him of homosexuality, But the role went instead to John Kerr, a Harvard graduate whose clean-cut looks better suited him to play the upper-class youngster.

Osborn's tip once again aroused Kazan's sharp casting instincts, and he now thought Dean might be just right for the part of Cal Trask, the difficult and troublesome son in the Steinbeck story.

After seeing Dean on stage, Kazan went around to talk to him.

"I just got to know the guy," Kazan later said.  "I hung around with him ... and rode around on his motorcycle.  I'd already made up my mind he was going to play it.  I realized it wasn't a matter of could he or couldn't he; he was it."

To writer Joe Hyams, Kazan elaborated further:

"I chose Jimmy because he was Cal Trask.  There was no point in attempting to cast it nicer or bigger... He had a grudge against all fathers.  He was vengeful; he had a sense of aloneness and of being persecuted.  And he was suspicious.  In addition, he was tremendously talented."

Kazan sent Dean to meet John Steinbeck, who was then living in New York.  The author found Dean "a snotty kid," and told Kazan so, but agreed he was right for the part.

As expected, The Immoralist opened on Broadway to solid critical acclaim.  The reviews in both the Times and the Herald Tribune were favorable.  "It would be hard to find serious fault with the production," wrote the Herald Tribune's Walter Kerr.  Only the critic for the New York Journal-American, a Hearst publication, struck a completely sour note, calling the play's theme "fare for a small and specialized audience."

Dean attracted the most attention he had to date.  Reviewers for five major daily papers praised his performance.  The Times's Brooks Atkinson claimed Dean brought "insidious charm" to the role, and even Richard Watts of the New York Post, whose feelings about the play were mixed, was complimentary toward Dean.

On opening night, however, as a way of getting even with Rose, Dean gave notice he was leaving the play.  He took delight in posting the announcement backstage on a bulletin board.  During the preceding weeks the producer had often shouted at Dean during their arguments, "This is Rose speaking." But now the actor had the last word; across the top of the paper he scrawled: "This is Dean speaking." Rose failed to see the humor.  In his Runyonesque manner, he afterward referred to Dean as "a punk" and "goddamn ingrate."

Jimmy remained with the play the required two weeks, and left the cast on February 20.  Although he was out of work, he must surely have been the happiest unemployed actor in New York.  Elia Kazan and agent Jane Deacy were busy ironing out his Hollywood contract, and, in the meantime, he was free to do as he liked.

His aunt and uncle had come to New York to see The Immoralist and Jimmy now squired them around town, proudly introducing them to his friends as "my folks from Indiana."

Never able to remain idle very long, Dean was soon involved in an informal production of Sophocles' Women of Trachis at the New School for Social Research.  The play was a new translation by Ezra Pound and had appeared in the winter Hudson Review. (Pound had translated the work at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, where he was incarcerated for allegedly having committed treason during World War II.) Eli Wallach and Joseph Sullivan were also in the cast, and Howard Sackler, later author of The Great White Hope, directed.  The production was repeated at the uptown YMHA.

As ever, directors either loved or hated Dean; Sackler was no exception.  He remembers fondly:

"Dean was a pleasure to work with, and he had a superb instinct for 'classical' acting?---elevation without inflation.  His death cost us not only a movie star, but also an Orestes, a Hamlet, a Peer Gynt---that is, an actor who could really act."

Then, in March, just before Dean's movie contract was finalized, Warner Brothers began to question the wisdom of using an unknown actor in such a major role.

"To them," Kazan said, "it was like taking a horse from a horse and carriage and putting him in the Belmont Stakes."

To set the studio at ease, Kazan shot a brief screen test at the Gjon Mili studio in which Dean played a scene opposite costar Julie Harris.

After Warners saw the test there were no further protests.  Dark horse or not, the feeling at the studio was that Elia Kazan was clearly getting set to ride home another winner.  ##




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