“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” (James Dean)
A lot of ink has been spilled covering the lives of history’s most influential figures, but how much of the forest is lost for the trees? In Charles River Editors’ American Legends series, listeners can get caught up to speed on the lives of America’s most important men and women in the time it takes to finish a commute, while learning interesting facts long forgotten or never known.
It would be no exaggeration to say that James Dean has been mythologized more than any other actor in history, a development due more to his off-screen personality and conduct than the films he actually starred in. Much of Dean’s appeal derives from his humble and ordinary origins, and audiences are drawn to the romance of the Indiana farm boy who catapulted to the top of the motion picture industry in a single year – the same year that would see him die.
Of course, James Dean remains well-known for being anything but humble and ordinary. As famous as his films are, Dean’s story is inextricably tied to his love of racing cars and his death in a high-speed car crash. And, though Dean was already wildly famous at the time of his death, there is no question that his death only enhanced his fame. One study found evidence of a “James Dean effect”, concluding that a star’s popularity benefits if the star dies young instead of living longer and losing luster. By dying young, Dean actually ensured that his name would remain famous; his appeal has transcended generations.