By the time his first big movie had made the circuit, he was a star. By the time his second and third movies were released, he was dead.
He was a legend at age 24, even before Elvis Presley recorded his first rock 'n' roll hit. He was a symbol of youthful, raised-collar rebellion against claustrophobic authority even before Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road."
James Byron Dean died 30 years ago today. He is buried here, in his boyhood home town, 10 miles from Marion in central Indiana, where he was born. No longer do people declare they cannot live without James Dean and commit suicide. Yet the obsession continues.
This weekend, in separate commemorations held by the Fairmount Historical Museum, the James Dean Fan Club and the James Dean Memorial Rod Club -- small-town egos and jealousies prevented the groups from coordinating one big shebang -- several thousand people came to honor the man who became a star with "East of Eden" and a legend with the posthumous releases of "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant."
Janine Ferguson, 43, drove four days from Calgary, Alberta, to be here. After all these years she is still not sure why Dean has such a pull on her. All she knows is that when she was 13 and he died, "I thought my whole life had come to an end . . . I cried and cried and cried. I carried on for years and years."
Debi Bottiggi, 19, drove five hours from Cleveland to put a homemade wooden cross at the grave of a man who had been dead 11 years when she was born. "I'm just obsessed with him," she said. "Everything about him was so perfect."
She said she has memorized all his lines, then proceeded to prove it.
Maureen Clark, a 19-year-old child-care worker from Des Plaines, Ill., spoke of her "addiction" to Dean. "I didn't want to be like this," she said. "Now, here I am, chasing the guy's ghost." Her obsession, as she calls it, is for Dean and Dean alone. "I like Elvis," she said, "but I can only handle one dead man at a time."
What these visitors found in Fairmount was a town that is said to be not greatly different from the slow-paced one Dean rocketed from when he graduated in 1949 from a high school that still stands.
The narrow roads are still clogged by trucks driven at a languorous pace and are lined by cows that move when they want to and by corn that grows when it's ready. Urgent, hand-scrawled road signs promise Armageddon if repentance is not sought immediately.
In this setting, James Dean look-alikes hung cigarettes off their lips, curled in their shoulders and muttered (there were three separate look-alike contests); custom car owners, particularly those with 1949 Mercurys similar to the one Dean raced in "Rebel Without a Cause," revved their engines and cruised around sullenly; and the town reveled in the memory of the one person who, when he was buried in 1955, attracted 3,000 people -- more than the town's population.
Dean, who had gone from farm to fame, died on a California highway when his Porsche Spyder crashed into an oncoming car. Minutes earlier, he had gotten a speeding ticket, a fact only reinforcing the belief among millions of grief-stricken devotees that he died as they thought he had lived: defiantly, in his own revved-up game of turbo-chicken, in furtive search of the fast lane on a dull two-lane highway.
That is an image that Fairmount does not care to perpetuate. Here, Dean is not recalled as insouciant, a troubled loner or uncommonly rebellious. He is remembered instead as serious about acting and willing to work hard.
"He liked to rehearse," said Ann Doran, who played his mother in "Rebel Without a Cause." "So many young people . . . say, 'I know my lines,' like knowing the lines was knowing the character. Jim liked to rehearse anytime."
From Doran also came the disclosure that Dean smoked marijuana at her house until she told him it was making her sick. She also recalled the confused state of mind Dean represented for many young people who felt coddled but not loved.
"He articulated what the young people in those days were thinking: 'I want to stand on my own two feet. I've got wobbly ankles, but I still want to stand on my own two feet. I don't quite know how to do it. I want somebody to tell me how to do it, but I resent it if they do tell me anything.' "
From Adeline Nall, 79, Dean's cheerful and engaging high school acting coach, came little stories about Dean's early performances, and guided tours of the farm where his aunt and uncle raised him: the handprint and footprint he imbedded in concrete in their garage at age 13; the tiny stage he acted on; the stairwell he took to get to ag class; the gym where he played basketball; and the room where she coached him for his first public address, an antiliquor speech to the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
From Ann Warr, who runs the Fairmount Historical Museum, came tours of the James Dean Room in the museum, which includes such mementos as the soil samples Dean gathered for a science fair and the chaps he wore as Jet Rink in "Giant."
Other displays include a miniature replica of what his Porsche looked like after it was smashed and sundered; a bust of himself he was sculpting when he died; his letter sweater; a photo of him filming a General Electric episode with an actor who has since adopted Dean's ocean-wave hairstyle, Ronald Reagan; and other memorabilia and insignifica that both reveal and betray James Dean.
CBS News correspondent Phil Jones, a Fairmount native who graduated from high school the year Dean died, recalled this weekend that many Fairmounters felt Dean "had gone off with Hollywood folks and absolutely been corrupted by them." In fact, said Jones, who served as grand marshal of the town parade this weekend, "it was not his profession that had an impact on Jim Dean; it was Jim Dean who had an impact on his profession."
A question often asked this weekend of those who knew Dean was what he might have been now. The question was often stated with recognition of the tragic circumstances that have befallen several of the people he starred and ran around with, including Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Rock Hudson and Nick Adams.
"I cannot picture him at 54," said Doran, who is 74. "What kind of actor would he be? What kind of size would he be?"