Dean of the American Theater


Today is the anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1955, death of James Dean.

Commentators tend to express amazement at how brief his career was—four credited roles in movies, a few TV drama shows and a Pepsi commercial. But those screen-centric observers are overlooking a decent body of stage work, which includes numerous roles in plays at Fairmount High School in Indiana, the plum part of Malcolm in a UCLA student production of Macbeth, studies with Strasberg, and two Broadway shows.

Those Broadway shows: See the Jaguar by N. Richard Nash in 1952 (which, though it ran only three nights, nonetheless endures as a script you can order from Dramatists Play Service here) and The Immoralist, adapted by Augustus & Ruth Goetz from the Andre Gide book. The Immoralist co-starred Geraldine Page and Louis Jordan, and ran from Feb. 8 to May 1, 1954, just a year and a half before James Dean died.

I spent some time in Indiana earlier this year. (A story on that epic adventure has been percolating for about six months now; you’ll see it here eventually.) The Indiana State Museum was hosting a comprehensive exhibit about Dean’s life and works, titled Eternal James Dean. There was an enlightening section devoted to Dean’s New York theater exploits. Disillusioned with Los Angeles, he’d gone East to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. A lot of the TV industry was still in New York, and theater-style shows like Kraft Television Theatre and Omnibus, not to mention those brief Broadway runs, are what brought Dean back to Hollywood.

The Eternal James Dean exhibit, which closed this past June, was the most comprehensive I’ve seen about Dean, especially concerning his stage acting.

On a previous trip to Indiana in the early ‘90s, I visited the small town of Fairmount where James Dean attended high school and began acting. At the time, there was a “museum” devoted to Dean, essentially the vast collection of a longtime fan. At the town historical society, because I was relatively young, the staff directed me to a guest book where noted James Dean fan Morrissey of The Smiths had signed his name. (Unfortunately, when telling me of the visit, one staffer got Morrisey confused with Jim Morrison of The Doors.)

I also visited his grave. The gravestone shown in the postcard was stolen in 1998, then discovered lying on the highway and reinstalled.

The Historical Society also sold postcards depicting an empty Fairmount High School auditorium, with a caption stating that James Dean had performed there. Can’t find that postcard anywhere—it was pinned to the bulletin board over my desk at the New Haven Advocate for many years. But I did turn up this image. It’s of the sign welcoming you to Fairmount. As you can see, the town is not only when James Dean grew up; it’s the birthplace of Jim Davis, creator of Garfield the cat.