The mangled remains of James Dean’s Porsche Spyder 550 east of Paso Robles. (John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
James Dean’s fatal crash — and his enduring legend
On Sept. 30, 1955, a Ford sedan collided with a Porsche Spyder 550 on a lonely stretch of highway in Central California, killing a young James Dean.
The crash was the earthly end of the 24-year-old star, but the beginning of his enduring legend.
Dean only starred in three films. At the time of his death, just one, “East of Eden,” had been released. The other two, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” premiered over the next year and audiences lined up to see them. The tragedy of Dean’s death and his lost potential hovered over the films, seeming to immortalize him as the archetype of teenage rebellion.
As one film critic put it: “James Dean was a myth almost before he was an actor.”
His talent as an actor has been endlessly debated, but there is little doubt about the lasting power of his image — disheveled, pouty, and with a cigarette dangling just so — which remains instantly recognizable and as American as baseball.
Just months before his death in 1955, Dean allowed LIFE magazine photographer Dennis Stock to shadow him for a time. The classic photo essay that resulted — including an iconic picture of Dean in a rainy Times Square — arguably did almost as much to create the actor’s public persona as his performances. Here’s a look back at the photos. TIME
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