James Dean was only 24 years old when he died in 1955. However, he would go on to be remembered as an American cultural icon – the perfect symbol of teenage disillusionment and rebellion. Interestingly, Dean had a chance meeting with English actor Alec Guinness shortly before his death. But even more intriguingly, Guinness went on the record years later to say that he had delivered a chilling prophecy to the young actor before his demise.
When he died, James Dean had filmed starring roles in three movies, but only one of them had actually been released. In East Of Eden he had played Cal Trask, a troubled and isolated individual who craved positive feedback from his Dad. In some ways, the performance was similar to what would become Dean’s most famed role: Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause.
Dean had also completed shooting a third movie: Giant. The rising star saw this as an opportunity to escape being typecast as a moody teenager; here he took on the role of Jett Rink, a Texan ranch hand who strikes oil.
In the years following his death, James Dean’s relatively small cinematic output left a paradoxically massive legacy. In truth, Dean actually appeared in four other films, as well as some television shows and theatre productions. But undeniably his three starring movie roles are the performances for which he has been remembered: all have become etched in our collective cinematic memories, while his lesser parts have been largely forgotten.
Dean’s starring roles would come to define a generation of youth in America. His screen persona represented all their anger and frustration with the prevailing societal norms. His characters had a raging fire in their bellies and refused to bow to authority. Handsome, charismatic and brash, they epitomized many of the traits to which young men might aspire in real life.
Even his acting style was different than the more disciplined, classically trained generation of actors that came before him. Dean was allowed, by directors such as Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan, to be looser and less controlled in his performances. Sometimes his ad hoc and improvised approach could seem like a force of nature.
Overall, he had more in common with contemporaries such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Both of those men were slightly older than Dean, but all three were known for playing moody young men whose raw passion and intense sexuality would practically burst off the screen.
In the end, it was precisely because Dean’s life was cut short that his cinematic legacy was set in stone. Dying young meant that he would never go on to become old, overweight and eccentric like Brando, or fade away in a haze of depression, drugs and alcohol like Clift. Rather, he would be forever young, trapped in a kind of cinematic amber in the eyes of the world.
Indeed, the quote, “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” has been attributed, by biographer David Dalton, as a saying of which Dean was fond. This was a phrase from a 1947 book entitled Knock On Any Door, which was subsequently made into a 1949 film by Dean’s future Rebel Without A Cause director Ray. It’s difficult to think of a more perfect quote to describe James Dean’s short life, and it has formed part of his legacy as well.
Alec Guinness, meanwhile, had first made his name in the 1940s in two Charles Dickens adaptations by David Lean. The now-esteemed actor had played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and then Fagin in Oliver Twist. However, by 1955 Guinness was most well known for his roles in comedies produced by Ealing Studios in London, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob.
Guinness would go on to be knighted by the Queen in 1959. And decades later, Sir Alec would become an icon for generations of sci-fi fans thanks to his turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. Although he infamously described George Lucas’ opus as “fairytale rubbish” in a letter to a friend, Guinness nonetheless had negotiated a deal that gave him approximately half a percent of box office takings; it was a deal that made him a very wealthy man. By way of contrast Dean had sadly not lived to see such good fortune, of course.
In a 1977 interview on the BBC talk show Parkinson, Guinness revealed to host Michael Parkinson that he had actually met Dean on September 23, 1955. It had been Guinness’ very first night in Hollywood; he had just stepped off a long-haul flight and found himself in a city alien to him. A woman he knew, Thelma Moss, phoned him up and offered to take him out for dinner. Unfortunately, said Guinness, they were denied entry to several eateries, as Moss had been wearing trousers.
Guinness and Moss finally found an Italian restaurant named Villa Capri. It was full and had no tables available, however, so the pair were on the point of leaving. Guinness heard running footsteps, though, and he turned to see Dean behind them. The younger actor had been dining in the restaurant, and he asked if they would like to sit at his table: the pair gratefully accepted. Before they sat down, though, it seems Guinness issued a terrible warning to Dean. It was an episode that would haunt the senior actor in the years to come.
In the months before the chance meeting, Dean had been filming Giant. While shooting was under way, the studio had banned the star from indulging in his hobby of racing cars. Dean was so passionate about this pastime, that before he had even wrapped his scenes in Giant, he had put down a deposit for a Lotus Mark IX sports car. He was told that the delivery would be delayed, however.
In his short racing career, Dean had competed in three events, placing well in two of them and proving his status as an accomplished driver. His first event was the Palm Springs Road Races on March 26-27, 1955. He won the first race, which qualified him to compete in the finals.
In next day’s final Dean finished in a highly-creditable third place, despite competing against racing veterans such as Ken Miles and Cy Yedor. What’s more, following the race Miles was disqualified on a technicality. This meant Dean was subsequently elevated to second place.
On May 1-2, 1955, Dean entered the Minter Field race in Bakersfield, California, and once again finished in third place overall in the main event – and first in his own class. His third race event in Santa Barbara on May 29, however, proved rather less successful. Despite climbing through the field having started 18th on the grid (the positions had been determined by drawing lots) he did not finish because his Porsche blew a piston on the fifth lap.
It’s tempting to wonder what heights Dean would have reached in his racing career had his life not been cut short. In just a few short months he showed he had a legitimate talent for the sport, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could have maintained a successful racing career alongside his acting work. Unfortunately, the world (and Dean himself) would never find out just how far he could have gone in the sport.
Some two days before meeting Alec Guinness, Dean traded in his Super Speedster for a newer, more powerful Porsche: a 550 Spyder. The young star intended to drive the car in the upcoming Salinas Road Race, a little under a fortnight later. He even had the phrase “Little Bastard” painted on the rear cowling; it was a reference to a nickname bestowed upon him by stunt driver and friend Bill Hickman.
On September 30, Dean was travelling to Salinas for the race with his auto-mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. They were in the Spyder, while Hickman and photographer Sanford H. Roth were in a Ford station wagon, traveling behind. At 3:30 p.m., Dean was pulled over by a California highway patrolman and given a ticket for breaking the speed limit. And if Dean had taken more heed of it, his fate might have been very different.
At about 5:45 p.m., the Spyder smashed into a Ford Tudor at the intersection of Route 41 and Route 466. Sitting at the wheel of the Tudor was Donald Turnupseed, a 23-year-old California Polytechnic student and veteran of the U.S. Navy. The force of the impact shunted Turnupseed’s Ford Tudor some 40 feet across the highway and into the path of oncoming traffic. He came off relatively unscathed, though.
Miraculously, the student escaped the crash with only light injuries, including a bloodied nose and some bruising to his face. Dean and Wütherich, in the other vehicle, were not so lucky. According to a witness, the crash sent the Spyder flying, spinning through the air before coming back to earth.
Wütherich – who had been thrown from the Spyder – suffered a broken jaw and serious injuries to his legs and hips. He needed urgent medical treatment, but he would ultimately survive the accident. Dean, however, suffered a broken neck, two broken arms and a broken jaw, alongside significant internal injuries. The catastrophic damage that had been done to him proved fatal.
It had been just seven days earlier that Guinness had issued his terrible warning to Dean. It came on the night of their meeting at Villa Capri the previous week. After Dean had invited Guinness and Moss to join him – but before they went back into the restaurant – Dean had said that he had something that he wanted to show them.
Dean had taken them to the restaurant’s courtyard, where his brand-new Porsche 550 Spyder racing car was parked. Speaking to Michael Parkinson in 1977, Guinness recalled that the car looked brand new, and it even had roses attached to its hood. The young American star told his companions that he could hit 150mph in the vehicle – but he had not yet had the chance to drive it.
Guinness then described how a “strange thing came over me” – and recalled that he felt as if he was seized by another voice. Indeed, the British actor had a terrible warning to convey. He reportedly said that if Dean were to drive the car then he would be dead within a week.
Interestingly, Guinness was not the first person in Dean’s inner circle to express reservations about the car. Dean’s girlfriend Ursula Andress (who would go on to become an icon as the very first Bond girl, Honey Ryder, in 1962’s Dr. No) refused to even get in the car as it frightened her. Meanwhile friend and Rebel Without A Cause co-star Nick Adams reportedly said, “The outcome of owning this car was not going to be a good one”.
Eartha Kitt was a legendary recording artist and she also played Catwoman in the third season of the 1966 Batman television show. She was a friend of Dean’s at the time, and she reportedly told him “James, I don’t like this car; it’s going to kill you”. In the end, It seems Guinness’ warning was not the first, but it was perhaps the most dramatic.
However, once Guinness had said his piece, the group set the warning aside and had dinner together. Seven days later, Dean had his fateful accident in his new Porsche 550 Spyder. It seemed as if Guinness’ prediction, somehow, had come true.
In the interview, Guinness was asked if anything similar had ever happened to him before or since – and he admitted that it had not. He simply described the exchange as having been a “spooky experience.” He also lamented the fact that he had not gotten to know Dean better, as he had liked him during their brief acquaintance.
As an unsettling addendum to the story, Dean’s “Little Bastard” car established a supernatural reputation of its own. Indeed, it supposedly carries a curse. George Barris, the designer and builder of many of Hollywood’s most famous custom cars – including the Batmobile from the Adam West Batman show – bought the smashed-up racer from the insurance company for $2,500.
His intention had been to break it down for parts and sell them on, but a series of strange occurrences immediately befell many people associated with the car. The first was Barris’ own mechanic. When the car was first delivered, it slipped off the delivery trailer and sickeningly landed on the mechanic, who suffered two broken legs in the incident.
In 1959 a mysterious fire singed the wheels of the vehicle, and two thieves who were attempting to steal parts while it was housed in Barris’ shop were badly hurt. One was on the receiving end of a nasty cut that went straight to the bone after he caught his arm on a piece of the car’s jagged metal. The second thief was injured while trying to steal the driver’s seat.
But worse things happened than that. After the crash, parts of the car had in fact been cannibalized for other vehicles. Going forward, the drivers of these vehicles found themselves in accidents and collisions on a number of occasions.
Two such racers were Dr. William F. Eschrid and Dr. Troy McHenry. Eschrid had disassembled Dean’s Spyder and installed some of the parts in his own race car, using a Lotus IX chassis, and McHenry had part of the Spyder’s engine in his vehicle. At a race in the Pomona Fairgrounds in October 1956, both doctors entered their vehicles complete with parts of Little Bastard.
During the race, McHenry lost control of his car and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. Eschrid, who had already suffered a shunt in one race, would sustain injuries after rolling his vehicle. He was later quoted as saying the vehicle “just locked up” on him.
Porsche historian Lee Raskin believed that the notion of the “curse” of Little Bastard originated with George Barris in his 1974 book Cars Of The Stars. The veracity of the stories and myths surrounding the car have been disputed by many over the years, and none more so than by Raskin. He called Barris “a fraud who has capitalized on buying the carcass of the wrecked Spyder”.
Alongside the alleged curse of Little Bastard, there is an even more outlandish theory put forward by some fans: the claim that James Dean himself was cursed. Dean was a friend of model and actress Maila Nurmi, who was famous in the 1950s for portraying Vampira, a sexy horror movie host on Los Angeles TV station KABC-TV. Some fans believe the Gothic Nurmi put a curse on Dean following a falling-out at a party.
The gossip magazine Whisper even went so far as to publish a photograph of a ‘black magic’ altar that Nurmi had built to Dean. They also said she had a voodoo doll of him. Naturally, this idea likely has very little truth behind it, but it’s a good example of the continued morbid interest centered around James Dean’s death.
Whatever the truth, the idea of a curse has always captured the imagination of the public. It has become an element of modern American folklore and it speaks to James Dean’s lasting legacy as a Hollywood star who died an untimely death. For better or worse, it is an enduring aspect of his legacy that can’t be ignored. Dean’s fans can only wonder what would have been had the young star heeded Guinness’ warning back in 1955.