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16 October 2014

Rebel road: remembering James Dean

The tenderly shaped ten-minute broadcast included an interview with the California highway patrolman who had taken Dean to task over speeding. Two hours later, Dean was dead.

By Antonia Quirke

BBC World Service

An episode of Witness marking the anniversary of James Dean’s death – 30 September 1955 – sounded absurdly poignant to your correspondent on hearing it mere hours after meeting Marlon Brando’s son Teihotu outside his wooden shack on an atoll in the South Pacific. Standing Polynesianishly tall in nothing but a pair of fishing shorts, the 51-year-old Teihotu – whose mother, Tarita Teriipaia, starred with Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty – has three times the quantity of his father’s uprush of Last Tango hair and the very same curve where the jawbone meets the neck. The word discombobulating can’t hope to cover it.

Although Brando and Dean are often spoken about together, Dean’s was in fact an on-screen quality very distinct from Brando’s. Both were troubling but Dean was that other thing, too: sweet. Brando would never have clutched a little straw picnic basket and tripped through a meadow of yellow flowers quite like Dean in East of Eden.

The tenderly shaped ten-minute broadcast included an interview with the California highway patrolman who had taken Dean to task over speeding. “You just can’t drive like that on a public highway!” he ticked off the actor, who nodded apologetically, promising to buck his ideas up.

Two hours later, Dean was dead, pulled from the burning Porsche 550 on the road to Salinas with his forehead and chest caved in and his hair still shaved unflatteringly at the temples to make him look like an appalled old drunk in the final scenes of Giant. Also interviewed, Dean’s cousin Marcus Winslow recalled hearing an early bulletin on the radio that night about “a famous young actor in a car wreck”, and switched it off in panic. “I heard it first on the radierr,” he said, with that Indiana swoon of an accent that Dean’s years in NYC had ironed out, just as Brando had eliminated Omaha from his, both having crisscrossed the oppressive emptiness of those parts of America, chasing providence. 

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