James Dean, 24, was a box office gold. He was also a race car driver. He had to sign a clause in his contract that that he would not enter any races during the filming of Giant, the movie he was starring in with Elizabeth Taylor. Dean had entered UCLA as a pre-law student, joined ROTC and a fraternity, but angered his father when he dropped out to pursue an acting career. By the time he was starring in Giant, Dean had appeared in only six movies, four of them without screen credits.
Even as a kid, living with his aunt in rural Marion, Indiana, Dean had loved speed, roaring his motorcycle around the pastures, scaring cows. He began racing in professional races in 1954. In his first race, he finished first in the novice class, second in the main event, and was bitten by the racing bug. He had dreams of the Indy 500. On September 30, when Giant wrapped, Dean and Rolf Wütherich, his mechanic, picked up Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder – called “the little bastard” – and headed west, to enter a race. Dean was driving.
At 3:30 that afternoon, they were stopped and Dean was ticketed for driving 10 miles over the speed limit. About two hours later, seeing a Ford coming at them along the straight, empty highway, pulling into their lane to make a turn, Dean said, “He’s got to see us.” But 23-year-old Cal-Poly student Donald Turnupseed didn’t. Those were James Dean’s last words. He died on the way to the hospital. Rolf, thrown from the car, suffered a broken jaw. Turnupseed, who had minor injuries, when asked if he would discuss the accident, said, “Not a chance.”
Both Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released after Dean’s death. James Dean is the only actor as of 2017 to receive two posthumous Academy Award nominations for Best Actor – one for East of Eden and one for Giant, although he did not win. But it is not James Dean’s voice that is heard in the last scenes in Giant. Dean’s words were too mumbled; his lines had to be dubbed.