In what has become one of the most infamous moments in pop culture history, movie star James Dean lost his life in a car accident over 60 years ago. Through the decades, the legend of James Dean has continued to grow, making him one of the most recognizable people in modern history. While his life and movie career has been the predominant topic of discussion, James’ death has received a fraction of the coverage. Examining the story through various videos and articles, it’s clear that the moments that claimed the life of one of Hollywood’s burgeoning stars is significantly deeper than what rests on the surface. It can be argued that his death did in fact cause him to be even more popular than he had ever been, effectively cementing him as one of Hollywood’s most legendary and tragic figures.
James Dean was an incredibly unique individual, and his death is no different. A lifestyle that was fueled by the thrill of the ride ultimately lead to Dean’s demise. It’s a bittersweet irony that James died doing what he loved most, though some would argue that there is no better way to go. Having died at the young age of 24, Dean left behind a legacy that most people will never come close to achieving. The events preceding and following the death of this Hollywood legend have become footnotes in the annals of history, but we’re here today to take a closer look at the death of the legendary James Dean.
15. He Acquired His Porsche Spyder Just 9 Days Before The Accident
As an avid race car driver, James Dean was always on the lookout for the latest and greatest in automotive innovation. It’s important to stay ahead of the curve in racing, and shortly before his death, Dean had acquired a brand-new car that he was itching to get on the race track. A mere 9 days before he died, Dean traded in his 1955 Porsche Super Speedster for the car that would be his demise: a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder.
The car itself is a thing of absolute beauty, and its speed and power were enough to lure Dean into making a deal for it. After commissioning an artist for some body work, James had the artist paint “Little Bastard” on the vehicle. It was a nickname that Dean had garnered when he was younger, and the name would become a painful and ironic reminder of the dangers of speeding.
14. Warner Bros Banned Dean From Racing While Filming
It’s no secret that actors and athletes alike are essentially investments by teams and movie studios. So, it’s common practice that their talents are often barred from certain activities to avoid injuries that could cause their brand any harm. Given his love for racing, Warner Bros quickly made it clear that James was not allowed to race while filming to avoid any sort of disaster that could halt the film’s production.
As we have seen time and time again, there have been many individuals who ignore the rules and continue to live life on their own accord. From what information has been gathered, it does appear that Dean did in fact abide by Warner Bros wishes, and he refrained from racing until the end of production on what would be his final film, Giant. Wasting little time, James quickly signed up for his first post-production race, and ultimately sealed his own fate.
13. He Was On His Way To A Sports Car Race In Salinas, CA
Having finished his work on the movie Giant, Dean was more than anxious to get back to doing what he loved most. The production of the film spanned the course of several months, and James patiently waited for the moment that he could hit the blacktop again. Eager to pick up where he left off, Dean signed up for a weekend of races in early October that was slated to take place in Salinas, CA. It was intended to be a weekend of freedom and release for the young movie star, though this was not to be the case.
Sadly, James Dean would never make it out to Salinas for his weekend of races. While heading there, the fateful accident that took his life would occur a few hours away from his desired destination. James was accompanied be several other people who were driving different vehicles at the time of the accident. Of the four men that were in his party, James was the only one to die that day.
12. He Originally Intended To Keep His Car In A Trailer
Prior to heading over to Salinas for the races, Dean was initially going to keep his newly acquired Porsche 550 in a towing trailer. This would have limited the additional cars on the road while heading there, and could have saved Dean’s life in the process. Shortly before their fateful drive, Dean’s friend and party member, Rolf Wutherich, had advised Dean to drive his Porsche to Salinas to get a feel for the vehicle before hitting the race track. Another member of Dean’s party, Bill Hickman, was slated to be the man responsible for towing the Porsche.
Hickman was behind the wheel of Dean’s 1955 Ford Country Squire on that drive, and was a few minutes behind Dean at the time of the accident. The accident would go on to have a profound effect on Hickman (which we will touch on in a little bit). Ultimately, this tragic event may have been avoided had Dean decided to forgo the advice of his mechanic and kept his original plan of having the Porsche towed intact.
11. He Was Given A Speeding Ticket Before The Fatal Accident
Of all the facts on this list, this one is perhaps that most telling given our position of hindsight. A little under 2 hours before the fatal crash, Dean and his party had received speeding tickets just south of Bakersfield, CA. Though their speed wasn’t anything absurd compared to today’s standards of freeway driving (just 10 mph over the limit), it was still fast enough to warrant police involvement. Now, you would think that a speeding ticket would have been enough for Dean to shift his driving habits and play it cool until he got to Salinas, but you’d be dead wrong.
Instead, Dean decided to head down Route 166/33 to continue driving as quickly as possible. This road was an infamous shortcut that gave people the freedom of speeding, and was referred to as ” the racer’s road.” Route 166/33 would be the ultimately lead the crew to Route 466, the fateful stretch of highway that would claim Dean’s life.
10. He Was Driving 85 MPH At The Time Of The Accident
Our last entry was a glimpse into the speeding ticket that Dean received prior to his accident, and was highlighted by the speed that he was traveling. After receiving the ticket, he elected to travel on “the racer’s road” to get to Salinas in a faster time. On the road that saw Dean’s life come to an end, it was reported that he was traveling at 85 mph at the time of the accident. This would mean that, despite being ticketed earlier, Dean cranked up the speed in his Porsche before the wreck.
The circumstances surrounding his death seem easily avoidable in hindsight, and this is no different. His history of racing led him to believe that he was safe on the road while driving at ridiculous speeds, and understandably so. What he didn’t bet on was another driver’s inability to see the small Porsche that he was driving, destroying the vehicle and killing him in the process.
9. His Vehicle Was Struck By A College Student
On what was to become perhaps the worst night of his life, Donald Turnupseed, a college student, was making his way towards Fresno with no intention of making headlines nationwide. While driving a 1950 Ford Tudor, Turnupseed was hooking a left onto Route 41 when his life would take an untimely shift. He didn’t see James Dean’s tiny Porsche in the opposite lane heading directly towards him, and smashed his Ford directly into Dean’s racer. It was a near head-on collision that did incredible amounts of damage.
Despite being behind the wheel of the Ford, Turnupseed was never charged for the death of James Dean. In fact, neither man had charges brought up against them. Turnupseed remained largely out of the media for the rest of his days, choosing to live a life of privacy. Turnupseed may have lived the rest of his life free from prison, but the guilt of having a head in the death of a legend must have been a horrible weight to bear.
8. Dean Initially Survived The Accident, Despite Some Serious Injuries
The damage that was done in the accident was immense, and that accident would have taken out any man. Despite the severity of the crash, Dean did not die on impact. There are conflicting reports about the exact moment that he died, but we do know that it wasn’t directly after the crash. Among the various internal and external injuries that he sustained, a crushed foot and a broken neck were among the worst. The dangers of traveling at unsafe speeds came directly to the forefront, and Dean paid the ultimate price.
Officially, James Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 pm after arriving to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. In 1977, roughly 20 years after the death of James Dean, Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital closed its doors. The current lot is now called Hospital Hill, and acts as a landmark of sorts for James Dean fans and those who are interested in the events surrounding his death.
7. He Had To Be Extricated From The Heavily Damaged Vehicle
Dean’s 1955 Porsche was a smaller, sleeker car that was built to tear up the blacktop of a race track. After all, that was the primary reason that he was willing to acquire the vehicle for his first post-production race. Given that the vehicle was small, it wasn’t constructed to absorb the incredible amount of damage that was sustained in the accident. As noted earlier, one of his worst injuries was his crushed left foot, and this was directly related to it being caught between the clutch and the break peddle.
The immense damage sustained by the car caused Dean to be trapped inside the vehicle. After he was extricated, Dean would end up in an ambulance that would take him to the nearest hospital in Paso Robles. It just paints an even more horrific picture about the accident and clues us on the type of blow that the car was dealt while heading down the road.
6. He Was Rumored To Have Died In His Friend’s Arms
While the official account of the story maintains that James Dean was dead on arrival at 6:20, there have been whispers that his last breaths came before this, and in the arms of his friend, Bill Hickman. This testimony has come directly from Bill Hickman who was interviewed by writer and James Dean expert Warren Beath. Hickman was a stuntman that had become friends with James Dean before the accident, and was in his party that was headed to Salinas.
Hickman was one of the people that helped get Dean out of the car after the accident, and became the last man to hold the legend while he was still breathing. Losing your friend is one of the most painful experiences that we will ever face, but very few will ever have their friend die in their arms. That was something that Hickman carried with him until the day he died.
5. Dean’s Friend, Rolf Wutherich, Would Later Die In A Separate Car Crash
Dean’s friend and mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, was inside of the Porsche during the time of the wreck. Instead of being caught inside like his friend, Rolf was thrown from the vehicle. In fact, he would end up in the same ambulance with James Dean as the two were being taken to Paso Robles. Luckily for Rolf, he survived, though his life would never be the same. He was the man to suggest that Dean drive the Porsche to Salinas, though singling him out for the accident is a rather terrible way to look at things. Multiple parties were involved, and many factors were at play.
Of the injuries that Rolf sustained, a broken jaw and hip injuries were among the worst. In 1981, Rolf, this time behind the wheel himself, was involved in a fatal accident in his native Germany. It came nearly 27 years after the night he almost lost his life with his friend.
4. James Had Done A PSA About Safe Driving Shortly Before His Death
Sometimes, taking your own advice may be the best thing for you. In the case of James Dean, it could have saved his life. Over the years, one celebrity after the next has been featured in a public service announcement covering a wide variety of topics. While drug awareness and suicide prevention are often the most common ones, James Dean’s was focused around driving safely. He had achieved a great deal of fame, and his love of racing made him the perfect spokesperson for the subject.
It’s ironic to think that his life would end behind the wheel of a car after driving recklessly throughout California. The public service announcement that he performed and the fallout of his accident no doubt made a huge impact on the generation that grew up with the legend, and could very well have prevented an incredible amount of separate car accidents in its wake.
3. The Curse Of “Little Bastard”
Among the more fabled aspects of James Dean’s death is the alleged curse of his car “Little Bastard.” Now, the car itself was totaled, but many pieces from the vehicle were salvaged and resold. It is rumored that the car was cursed, and that curse began with the night that James Dean died. While that may seem silly that these all stem from a curse, there have been stories of people using pieces of the vehicle and running into a plethora of problems.
For instance, Dr. McHenry, the man who purchased the engine, was involved in a fatal crash while using the engine in a race. His car lost control, and many believe that the curse was responsible. There have been several other incidents that stem from people using pieces from Dean’s Porsche. Whether you believe that the car was cursed or not, it’s fascinating to look at the separate incidents that can be traced back to a single vehicle.
2. James Dean Memorial Junction
For anyone interested in retracing the footsteps of James Dean or are interested in seeing a unique place in pop culture history while heading to Disneyland, there are two separate sights to see. The James Dean Memorial Junction is located at the junction of Highway 46 and 41, and is the newer of the two. It was dedicated in 2005, 50 years after the death of the legend himself.
The second and older memorial can be found in Cholame, CA. This one preceded the Junction by nearly 30 years, and was funded by Seita Ohnishi, a massive fan of James Dean. The memorial is under a tree that rests about a mile from the location of the fatal crash. If you’re interested in seeing his grave, however, you’ll have a bit of traveling to do. James Dean is buried in his home state of Indiana at Park Cemetery Fairmount, about a mile from his childhood home.
1. James Dean’s Final Ride
In 2009, a documentary was released by SCVTV, and details the crash and events surrounding the death of James Dean. While it’s relatively short, the film does a fantastic job of keeping viewers both entertained and informed. One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that the police that were on the scene as well as the investigating officer all took part in interviews for the film.
Much like the book by Warren Beath, the film gives us a closer glimpse into one of the country’s most tragic automobile accidents, and presents us with the views of the people who were directly involved with it all. The film, entitled The Stuff of Legend: James Dean’s Final Ride, is an excellent watch, and I’d highly recommend checking it out. Best of all, the documentary is available for free on the SCVTV website, so take 30 minutes out of your day, and gain a new perspective on the death of the legendary James Dean.