Friends, former co-stars gather on late James Dean's birthday; he would have been 74

Wednesday, February 9th 2005, 9:44 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Was the ``Rebel Without A Cause'' driven to early death because of his rebellious nature? It depends on whom you ask.

Friends and former co-stars of James Dean disagree on whether he had a death wish, but all agree the screen idol influenced them and the moviegoing public.

Dean, who died 50 years ago in a car accident, would have been 74 on Tuesday, and a celebration of sorts was held to kick off a yearlong celebration leading to his 75th birthday.

``We had talked about growing older,'' said actor Martin Landau. ``He used to worry that he looked like a kid when he became an actor.''

But photographer Phil Stern, who captured a famous shot of Dean with a turtleneck covering half his face, thinks Dean had no intention of growing old.

``Dean was very prescient because he structured his career in such a way that he passed away _ which I believe was inevitable _ in a way that precluded the possibility of people seeing him as a potbellied, bald man,'' Stern said.

Martin Sheen, who stars in NBC's ``The West Wing,'' was only a boy when he saw Dean in ``East of Eden.'' Dean's performance inspired Sheen to become an actor.

``All of his movies had a profound effect on my life, in my work and all of my generation,'' Sheen said. ``He transcended cinema acting. It was no longer acting, it was human behavior.''

Jane Withers said working with the sometimes aloof Dean in ``Giant'' was the highlight of her career, but she had to get past his attitude early on.

``He acted like a little kid and when someone acts like a kid, I treat them like one,'' Withers said. ``I didn't put up with any guff, and because of it, we had a very warm relationship.''

Earl Holliman, who was also in ``Giant,'' sees Dean's aloofness as a product of his desire to remain focused on work.

``Jimmy was a guy who didn't care what people think of him,'' Holliman said. ``He said that wasn't important. What was important was what was on the screen.''

Despite his brief Hollywood career, Dean's image as rebel antihero still resonates with marketers.

Warner Bros. plans to release ``Giant,'' ``Rebel'' and ``East of Eden'' on DVD this year. And Dean's image will adorn two NASCAR racing cars this summer.

Stage plays based on Dean's films will also be staged in several cities, and the actor's hometown, Marion, Ind., plans to amp up its annual festival commemorating the star, which typically draws up to 60,000 people.

``I invite you to our area,'' Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold said, ``where cool was born.''

Dean, an avid racer, died Sept. 30, 1955, when another car turned into the path of his Porsche Spyder on a California highway. Officers estimated he was driving between 70 mph and 75 mph.