I was obsessed with James Dean in college at Northwestern. I had this Phil Stern photograph of him (left) on my wall. I saw the movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time and I was messed up by his intensity. There was something unbridled about his emotion that appealed to a 20-year-old. My acting teacher said to go with it.
A few months later, working for XS Magazine in Fort Lauderdale, I got to interview Julie Harris, who kissed him in that movie. She wasn’t overjoyed that I asked about shooting with James Dean when what she really wanted to talk about was Driving Miss Daisy, which she was doing at the local playhouse. Can’t blame her. The woman is a living legend herself. (Two years ago, I had another East of Eden one-degree: I rode an elevator with Lois Smith at the James Hotel in Chicago. I wisely kept my mouth shut that time even though I also wanted to hug her neck for Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)
Some people are living lodestones. They get under the skin of other people. You can’t explain why.
It’s hard to believe that in 2014, it’ll be 60 years since East of Eden came out. When I see clips now, I can recognize that he was totally out of synch with his co-stars. They were more stagey, more calculated. They felt like every other 1950s movie. During his silent scream at being rejected by his father, he was modern, an exposed nerve, and still is, because he was like a beautiful walking wound.
Anyway. I always wanted to see where he died, a place in the forlorn middle of California close to sunset on September 30, 1955. But it was so far away. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been to San Francisco countless times, and I’ve been to Los Angeles countless times, but at no time have I casually been in the scrubby in-between a half hour east of Paso Robles, California.