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James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in the small midwestern town of Marion, Indiana, located about 50 miles north of Indianapolis. When James was four years old, his parents left their native Indiana and moved cross-country to Santa Monica, California so that his father could take a position as a dental technician at a veterans’ hospital. Following the death of his mother in 1940, Jimmy was forced to move back to Indiana to live on his aunt and uncle’s farm in the small town of Fairmount (population 2,700). In essence, his mother’s death left him an orphan, as he would interact with his father only sporadically during the rest of his life.
His childhood was much like that of an ordinary youngster growing up in the 1940s. He spent his time playing baseball and basketball with classmates, riding bikes and doing such chores as milking cows, collecting eggs and harvesting the farm’s crops. All in all, nothing in James’ appearance or upbringing would lead the locals of Fairmount to believe that this “ordinary” young boy would go on to be one of the most enduring Hollywood legends of all time.
By the time James began attending Fairmount High School in 1943, he was keeping himself busy with a dizzying variety of activities outside the classroom. Although he was basically a C student, he was a star on the basketball team, and also played baseball and ran track. Plus, he was active with his local 4-H Club, and participated in planning various activities for the Fairmount student body.
Not surprisingly, he also began to take an interest in performing and acting. He took home top honors in a state speaking competition in 1949, and was subsequently entered in the national competition in Colorado, where he placed sixth. He also starred in a number of school plays, among them “Gone With The Wind,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “You Can’t Take It With You.” He enjoyed his years in Fairmount, but knew that the things he wanted to accomplish in life wouldn’t be attainable in a small town. Following his graduation on May 16, 1949, James left the Midwest with his family’s blessing and returned West to the excitement and the promise of Southern California.
Upon his arrival in California, Jimmy moved in with his father and stepmother in Santa Monica with hopes of enrolling in the theater arts program at UCLA. Winston, however, didn’t think Jimmy should be wasting his time with a drama major, so he encouraged Jimmy to enroll at nearby Santa Monica City College. Although Jimmy was disappointed, he accepted the situation and attended the school for two semesters. While there, he played on the school basketball team, joined a jazz appreciation club and, of coarse, joined the drama club.
By 1950, he’d decided to leave home and enroll at UCLA for the fall semester. While at UCLA, he majored in pre-law and took a minor in theater arts, landing the role of Malcolm in the school’s production of Macbeth. He also pledged to the Sigma Nu fraternity, and lived in the frat house for a few months before being kicked out for violating the fraternity’s rules and regulations. After just six months at UCLA, Jimmy decided that he’d had enough of the college life. In February 1951, he quit school with the intention of pursuing a full-time career in the field of acting.
After leaving UCLA, Jimmy searched all over Hollywood for any parts he could find. Through a friend, he managed to land bit rolls in a few CBS radio shows, including “Alias Jane Doe” and “Stars Over Hollywood.” His very first film role was in a Korean War picture entitled Fixed Bayonets. He played the role of an American soldier and had exactly one line (which was later cut out of the finished product). He also appeared briefly in a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis film entitled Sailors Beware, but again was not given any speaking lines.
He’d have to wait until his third appearance in a film, a comedy called Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, to give his first speaking performance. He portrayed a 1920s-era smart aleck who enters a small town soda fountain and says to the soda jerk (played by Charles Coburn), “Hey Gramps, I’ll have a choc malt, heavy on the choc,
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