9 Facts on James Dean's Childhood

On what would have been James Dean's 86th birthday today, we look at facts about his childhood, some of which shaped the mesmerizing rebellious icon he came to be.
Publish date:
James Dean Youth Photo

Actor James Dean as a child circa 1938 in Los Angeles, California.

Coined "The First American Teenager," James Dean symbolized the angst and defiance of 1950s youth. Completing only three films — Rebel Without a CauseEast of Eden, and Giant — before dying in a tragic high-speed car crash at 24, Dean became an instant legend, immortalized by his poetic "live fast, die young" fate.

In honor of the beautifully troubled actor, who fumbled his way into his celebrity, here are some revealing facts of his childhood, some of which would contribute to his character and inform his art.

- Starting at age three, Dean took tap lessons at a local arts college in Indiana.

- After Dean's mother died when he was nine years old, his father sent him to live with his uncle and aunt on their Indiana farm. It was there where a young Dean attended to chores like sweeping the barn, milking the cows, and collecting eggs. (He would resent his father for being absent in his life.)

- Dean's front teeth were fake. He knocked them out in a trapeze accident and would later prank his friends by removing them in the midst of a conversation.

- Before he would go to bed, Dean would write a wish on a piece of paper and slip it under his pillow. His mother would read his wish in the middle of the night and then find a way of making it come true the following day.

- In the 4th grade, Dean once broke out in tears exclaiming "I miss my mother," in front his class. He later visited her grave and asked: "What do you expect me to do? Do it all alone?"

James Dean Photo

James Dean poses for a portrait sitting on his Porche Speedster in 1955 in Los Angeles, California.

- Dean's Methodist minister Reverend James DeWeerd took him to an Indy 500 as a boy and that's where his love for motor racing began.

- Dean was an excellent athlete, succeeding at pole vaulting and basketball, despite being only 5 foot 8.

- As a senior in high school, Dean joined the debate team. During competitions, he would make up sources. Once when he was called out for it, he just shrugged it off. Classic James Dean-style.

- He confessed to Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor that he was sexually molested by Reverend James DeWeerd when he was a preteen. Taylor said when ". . .his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. In fact, I know it did. We talked about it a lot. During Giant we’d stay up nights and talk and talk, and that was one of the things he confessed to me.”