Now, 50 years on, James Dean will be the focus of a frenzy of adulation with a commercial orgy of events aimed at swelling the balances of those who hold the rights to his image.
The year-long activity is being led by Warner Bros, who have restored and plan to re-release his three films, East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant after giving them premieres at "the world's largest digital drive-in theatre". This will be a 100ft screen to be set up in Dean's hometown of Marion, Indiana, during a three-day "James Dean Fest" starting on 3 June.
Warner Bros Home Video's head of special projects, Brian Jamieson, is promising "a year-long series of world-wide events" to mark Dean's death on 30 September 1955 at the age of 24. They include the premiere at Cannes of a documentary, James Dean: Forever Young; the release on DVD of his three films; the staging in New York of Rebel Without A Cause as a play; the release of a new biography; and a travelling exhibit featuring a replica of the Porsche 550 Spyder in which he died.
In the UK the British Film Institute and National Film Theatre will screen tributes and organise related events while shops worldwide will be flooded with new memorabilia.
As Mark Roesler, the head of CMG Worldwide, which manages intellectual property rights and controls Dean's image, puts it: "First, last and always James Dean defined cool. Today, he is a brand." He said that since a Dean website was created four years ago it had received more than 100 million hits. CMG Worldwide is marketing Dean courtesy of a cousin, Marcus Winslow, who calls himself a "family steward and guardian of the James Dean image".
Dean lived with Winslow's parents in Fairmount, Indiana, for three years after Dean's mother died, and his body is buried there. "James Dean never forgot his roots and we never forgot him," said Wayne Sebold, mayor of nearby Marion, who is expecting more than 100,000 fans for the Dean Fest.
Karen Niverson, head of the Marion Visitors Bureau, said baldly: "It's a great opportunity for image and advertising. It puts Marion in the spotlight." Dean, who valued his privacy, has now achieved a far higher profile than he did during his life. While alive, Dean appeared in television adverts only for Pepsi, and for a public-service road-safety spot. But since his death his image has been used to sell McDonald's, Eddie Bauer, Nestle, Gap and hundreds of products across the world. As well as the calendars, posters and postcards that have been around for years, the Dean image will soon be also helping to sell baseball caps, sunglasses, clocks, mugs, magnets, jackets, sunglasses, toy cars, thermometers ... His face will adorn two Nascar racing cars later this year and there are plans for a "Rebel On The Road Fashion Show". Never mind that the actor rarely wore anything other than his jeans and a T- shirt.
Dean, who studied with Marlon Brando at the Actors Studio in New York, had bit parts in four films before his portrayal of a troubled teenager in Rebel made him a star. He symbolised doomed stardom's message of "live fast, die young" and teenagers identified with his angst-ridden characters.
As well as privacy, Dean also cultivated his aloofness. Earl Holliman, who also appeared in Giant, believes this trait was a product of his desire to remain focused on his work. "Jimmy was a guy who didn't care what people think of him," he recalled. "He said that that wasn't important. What was important was what was on the screen."
Two weeks after shooting his last scene in Giant Dean was killed on his way to a race in Salinas, California, when a car driven by a college student, Donald Turnupseed, turned into the path of his Porsche. Turnupseed was not injured but Dean died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
A few weeks beforehand, the actor had filmed that traffic-safety spot saying he felt safer on the racetrack than on the road. "Drive carefully," he said, "the life you save may be mine."Reuse content