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Dean George is the Marketing Specialist and Content Creator for Dental Insurance
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Diminutive Actor Was a Hollywood Giant (Part 2)

May 08, 2018

By Dean George

In our last blog post we wrote about how Indiana native Byron (our subject’s middle name), left California at age 9 to live with relatives back home in Indiana after the tragic death of his mother.

Byron’s father, a dental technician employed by a California VA facility, was deep in debt due to his wife’s medical expenses incurred during her illness. His family also knew he needed time to adjust to raising a young boy on his own. His sister, Ortense, and her husband Marcus had always wanted a son of their own, and they gladly provided Byron all the love, affection and attention he wanted.

On his 13th birthday his aunt and uncle provided him a small motorbike called a Whizzer. Even though he remained small for his age, Byron soon outgrew the small motorbike and traded it for a small motorcycle.

The citizens of the small north central Indiana town grew accustomed to the sight of Byron racing through town on what sounded like a rocket. Years later shop owners would reminisce to visiting journalists how you could hear Byron and his bike coming from miles away.

When Byron was 14 his life was again upended, although in a different way. His aunt and uncle had a son of their own, Marcus Jr., and suddenly Byron was no longer the only youngster needing attention.  So what does an Indiana boy due to earn attention in a state renowned for basketball and motor sports?

High School Sports Hero    

Byron’s uncle Marcus set up a basket in the family barn and Byron spent countless hours shooting and working on his dribbling skills.  Like every new venture he undertook he attacked it with gusto, adding barbell lifting and a running regimen as part of his self-training routine.

Byron’s hard work paid off, netting him roster spots as a freshman on the high school basketball and track teams. His sophomore year he added baseball to his athletic repertoire, playing different infield positions.

On the basketball court, Bryon quickly became known for his quickness and aggressive play, once scoring 40 points during his junior year over a three-game span – years before high school basketball adopted a shot clock and 3-point shot. His uncle also recalled years later that he also broke at least a dozen pairs of eyeglasses over the years.

What a Drama King!

As a pre-teen, Byron often amused family and friends by imitating radio personalities like Jack Benny and Bob Hope. He also enjoyed entertaining classmates by mimicking different teachers and friends by playing the role of a racing announcer calling a big race.

In high school Byron found two outlets for entertaining others: Drama Club and the debate team. During his high school years he played a variety of acting roles before winning a statewide competition portraying a character from a Charles Dickens book.

His senior year of high school Byron failed to place in a national acting competition because he stubbornly refused to cut two minutes from his presentation. Undeterred, he returned from the competition announcing that he wanted to become an actor.

His family thought it might be another “phase” Byron was going through because previously he expressed interest in practicing law, studying medicine, painting and even entering the ministry. When his family realized this time he was serious about his ambition, they supported their nephew by agreeing he would probably get better training and opportunity in California – not to mention he could finally reunite with his father who had returned from World War II.

Two weeks later after being voted his high school’s best all-around athlete and honored by the art department as outstanding student, Byron boarded an Indiana train bound for California and movie glory.

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Reunited with his father and stepmother, Byron enrolled in the pre-law program at Santa Monica College while scouring Hollywood for acting jobs between studies. He spent one year at Santa Monica before transferring to UCLA’s drama department, a decision that angered his father and reopened the estrangement between the two.

A chance encounter in 1950 led to Bryon’s first paying job in television when he worked as an extra in a couple of Pepsi-Cola commercials.

A year later while struggling to find acting jobs and working as a parking attendant at CBS studios, Byron dropped out of UCLA and met a radio director for a Manhattan ad agency that became an informal career mentor. The ad executive introduced Byron to some actors and actresses and others that could help his career, including actor James Whitmore.

Eventually Whitmore and Byron’s ad agency mentor persuaded Byron to move to New York City to pursue some possible opportunities in the fledgling television industry.  Their advice worked when the 21-year-old began appearing in a new CBS series called “The Web.”  

His work there and on shows such as Studio One and Lux Video Theatre quickly led to admission into New York’s famous Actors Studio where Bryon studied method acting under its director, Lee Strasberg.

His hard work at the studio paid off as he began appearing in more 1950’s television shows like Kraft Television Theatre, Danger, and General Electric Theater.

Go West Young Man

In 1953 the screenwriter for the adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden learned that the film’s director was looking for “a Brando” type actor to play the complex role of the leading character. The screenwriter suggested the little known Byron so he arranged a meeting with Steinbeck, film director Elia Kazan and Byron to discuss the complex role.

Steinbeck reportedly didn’t like Byron personally, considering him aloof and moody. In the weird world of Hollywood, that meant he was perfect for the role of the emotionally troubled twin brother in Steinbeck’s novel, Cal Trask.

His selection for the role of Cal resonated before the movie was even released. During preview screenings for East of Eden girls screamed with delight as soon as he appeared on screen.

Byron improvised one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Where the script called for Byron’s character to run away from his father, instead he stunned co-actor Raymond Massey with a tight, emotional hug, tears streaming down his face.  The director used the unscripted raw emotion of the scene in the final version and that, as they say, was a wrap.

Byron appeared in two other 1950’s movies, both released posthumously after he died in a car crash on a California highway at age 24. The fatal accident occurred two hours after he received a speeding ticket.

Ironically, Byron had once confided to a friend about the thrill of racing cars, “What better way to die? It’s fast, clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.”

He was the first actor to receive a posthumous Best Actor nomination in 1956 for his role in East of Eden, and he also received a second posthumous nomination in 1957 for his role in Giant.

If he were alive today, James Byron Dean would be 86 years old. On the day he died, he had lunch with his Dad as the two were working to improve their relationship.

James Dean’s father seldom spoke publicly about his son after Jimmy’s passing, declining repeated requests for interviews. After his second wife died, Winton Dean eventually returned to Indiana in 1995 and died as quietly as he had lived until age 88.

Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk. If you crave the limelight and are waiting for Hollywood to discover you, it can’t hurt to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and LinkedIn.


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Copyright 2018, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC©

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