Although American actor James Dean was featured in only three movies before his untimely death, his legacy lives on in pop culture. Both Taylor Swift and a capella group Pentatonix recently made reference to the famous names in their chart-topping songs, and Dean’s work remains inspirational for those channeling teenage rebellion.
His short career earned him two posthumous acting nominations and he also had time to make some enemies. His iconic acting style rubbed a few of his co-stars the wrong way, including one man who would be elected president 25 years after Dean’s death.
James Dean had some equally legendary co-stars
Many fans have speculated where Dean’s career would have taken him, had he not been fatally injured in a freak car accident. His potential trajectory can be reflected in the paths of some of his on-screen co-stars, who played some of their first roles alongside young Dean.
Perhaps his most famous role, Jim Stark in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, saw Dean showing off his acting chops alongside Natalie Wood. The film would go on to receive three Academy Award nominations, including a bid for Wood as best supporting actress. Although Wood had already found childhood fame through Miracle on 34th Street, her reprisal alongside Dean helped her to achieve roles in hits like Splendor and West Side Story.
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Perhaps one of the most impressive transformations of one of Dean’s fellow actors was that of Ronald Reagan. Before Reagan went from on-screen to the Oval Office, he was starring alongside Dean in “The Dark, Dark Hours.” According to The Atlantic, the 23-minute short drama aired on December 12, 1954 — less than a year before Dean’s death.
Ronald Reagan did not like going off-script
“The Dark, Dark Hours” was a significant step in Reagan’s acting career. The future leader had previously focused on movie roles but was attempting to shift into shorter dramas as a response to the recession. Despite initial hesitations, cited by The Atlantic, Reagan quickly found success. He was soon starring in multiple episodes per season and had garnered millions of weekly viewers.
But despite the show’s reception, not all things were rosy on set. The unpredictable nature of Dean, which had won the hearts of fans, was slightly off-putting for Reagan. Because Dean had gotten his start on live television, he was accustomed to having the liberty of ad-libbing. According to Biography, Dean surprised Reagan with a few unscripted quips during a take, and Reagan was not a fan of the spontaneity.
Reagan maintained his oration style throughout his presidency
Though Dean’s methods seemed to serve him well, Reagan was noted throughout his time in office for his incredible oration skills. Inspired by the hit Fireside Chats of former-president FDR, Reagan sought to connect with the American public through messages of inspiration and connection. Although his performance background certainly aided in his delivery, Reagan had a few other tricks up his sleeve.
According to the Heritage Foundation, Reagan organized many of the thoughts for his deliveries on 4×6 note cards — a collection of which was uncovered in 2010. He also constantly emphasized the value of truth and simplicity in speech. It’s no wonder that the dubious nature of Dean’s methods made Reagan uncomfortable. We also doubt that Dean ever provided the future POTUS with a glass of water wrapped in a towel — a pre-speech ritual that allegedly helped to relax his vocal cords.
Despite their differences, Reagan and Dean had undeniable charisma on the screen together. One can only guess whether Dean would have appeared in more productions with Reagan in the future… or even become a member of his cabinet.
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