(I started working again at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank today, a place that’s figured prominently in my life. It was here during an earlier gig where I met Kimi, the love of my life, and the lot was also the subject of my first book. It was also paramount in importance to the story of James Dean, who filmed parts of his three films on the lot before dying tragically in a car crash. A couple of years ago, Kimi and I, along with our pal Alan Pollack, traced his final day. Here is what we saw along the way.)
“Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider, and took him down the road to eternity.”
James Dean, The Eagles
“It looks like the planet where Luke Skywalker grew up,” jokes my lovely wife Kim, motioning towards a desolate San Joaquin Valley farm whose main crop appears to be sagebrush.
I know what she means. We’re only a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, but it’s easy to imagine we’ve entered an extraterrestrial home of jawas, droids, and sand people.
We find ourselves on this lonely highway heading towards a destination that has become an annual pilgrimage for many.
On the morning of September 30, 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean drove from his home in Sherman Oaks to a garage in Hollywood to get a tune-up for his newest toy, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean had purchased the Porsche a few days earlier to celebrate signing a new $1 million Hollywood contract and would be running it in a race that weekend in the Central California town of Salinas.
Dean had originally planned to tow the car to the racetrack, but changed his mind at the last minute. With his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun, and a pair of friends following behind in Dean’s station wagon, he set out for Salinas. He never made it.
At approximately 5:30 PM, a young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student with the unusual name of Donald Turnupseed was driving eastbound in a black-and-white 1950 Ford. At the Y intersection of California 41 and 46 (California 466 at the time) near Cholame, Turnupseed crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to head north. He apparently didn’t see the hip-high, silver Porsche with Dean at the wheel approaching from the opposite direction. They collided nearly head-on.
Turnupseed walked away with minor injuries, Wutherich was hospitalized for several months, but Dean died at the scene.
Dean was a fast-rising star in Hollywood at the time of his death, having appeared in numerous roles on television, and as the star of the feature film East of Eden, which had been released the previous spring.
During the intervening months, Dean found himself back in front of the camera in starring roles as the brooding Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, and alongside Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the oil epic Giant. Both of these films would be released after his death and would prove to be hugely popular with both critics and the public.
Dean had been barred from racing – his second greatest love after acting – during the filming of Giant, but with the wrapping of the film just two weeks
earlier, he was off to Salinas. (Ironically, East of Eden, for which Dean was to receive his first of two posthumous Best Actor nominations, was set in Salinas.)
Dean’s tragic death, coupled with the rave reviews he received later with the release of Rebel, immediately insured his legacy, and made the 41/46 intersection a site of veneration.
The weekend closest to the anniversary of Dean’s death has become the annual time of pilgrimage for many of his most faithful fans. It has taken on the macabre name of the “Death Ride” for some who feel that an official pilgrimage only occurs when Dean’s entire route is followed.
(More on the Death Ride tomorrow.)