Tag Archives: rebel without a cause

Down the Road to Eternity, Part 1

(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.)


Passing of a “Rebel” – Steffi Sidney 1935-2010

I saw a headline yesterday announcing that Corey Allen, who played James Dean’s nemesis Buzz in the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, passed away on Sunday, just two days shy of his 76th birthday. What struck me about the headline was that it labeled Allen as the “Last of the Rebel Without a Cause cast” to pass away.

I really hoped this was not the case because through my Warner Bros. friend Chris Stone, I am only one degree of separation away from another Rebel actor, his aunt Steffi Splaver. Steffi was only nineteen when she appeared in the landmark teenage-angst film under her stage name Steffi Sidney. She had a supporting role as a girl in Buzz’s gang named Mil.

I called Chris hoping that the article was in error, but sadly, this was not the case. He informed me that Steffi passed away in February after a fall. 

Steffi was the daughter of renowned gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, who is famous for coining the nickname “Oscar” for the Academy Award and for helping to make Marilyn Monroe a star. Steffi had a five-year film career in the 50s, and later set up a PR firm with her husband after she retired from film work.

I never met Steffi and only spoke to her once on the phone last year when I was setting up a panel discussion in Newhall, California about James Dean’s last day. She, like Chris, was incredibly nice and apologized for not being able to attend the panel as she was then living in the Seattle area. She then hooked me up with some other cast members who she was still kept in contact with. Our entire conversation lasted just a few minutes, but she ended it by insisting that I call back if I needed any more help with my show, for more thoughts about James Dean, or to learn more about what it was like to be in Rebel. According to Chris, this was typical of Steffi, as she never displayed a haughty attitude that is found far too often in those with a Hollywood peerage, but was always kind and charitable. I often wanted to call her back, but I never did, fearing that I would be bothering her, even though she insisted that I wouldn’t be.

It’s been a tough year for the fans of Rebel with the loss of the final cast members, including Dennis Hopper, who passed away on May 29. But for Chris and his family, the passing of Aunt Steffi is a personal pain.

And I feel sad knowing that a lady who was once so nice to me on the phone is no longer there to call again.