The man who ‘Nearly’ killed James Dean


James Dean would have turned 70 this year
Alan A Hillier recounts an incident that nearly changed the course of history and more…

James Dean would have turned 80 years old on February 8th 2011, a landmark that passed through my world seemingly and strangely unheralded and somewhat unnoticed to a large extent by the world’s media.

But as the anniversaries and milestones that ”˜would have been’ come and go, as they always will I suspect, long, long even after we are all pushing up the daisies, my attention was drawn to an interesting encounter that, if it had resulted in the worst case scenario, would have changed the course of history, or maybe just tweaked it a little, I’m not entirely sure which, but lets take it from the beginning and see where we run.

It was the last day of September 1955 and James Dean had just finished filming the Warner Bros film Giant. He was as excited as a child at the prospect of now being free to do what he really loved to do most and had entered himself into a Sports car race which was being held out at Salinas Airport some 300 miles away from Hollywood in the North East of Monterey California.

Dean had originally intended to Tow his 1955 silver Porsche Spyder on a trailer behind his brand new Ford station wagon, but at the last minute he decided to drive the Porsche the 300 odd miles to the racetrack just to put some pre-race mileage on the clock. Dean and his chums set out on the Friday afternoon from the service shop of ‘Competitive Motors’ of 1219 North Vine Street in Hollywood. In the passenger seat of the Porsche with Dean as they pulled out of town was his friend and mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, age 29.

James Dean drove out of Hollywood and drove on to a place called Castaic, where the U.S. Highway 99 begins its climb over the mountains to Bakersfield. Dean and all his mates stopped for a rest and (apparently) ate some apple pie and drank milk shakes at Tip’s, a local diner which is about 45 minutes from the town called Cholame.

Following behind Dean’s Porsche in the station wagon with the trailer attached were Sanford Roth, a noted photographer, and Bill Hickman, a fellow actor. Racing down Route 99 (now Interstate 5) North of Los Angeles, Dean was stopped by a California Highway patrolman for going 65 mph in a 45 mph zone. Both Dean and Roth received Tickets from the copper.

The Old Bill stood in amazement as James Dean and his mates resumed their journey and the two cars and the trailer turned west onto Highway 466 (today shortened to 46) just north of Bakersfield and headed for Paso Robles, where they would catch U.S. Highway 101 North for Salinas. Dean’s Porsche left the slower station wagon behind as the two cars climbed over the Polonio Pass. The slope of the pass runs straight as an arrow and sweeps straight down into the  intersection of Highways 46 and 41; a short distance beyond is the town of Cholame
Approaching the intersection from the opposite direction was a large black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe driven by a student from California called Donald Turnupseed (I kid you not). Dean’s Porsche accelerated down the hill toward the intersection at a reported estimate of 85 mph on the down slope toward Cholame. As the two cars converged on to the junction, the Ford veered over the centerline to turn left.

Turnupseed later testified at a hearing held in San Luis Obispo that he slowed as he approached the intersection, glanced up the hill to look for oncoming cars, and then crossed over the line to continue his left turn on to Highway 41. According to the report, Turnupseed said he never saw the other car coming down the hill (Actually Dean had the right of way). The rozzers later concluded that the colour of Dean’s car and the twilight dusk (about 6.30 in the evening) camouflaged the Porsche. What is not in doubt is that Turnupseed’s Ford and Dean’s Porsche smashed into each other almost head on.”¨The impact of the crash was terrific. Dean’s car ended up in a ditch by the roadside, “looking like a crumpled pack of cigarettes,”said Roth, who arrived in the station wagon minutes after the crash.

James Dean was dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. Rolf Wütherich, thrown from the wreck, survived with a smashed jaw, a broken leg, and multiple contusions, cuts and abrasions. Turnupseed escaped with a gashed forehead and a bruised nose. No charges were filed against the student.

¨Dean was buried in Fairmount, Indiana, a few miles from Marion, his birthplace. Three thousand mourners attended the funeral services, a thousand more than the population of Fairmount.”
For many years there was some suggestion that James Dean wasn’t actually driving the Porsche at the time of the accident but brilliant new technology shown In a programme on channel five some years ago was emphatic and now we know that he was.

What is for sure is that James Dean died in that crash in that late afternoon sunshine nearly 56 years ago but looking into this event recently I was particularly attracted to an amazing true story, which, if it would have actually taken place would have changed the timeline of any subsequent anniversaries and shows the true nature of fate and perhaps is a great example of the  ‘sliding doors’ effect which we all run the gauntlet of in every moment of our lives.

Phil Stern is a remarkable, but frail 91year old legend. I rarely use this word to describe an individual but within the photographic world his reputation and body of work surpasses them all, he is simply a master, or perhaps The Master’ of his art and is much more than a photographer who just happened to be “in the right place at the right time”

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September. 3rd 1919 but brought up from an early age in Brooklyn New York. By 1937 he was working days as apprentice in the New York City photo studio and darkroom and by night as photographer for the “Police Gazette.” In 1939 he became the Staff photographer at “Friday” magazine covering east coast labor and other social Issues.In1941 Stern was sent to Los Angeles to work at Friday’s west coast bureau photographing labor stories again but with Cinema subjects added to the mix. “Friday” soon went bankrupt and Stern remained as a freelance photographer for New York newspapers, LIFE, LOOK, Colliers, and other magazines.

With the outbreak of WW2 and the intervention of the American forces Stern was assigned by the US Army to a photographic unit in London. Wanting to get right into the thick of the action he volunteered for the “Darby’s Rangers” a much heralded ‘Arse Kicking’ front line fighting unit as combat photographer; nickname 66 snapdragon.’  where he would take some of the most incredible action photographs going in with some of the fiercest and bravest troops that America had. It’s no real surprise that he was eventually seriously wounded in North Africa (for which he was awarded the Purple Heart) but following a period of recovery he was once again assigned to cover the invasion of Sicily, always in the front line and always in the thick of it, always where the shit hit the fan on a daily basis and in some ways it’s quite a remarkable achievement that he survived at all.

After the war Stern returned to a blossoming Hollywood scene the like of which I doubt will ever be seen again. Having worked with many of the mega film stars promoting war bonds earlier in the war, he was easily accepted within that society and used his various friendships and relationships to ‘slip’, almost unnoticed into the lives of these superstars and capture and document their comings and goings and careers like no one had ever done before. Often catching them off guard, often ‘behind the scenes’ his pictures of the golden age of Hollywood are cheerful and carefree, yet unusual and bizarre, glossy and perfect yet, , also fragile, engaging yet disarming, but there is no doubt that he was responsible for bringing America’s celebrity culture into focus, and into people’s homes.

His style is unmistakable and the images captured by him are instantly familiar to us all whether we realise it or not. He has immortalised countless stars of the cinema and show-business world and ”˜shot’ what are perhaps some of the most intense portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, The Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra as well as countless on-set images from block buster Hollywood movies and a string of amazing photo’s, which all carry his distinct signature of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and other great jazz musicians and’ uber famously, a young, cocky guy called James Byron Dean.
One of Stern’s most memorable images is a close-up of James Dean peeking over the tattered neck of his black sweater. I’ll let the man himself describe his first meeting with the Rebel without a cause.
“I was cruising west on Sunset Boulevard heading for Life magazine’s photo lab” a crazy motorcyclist just drove straight through a red light and we were now on a collision course.

We both braked and careered through the intersection. I came so close to killing him, and it really was just a matter of a few inches”.just a few god damn inches that saved his life.

I stuck my head out the window screaming “you fucking crazy son of a bitch” and other profanities as the guy got off his bike with this huge dopey grin on his face. It was James Dean.”

The story continued with Stern and Dean then having a two-hour breakfast, then both going off to the set of Guys and Dolls where Stern had set up a shoot with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Later that same day he would take many photographs of the self-destructive Dean in some of his most memorable poses.

Watching various documentaries in the past I always remember the fateful words of caution uttered by James Dean just a short while before his death, in some kind of road safety advertisement where he grins cheekily at the camera and says.

“Please drive safely; the life you save could be mine.”

Stern most certainly was the man who nearly killed James Dean and but for a few inches of ”œfate’ the powerful, iconic, enigmatic images of Dean taken that very day might well have been oh so different and the legend that is Stern and the descriptions of him would most probably have included the word ”˜infamous’

I’ll leave the last word on this to Marlon Brando who has been quoted as saying:

“To grasp the full significance of life is the actor’s duty, to interpret it is his problem, and to express it his dedication.”

Alan A Hillier April 12th 2011

April 10th 2011

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5 comments on “The man who ‘Nearly’ killed James Dean”

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  1. James Dean would have turned 80 this year… Born 1931…

  2. No worries Sir…

  3. The description of the events of 9-30-55 were copied from earlier published articles that had many factoids and wrong information. Suggest you read revised version of the time line on Wikipedia James Dean or see James Dean At Speed, 2005 (Amazon.com) Story on Phil Stern is accurate and a good read. Phil took the only photos of James Dean on his Triumph TR Trophy motorcycle in 1955…the same motorcycle that is in the Fairmount, IN Historical Museum. Lee Raskin, James Dean historian/author

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