Wednesday, 10 February 2016

James Dean: The Television Years

The early 1950s were what historians now referred to nostalgically as the "Golden Age of Television." Drama was one of its "staple diets" and James Dean was one of the many young actors who took advantage of the opening casting calls. These teledramas may have been "cheaply made, underrehearsed, poorly designed, flatly lit and crudely staged," but they were an excellent training ground for an inexperienced performer eager to make a name for himself in the acting business. Between 1951 and 1954, Jimmy acted in over 30 television plays, appearing in works by John Drinkwater, William Inge, George Roy Hill, Rod Serling and adaptations of Sherwood Anderson and Henri Bernstein. His roles on television tended to be crazy mixed-up kids, teenage delinquents on the run, vagrants, convicts, safe-crackers, counterfeiters and killers, although occasionally he was also cast as a farm boy, a bellhop, a lab assistant, a French aristocrat, an apostle and even an angel.

Jimmy quickly developed a reputation among directors and fellow actors of being difficult to work with. "I don't see how people stay in the same room with me," he once said. "I know I wouldn't tolerate myself." The complaints were varied: he was ill-mannered, frequently arrived late for rehearsals and did not learn his lines or stick to the script. Although he was good at improvising on the spot and using the props around him to enrich a scene, he struggled to find his marker on the floor and often moved out of the frame. Most of all, his spontaneity and unpredictability worried and annoyed actors not brought up in the "Method" school of acting. He would also question his directors constantly about the character he was portraying; he always wanted to discover something in himself that would give the role depth and emotion. Sometimes the character became such a part of him that his interpretation would vary depending on his mood and his castmates.

With David Young in "Hill Number One"
Jimmy's first ever television appearance (and first paid acting job) was in a Pepsi Cola commercial produced in December 1950 by Jerry Fairbanks. The one-minute spot was filmed in Griffith Park, the same place where he would later shoot the planetarium scenes in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The Pepsi executives were looking for "all-American teenagers" and Jimmy fitted the profile perfectly. Ken Dicen, a member of the crew who worked on the commercial, later said: "The director spotted Jimmy and took a lot of close-ups of him. Why? I guess he seemed more animated. They wanted action and reaction and I guess he came through as the best."

A few weeks later, Fairbanks' office called on Jimmy again and offered him a small part in an episode of Father Patrick Peyton's relatively unknown NBC anthology series Family Theater (1951-1957). Entitled "Hill Number One," this one-hour Easter special combined a World War II storyline with the retelling of Christ's cruxification and ressurection. Jimmy appeared in "Hill Number One" only briefly, as John the Apostle; in the entire teleplay, he had perhaps three lines, but because he was ill with laryngitis at the time, there had to be a nurse on the set with spray to help clear his voice. Starring Gene Lockhart, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Hussey and Michael Ansara, "Hill Number One" was broadcasted on March 25, 1951 (Easter Sunday) and brought in an estimated audience of 42,000 million viewers.

Jimmy's portrayal of St. John in "Hill Number One" impressed one very particular audience, the girls of the Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, who had been instructed to watch the television show for homework during Easter vacation. They contacted Jimmy through his agent, Isabelle Draesmer, and requested that he attend a tea party in his honor at their school. Jimmy's roommate, future screenwriter William Bast, went along with his friend and reported that "a lot of giggling went on [...] They made a cake for him. The girls were between fourteen and eighteen. It was one of those embarrassing affairs where everyone just stands around a lot. Jimmy got to play the star to the hilt and he loved it, and don't think he didn't take full advantage of the situation."

With Betsy Palmer in "Death Is My Neighbor"
Although established Hollywood actors were generally dismissive of television, Jimmy liked the idea of taking on a different character every week. He welcomed the chance to test himself as a performer and lose himself in parts. After training under Lee Strasberg at the legendary Actors Studio in New York, Jimmy's career picked up and he became a regular face on American television. His performance as a psychotic young janitor in "Death Is My Neighbor," written by Frank Gregory for CBS's anthology series Danger (1950-1955), earned him a stellar review in Variety on September 2, 1953. According to the critic, Jimmy "stole the spotlight" from lead Walter Hampden and "delivered a magnetic performance that brought a routine meller alive [...] Dean's performance was in many ways reminiscent of Marlon Brando's in [A] Streetcar [Named Desire], but he gave his role the individuality and nuances of its own which it required. He's got quite a future ahead of him."

Jimmy's first starring role on television was in a Kraft Theatre episode entitled "A Long Time Till Dawn," written by Rod Serling, who later became known for his science-fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). "Jimmy played the part in 'A Long Time Till Dawn' brilliantly," Serling later said. "I can't imagine anyone playing that particular role better. I think this was his first big role in television and his behavior was very restrained and uncomfortable, but even then there was an excitement and intensity about him that he transmitted viscerally to the television audience." Jimmy played Joe Harris, "a sensitive kid but without remorse or conscience" who is released from prison only to discover that his wife Barbie (Naomi Riordan) has left him. "A Long Time Till Dawn" allowed Jimmy to incarnate two different characters at the same time: a gentle young man looking to restart his life and a violent hoodlum and liar. For instance, when Joe learns that it was the local delicatessen owner (Rudolf Weiss) who had told Barbie to leave him, he beats him up so badly that the old man dies. When the police catches up to him, he locks himself in his bedroom and curls up in a fetal position on his bed, "very childlike, very vulnerable, very James Dean."

Jimmy as Joe Harris in "A Long Time Till Dawn"
Jimmy's character in "A Long Time Till Dawn" was almost a prototype of Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) and Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. In many ways, this was the first time that James Dean the actor truly revealed himself to camera. Jimmy's close friend Martin Landau, whom he met at the Actors Studio, was on set the day of the show for rehearsal. Landau remembered that Jimmy was "very depressed" and "couldn't seem to get a handle" on the role. While they were having dinner in the hour before Jimmy was to perform the live teleplay, Landau noticed Jimmy's habit of bitting on his shirt collar. "You do that all the time and it's good," Landau said. "I know! It's your mother tit!" Jimmy used that trait to characterize Joe, to contain his violent rage in a kind of Freudian psychosexual regression to childhood. According to Landau, "It was a brilliant dramatic move."
 
On November 23, 1953, two weeks after "A Long Time Till Dawn" aired, Jimmy appeared in "Harvest," a Thanksgiving special written by Sandra Michael for NBC's popular dramatic series Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957). Co-starring Dorothy Gish, Vaughn Taylor and Ed Begley, this 53-minute episode was a story of farming life with a strong religious theme. Jimmy played Paul Zalinka, a good-natured country boy torn between his desire to move to the city with his sophisticated girlfriend, Arlene (Reba Tassell), and his father's wish that he stay on the family farm. In the end, Paul decides to join the Navy and, at Thanksgiving dinner, one of his older brothers announces that he is coming home to work on the farm. The oppressive Quaker atmosphere that was at center of "Harvest" must surely have brought back many memories for Jimmy of his own Quaker upbringing on his uncle and aunt's farm in Fairmount, Indiana.

Natalie Wood and James Dean in "I'm a Fool"
In 1954, Jimmy was cast opposite 16-year-old Natalie Wood in a CBS live half-hour drama for General Electric Theatre (1953-1962) called "I'm a Fool," based on a Sherwood Anderson short story about a drifter who falls in love with a small-town girl and lets her slip away. Eddie Albert, as an older version of Jimmy's character, narrated the story, recalling an episode from his earlier life; Jimmy played "The Boy" and Natalie the ingenue, Lucy. Ronald Reagan, who hosted General Electric Theatre during its entire run, introduced the episode this way: "In a moment, in answer to a great many requests, we'll present a film of a fine performance by James Dean [...] It was a performance that helped attract nationwide attention to his talent and we present it as one of the landmarks in his progress toward the great roles of his brief career. Those of us who worked with Jimmy Dean carry an image of his intense struggle for a goal beyond himself. Curiously enough, that's the story of the boy he portrays tonight."

Although at the time the public had never seen James Dean in a film (East of Eden was still five months away from being released), he was already acquiring a mystical status in Hollwyood, where word was circulating that his emotional performance in Elia Kazan's drama was going to make him a star. Wood was one of the many young Hollywood actresses enchanted with the 23-year-old brooding newcomer. Jimmy arrived late for the first rehearsal, "roaring in on his motorcycle, dressed in jeans, a dirty T-shirt, and a large safety pin holding his fly together." Wood recalled, "He was exactly what I expected. A junior version of Marlon Brando. He mumbled so you could hardly hear what he was saying, and he seemed very exotic and eccentric and attractive." Jimmy barely spoke to Natalie that morning, but the two got together at lunchtime to discuss the script. Suddenly, he put down his sandwich and said challengingly to his co.star, "I know you. You're a child actress." Natalie, who surely sensed that Jimmy was testing her, responded, "That's true. But it's better than acting like a child." According to Natalie, he "didn't get it for a moment. Then he started to laugh. Then I started to laugh, and that's how our wonderful friendship began."

With Ronald Reagan in "The Dark, Dark Hours"
A month after "I'm a Fool" aired, Jimmy appeared in another General Electric Theater production, "The Dark, Dark Hours," starring Ronald Reagan. In this half-hour drama, he played a "hep-cat" killer named Bud who forces physician Joe (Reagan) and his wife Betty (Constance Ford), at gunpoint, to remove a bullet from his mortally wounded companion, PeeWee (Jack Simmons). When PeeWee dies, Bud is overpowered by Joe and disarmed. At this point in his career, although still a relatively unknown actor by Hollywood standards, Jimmy was already a superstar in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana. His proud grandparents, Charlie and Emma Dean, purchased a television set just to watch his performances on the small screen. The local newspaper, Fairmount News, which kept everyone informed about Jimmy's progress in show business, called his portrayal of a "hep-cat" hoodlum "convincing."

One of Jimmy's last television appearances was in a United States Steel Hour production of Henri Bernstein's play "The Thief," which co-starred Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, Diana Lynn and Patric Knowles. Jimmy's interpretation of his role, a French aristocrat named Fernard Lagarde, was often infuriating to other members of the cast, especially Astor, who remembered "how hard it was to work with a mumbler." When she complained to the director, Vincent J. Donehue, he responded, "I'm sorry, people. That's the way Jimmy has to work. Do the best you can." In the end, as Astor recalled, Jimmy was "the one who got all the notices and we were just lumped together as 'cast.'" By the time Jimmy appeared in the short drama "The Unlighted Road" for Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1951-1959), East of Eden had turned him into a nationwide sensation. At 24, James Dean had finally achieved success. Greatness and immortality were just four months away.

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Below is a complete list of James Dean's television appearances.

March 25, 1951 | Family Theatre (NBC) — "Hill Number One" (as John the Apostole)
October 29, 1951 | The Bigelow Theatre (CBS) — "T.K.O." (Hank)
December 7, 1951 | The Stu Erwin Show (ABC) — "Jackie Knows All" (as Randy)
January 27, 1952 | CBS Television Workshop (CBS) — "Into the Valley" (as G.I.)
Febuary 20, 1952 | The Web (CBS) — "Sleeping Dogs" (as Himself)
March 3, 1952 | Studio One (CBS) — "Ten Thousands Horses Singing" (as Hotel Bellboy)
March 17, 1952 | Lux Video Theatre (CBS) — "The Foggy, Foggy Dew" (as Kyle McCallum)
 May 21, 1952 | Kraft Television Theatre (NBC) — "Prologue to Glory"
 May 26, 1952 | Studio One (CBS) — "Abraham Lincoln" (as William Scott)
June 22, 1952 | Hallmark Hall of Fame (NBC) — "Forgotten Children" (as Bradford)
January 15, 1953 | The Kate Smith Hour (NBC) — "The Hound of Heaven" (as The Messenger)
January 29, 1953 | Treasury Men in Action (NBC) — "The Case of the Watchful Dog" (as Randy Meeker)
 February 8, 1953 | You Are There (CBS) — "The Capture of Jesse James" (as Robert Ford)
May 1, 1953 | Tales of Tomorrow (ABC) — "The Evil Within" (as Ralph)
 April 14, 1953 | Danger (CBS) — "No Room"
 April 16, 1953 | Treasury Men in Action (NBC) — "The Case of the Sawed-Off Shotgun" (as Arbie Ferris)
  July 17, 1953 | The Campbell Playhouse (NBC) — "Something for an Empty Briefcase" (as Joe)
August 17, 1953 | Studio One (CBS) — "Sentence of Death" (as Joe Palica)
 August 25, 1953 | Danger (CBS) — "Death Is My Neighbor" (as J.B.)
 September 11, 1953 | The Big Story (NBC) — "Rex Newman" (as Rex Newman)
 October 4, 1953 | Omnibus (CBS) — "Glory in the Flower" (as Bronco Evans)
 October 14, 1953 | Kraft Television Theatre (NBC) — "Keep Our Honor Bright" (as Jim)
 October 16, 1953 | The Campbell Playhouse (NBC) — "Life Sentence" (as Hank Bradon)
 November 11, 1953 | Kraft Television Theatre (NBC) — "A Long Time Till Dawn" (as Joe Harris)
 November 17, 1953 | Armstrong Circle Theatre (CBS) — "The Bells of Cockaigne" (as Joey Frasier) 
 November 23, 1953 | Robert Montgomery Presents (NBC) — "Harvest" (as Paul Zalinka)
March 30, 1954 | Danger (CBS) — "The Little Woman" (as Augie)
 September 5, 1954 | The Philco Television Playhouse (NBC) — "Run Like a Thief" (as Robbie Warren)
November 9, 1954 | Danger (CBS) — "Padlocks" (as Felon)
November 14, 1954 | General Electric Theater (CBS) — "I'm a Fool" (as The Boy)
December 12, 1954 | General Electric Theater (CBS) — "The Dark, Dark Hours" (as Bud)
 January 4, 1955 | The United States Steel Hour (ABC) — "The Thief" (as Fernand Lagarde) 
March 10, 1955 | Lux Video Theatre (NBC) — "The Life of Emile Zola" 
May 6, 1955 | Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (CBS) — "The Unlighted Road" (as Jeffrey Latham) 
November 11, 1955 | Crossroads "Broadway Trust"


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SOURCES:
James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Walton (2001) | Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad (2004) | The Unknown James Dean by Robert Tanitch (1999)

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