Dean writes Agent Straight-Talk, a consumer blog on dental insurance and discount dental plans. Dean shoots from the hip highlighting best practices and trends within the dental insurance industry.

The Diminutive Actor Who Became a Hollywood Giant

The Diminutive Actor Who Became a Hollywood Giant

9/20/2017 11:32:12 AM   |   Comments: 2   |   Views: 45
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The subject of today’s post once said, “The only greatness for man is immortality.” Since then his theory has been tested posthumously by spawning a legend larger than life.

Blessed with photogenic good looks and a devil-may-care attitude, he was like a real-life “Fonz” long before the TV show “Happy Days.”  

Even in the social media universe of memes and emojis, his sneering visage and slouching posture is still recognizable decades later.

The Early Days


Baby James Dean, Mom and Dad

As a young child in Indiana, Byron (his middle name) was anemic and suffered from various maladies like rashes, myopia, nosebleeds and listlessness. His mother Mildred doted on her only child and used to have him write a wish on paper and tuck it under his pillow. Later, while Byron slept, Mildred would read the wish and fulfill it the next day.

Byron’s father Winton was a Quaker farmer, but he also worked as a dental technician at a Veteran’s Hospital in Marion, Indiana. 

When Byron was four-years-old his father was offered a permanent job with a Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. After taking the job, the young Indiana family moved to a five-room apartment in Santa Monica where Byron entered the Westwood Public School System the following year.

In California Mildred arranged for their son to take violin and tap-dancing lessons. His classmates would often taunt him at school for his choice in hobbies. Coupled with the fact he was undersized for his age, Byron began to withdraw emotionally.  

Like her son, Mildred was also having trouble adjusting to life in California. She confided in a friend that she missed her family in Indiana and complained how “artificial” California seemed compared to life in Indiana.

Mother and son grew closer in California, and the two spent countless hours after school playing games and making up different plays and stories to tell the other.


James and mother Mildred Dean

Shortly before her 30th birthday Mildred was hospitalized with severe stomach pains. A short time later she was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was grim. Byron’s paternal grandmother Emma traveled from Indiana to help her son’s family during that difficult time. 

Upon Emma’s arrival and fearing the worst, she informed her son that she and Winton’s father Charles would take Byron back to live with his Indiana relatives if necessary. Seven weeks later Mildred died of cancer on July 14, 1940. 

Emotionally spent and deep in debt from Mildred’s illness, Winton reluctantly agreed to let his mother return to Indiana with Byron. Winton told his son and parents that the move was temporary, and as soon as he could he’d send for Byron.

Eighteen months later Winton was drafted by the Army to serve in World War II, widening both the physical distance and emotional chasm between father and son.

 Back on the Farm


James Dean on Fairmount Farm

Winton’s sister Ortense and husband Marcus Winslow were also Quaker farmers. They had a 14-year-old daughter named Joan, but they had always deeply wanted a son. They eagerly accepted Byron into their big white house overlooking 178-acres of prime Indiana farmland, even giving up their own bedroom because their nephew liked their maple bedroom furniture.

The moving back to his home state and the feeling of being surrounded by loving family and friends was like a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively, for the 9-year-old motherless boy. 

Byron settled comfortably into farm life, doing the chores he was asked to do like milking the cows, feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs and helping his Uncle Marcus feed the livestock. But there were still heartbreaking moments, like the time he was in fourth grade and broke into tears before his classmates, when the tragic loss of his mother left him paralyzed emotionally.

Like the kids of other farmers, Byron joined the local 4-H club, enjoyed fishing and swimming in the Winslow pond, and ice skated and played hockey during the cold months.  

It was his first summer on the farm that Byron was swinging on a rope, pretending to be a trapeze artist, when he came crashing to the ground, shattering his front teeth.  He wore a dental bridge after that for the rest of his life. Very few ever knew – until he would sneak it into their drinking glasses as a joke. Byron often embellished the story when describing the incident, blaming it on a motorcycle accident.  

Byron’s Indiana years were idyllic ones following the passing of his mother, but sadly his father rarely visited after the war. The alienation between father and son remained, and it shaped Byron’s personality in ways that he drew upon years later as a legendary film bad boy and Hollywood actor.

Check back soon with Agent Straight-Talk to see how this Indiana farm boy later captured the attention of movie producers and why still to this day he remains a Hollywood icon.


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