The First Glimpse of The Guy Who Started It All

For James Dean’s birthday


Age 13. Babysitting. Up later than I normally would be. East of Eden was on late-night television. I had never seen it. I don’t even know that I was aware of who James Dean was. And certainly not Elia Kazan. I was a ravagingly unhappy middle-schooler. I spent months in a state of literally wild despair. I was recovering from what I now realize was my first breakdown at age 12, bipolar having stepped into the room along with my first period, as it so often happens for girls. Good times. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and it would be decades before things got so harrowing that I got diagnosed. But also, even more importantly: at age 13, I was already a budding actress, involved in community theatre and drama clubs. My aunt was a professional actress and an inspiration: In my family, acting was not some weird pipe dream, acting was a JOB that could actually be DONE. I was ambitious enough to figure out – on my own – how I could get myself to New York for an Annie open call. (I learned about the open call from actually calling the Broadway theatre where it was playing, and asking questions of the poor box office lady who finally forwarded me to someone in the office. Crazy, I realize now, but that’s what happened.) I wanted to move to New York some day. I was one of those very young people who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to do one day. No question.

In East of Eden James Dean is first seen in long-shot for the haunting opening sequence, a lanky figure in the background. And this – up above – is our first real glimpse of his face. It is not an exaggeration to say that this moment shook my world. It re-arranged me. A seismic shift. My priorities, my awareness. My GOALS changed.

This one moment led me to the Actors Studio many years later, where I sat in the balcony of that famous renovated church on 44th Street, where Marilyn Monroe had sat, Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, steeped in the history I had been dreaming about since I first saw East of Eden. (After seeing the movie, I used my after-school job at the local public library to research the film. I discovered a treasure trove of biographies. I DEVOURED The Mutant King, the biography of James Dean, and followed the trail of bread crumbs available in that book. I learned of a man named “Elia Kazan”. I became obsessed with Carroll Baker and Marlon Brando. I learned of Lee Strasberg. A whole world and history opened up to me.)

And so, years later, after a nervewracking audition, I attended sessions at The Studio, I got involved in projects any way I could. I studied with Actors Studio members who had worked with Lee Strasberg, with Kazan. I was involved in a project about Joseph Cornell, developing a theatre piece about him, and actually got to work with Lois Smith (who appears in East of Eden. Joseph Cornell made one of his famous boxes for her.) And, most movingly, I finally got to MEET Elia Kazan. (A propos of nothing, recently I realized – and I have no idea how I did not notice this before – that in my life I have had not one, but TWO, romantic entanglements with men whose fathers had roles in Kazan’s autobiographical film America America. I swear I did not plan this. I wasn’t targeting people from afar, based on their IMDB credits. I swear.)

This above – my first glimpse of Dean, hunched over on the sidewalk, forehead wrinkle, clothes the same color as the light – was the Moment.

The genesis of everything. A to B.

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2 Responses to The First Glimpse of The Guy Who Started It All

  1. Regina Bartkoff says:


    Yes! I just saw it was James Dean’s birthday and I headed over here. As always I was not disappointed. Great Post about Dean and your beginnings into acting! I came to James Dean late. I was already 21. I come to everything late! But I saw Rebel Without a Cause with new friends from my first acting class who were seeing it for the millionth time. I was hooked as soon as I saw him. The thought that I remember was way back then and came at me so clear was I didn’t want to be James Dean’s girlfriend like Nataile Wood, I wanted to be James Dean! Oh damn it I still want to! (And Steve McQueen, ha! Whom you also write so extensively and wonderful about!)

    • sheila says:

      // I didn’t want to be James Dean’s girlfriend like Nataile Wood, I wanted to be James Dean! //

      Regina – I so so feel this! It was the same way for me – he was able to somehow create this CRAZY level of identification with audiences. It’s amazing to me. He just draws you in.

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