James Dean – What Might Have Been

Watching Cool Hand Luke recently on the DVR – thank you ’31 Days of Oscar’ on TCM – I noticed Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos kicking around the background, with Jo Van Fleet having a turn in the foreground, and there was something in the convergence of the three that got me thinking about James Dean. After all, Davalos and Van Fleet were both in East of Eden with Dean, playing his mother and brother, and Dennis Hopper, in addition to playing a small part in Rebel Without a Cause and a less smaller part in Giant, had been a friend/devotee of Dean at the time of Dean’s death.

But seeing them didn’t just put me in the mind to think about Dean; rather, it put me in a mind to wonder what might have been, what sort of career he would have had, had he not died. After all, while he was something of a shooting-star, coming out of nowhere to give but three indelible performances – including as the iconic Jim in Rebel Without a Cause – it’s no stretch to believe that based on the raw talent shown in those three films that he would have gone on to be a major force in film history.

It’s the bit about ‘had he not died’ that brings me back to Cool Hand Luke. After all, given that the film stars Paul Newman it’s conceivable that, if Dean lived, the film could just as easily starred James Dean, especially in light of the fact that it was Dean’s death that really gave Newman his breakthrough.

Newman may have had success on the stage in Picnic and Sweet Bird of Youth but aside from a role in The Silver Chalice, he wasn’t really making it on screen. Originally he tested for a part in East of Eden but lost out to Richard Davalos – who was also in Cool Hand Luke, (in the above picture he’s second from left, while Hopper is third from right) though in a perverse ‘my, how things change’ kind of way, Davalos had far less screen time than Newman – and it wasn’t until James Dean died and Newman stepped into Somebody Up There Likes Me that his career really took off. Now, it’s conceivable to believe that Newman might have really broken through without Somebody Up There Likes Me – after all, you can’t expect that James Dean would have taken every part that went to Newman – but by the time he starred in SUTLM Newman was already 31 and to even back up his career a year or two looking for the next breakthrough rile might have been disastrous. Nevertheless, the point of this post isn’t to speculate on what might have been for Newman, but what might have been with Dean.

Assuming he lived, Dean would have played Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, depriving Newman of the role, and after that isn’t easy to see Dean stepping into any number of roles that eventually went to Newman, including Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – which, given the rumors of Dean’s sexuality would have given the homosexual themes in Cat a real twist – Fast Eddie in The Hustler, Hud in Hud, Butch to Redford’s Sundance, the aforementioned Cool Hand Luke and more. Hell, today, we might be talking about a ‘Dean’s Own’ line of salad dressing instead of ‘Newman’s Own.’

But we don’t really need to stop and wonder if he would have had Paul Newman’s career alone had he lived, but think about what other careers he might have affected. After all, he was friends with Dennis Hopper and given that friendship it’s easy to believe he might have played the part in Easy Rider that Jack Nicholson played. After all, it wasn’t that Nicholson was meant for the role because it was originally cast with Rip Torn, who was the same age as Dean. Nicholson merely stepped in after Torn and Hopper had a falling out. Having Dean in Easy Rider also seems like a no-brainer based on the fact that having him in that type of production, a low-budget biker pic, would have been a coup and one likes to imagine where he might have gone had he taken over the Nicholson role. Which films would he have poached from Nicholson? He would have made an interesting R.P. McCurphy, would have had a sly take on Chinatown, probably wouldn’t have been much different in Five Easy Pieces, but the real change would have been him as Jack Torrance in The Shining. I can just see him mumbling through ‘Here’s Johnny!’ Although, by the time of The Shining he would have been nearly 50 and might have been too old for the part. Maybe Nicholson would have stilled played it, who knows?

Had Dean lived, in some alternate universe, he might very well be one of our most decorated film actors, with a fifty year career, while Newman and Nicholson never made it beyond character parts and Corman films. While that’s an interesting thought for what would have happened with Dean, it’s somewhat sad to think of what we’d have lost from either Nicholson and Newman if neither had made it. Still, had Dean lived it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have poached every part from Newman and Nicholson. It’s unimaginable to think of a Dean/Sandler pairing in Anger Management or Dean as the voice of Doc Hudson in that dreadful movie, Cars.

Ah, what might have been.


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2 responses to “James Dean – What Might Have Been

  1. SanDiego Guy

    Until recently, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I hadn’t seen James Dean in “Giant” for probably 20 years or more. Watching it again just the other week, it suddenly dawned on me that for all these years, I had confused and commingled Dean’s performance opposite Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant” with Paul Newman’s performance opposite Patricia Neil in “Hud.” So quite obviously, I can see James Dean playing “Hud.”

    As a fairly recent convert into James Dean fandom, I made a specific point to see “Somebody Up There Likes Me” after reading it was slated to be Dean’s next movie project after “Giant” had he survived. Watching Newman as Rocky Graziano, I could totally see Jimmy Dean in that role. In fact, it occurred to me quite often while watching the film that perhaps Paul Newman might well have attempted to imitate Dean in his own performance. I believe the same can be said for “The Left-Handed Gun” where Newman stepped into the role of Billy the Kid in Dean’s stead after the fatal automobile wreck on September 30, 1955, that too soon ended the brilliant career of a shooting star super nova.

    Reportedly, Tennessee Williams specifically wanted Dean to play Brick in the movie version of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Williams even requested that Dean come to New York to originate the role on Broadway. Dean already had to Broadway performances, along with a Tony Award, under his belt when he came to Hollywood to star as Cal in “East of Eden.” However, Dean’s filming schedule on “Rebel Without A Cause” prevented him from taking Williams up on his offer so Ben Gazzara won the role on stage instead.

    I’m sitting here watching “The Hustler” right now, prompting me to google search “what movie roles would James Dean have played if he had lived.” That led me to this blogsite. I don’t mean to take anything away from the multi-dimensional talents of Paul Newman. But still, if ever there were a role taylor-made for James Dean that he didn’t live long enough to play, it’s Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler.”

    And let’s not forget about the roles James Dean might have played instead of Steve McQueen . . . The Cincinnati Kid, The Great Escape, Bullet, Papillon?

    Here’s to James Dean, forever young.

  2. A Pietrzak

    Great article! I am glad you made the Easy Rider connection – Dean would have been terrific for sure.
    What about Steve McQueen’s role in Bullitt?
    P.S. ‘San Diego guy’ comments spot on!

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