James Dean at UCLA

Dean appears in UCLA production of Macbeth.

After spending his freshman year at Santa Monica City (now Junior) College, James Dean transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the fall of 1950. At UCLA, he took a cross-section of academic courses and enrolled in a ROTC program as an air cadet. Jimmy also joined Sigma Nu fraternity where one of his pledge brothers was James Bellah, whose father, James Warner Bellah, had written the screenplay for Fort Apache. Later, Bellah himself became a successful paperback writer whose novels include The Avenger Tapes (co-author) and Imperial Express. Here in an exclusive interview with American Legends, James Bellah recalls his fellow pledge brother--and budding non-conformist--James Dean.

 


AL:

What was the UCLA campus like back in 1950?

 

JB:

Fraternities and sororities dominated undergraduate life. If you weren't in a fraternity, you were considered "non-org"--a non-organization person. The political climate was all-American.

 

AL: And into this scene came James Dean.

 

JB:

We were in the same pledge class at Sigma Nu. I remember I walked in the house. He was vacuuming the carpet. He said, "My name is Dean," and showed me around.

 

AL:

According to one story, Dean got into a fight with another pledge and was asked to leave.

 

JB:

I wasn't at the meeting when he was expelled, so I don't know what really happened. But he didn't fit into that environment. He was an eccentric. Hollywood is full of born actors.

 

AL: You got him his first agent, Isabel Draesemer.

 

JB:

I guess that's my claim to fame. We did a Pepsi commercial. There were a lot of young kids dancing around a jukebox. I was supposed to be the star. But Dean was a natural. He grabbed one of the girls and started jitterbugging-- tossing her over his shoulder.

 

AL:

You also appeared with Dean in an Easter special--Hill No. 1-- which had a religious theme.

 

JB:

I played a Roman solider. Dean had a speaking role as one of the Apostles. He had the flu, and his voice was husky. Some high school girls thought he was sexy and started a fan club. Even then, Dean could go through a lens.

 

AL:

Another student in the Theater Arts Department was named Bill Bast. Later, he wrote a memoir that became a cult classic. (James Dean, Ballentine Books, 1956)

 

JB:

I could never finish the book. He made James Dean sound like the sweetest boy he ever knew.

 

AL:

You also met Rogers Brackett, the radio director James Dean lived with in Hollywood and New York. Only one Dean biographer ever talked to him. What was Brackett like?

 

JB:

He was an elegant, Clifton Webb type homosexual. There's no question he was a swish.

 

AL:

Did James Dean ever talk about his relationship with Brackett or others?

 

JB:

Dean was a user. I don't think he was homosexual. But if he could get something by performing an act....Once, when I ran into him in New York City at an agent's office, Dean told me that he had spent the summer as a "professional house guest" on Fire Island--which was a big gay hangout. Dean said this in a loud voice--he wanted people to hear. He was crazy.

 

AL:

Someone once said that Neal Cassady, the hero of On the Road, had to act out every impulse. He was totally uninhibited. Maybe James Dean was the same way.

 

JB:

Dean had an ego. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. Like all actors, he was to some extent playing himself, using a different aspect of himself to project in a role. In Rebel Without a Cause, that's Dean: the outsider, the lost soul....

 

AL:

After James Dean's death, you and other UCLA friends were sought out by the media. Now, forty-five years later, you are still being asked about him.

 

JB:

Dean captured a rebellious spirit that has always been part of our national character. He also fulfilled a need. As human beings, we need icons to bow down to. And James Dean has become a perennial hero to nonconformists.

 


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