James Dean’s Head Is in the Stars. Why Not Terminator’s?


I drove up to the Griffith Observatory the other day to give myself the illusion of being away from the city. I loitered around the grounds for a while, staring with dumb admiration at the familiar, slender white sculptures of history’s pioneering astronomers gracing the front lawn.

There they were in all their just-refurbished, plastered glory--the great men who have helped us to understand exactly how irrelevant we are in the universe: Copernicus, father of the theory of heliocentricity (he figured out that the sun was the center of our system of planets); Hipparchus, the ancient Greek who devised magnitude--the classification of stars by their brightness; Galileo, who exploited the telescope for star study, discovered the phases of Mercury, and sacrificed his vision while studying sunspots; Kepler, who determined that planets orbit in ellipses; Herschel, who discovered Uranus; Newton, who established the law of gravity; and James Dean.

James Dean, who um . . .

Yes, there was a finely crafted bust of James Dean, striking a pose not unlike “The Pensive Beethoven” sculpture at the Los Angeles Music Center, just to the north side of the observatory, about 150 feet from Copernicus. I double-checked the name, to be sure. No, it wasn’t the guy at Caltech who discovered black holes. Not Einstein. Not even Buster Crabbe, the first actor who played Flash Gordon. It was James Dean.


Had Dean been a closet stargazer? Had he made a significant contribution to celestial studies that I was unaware of?

I read the plaque below the bust.

James Dean, it said, had appeared in a movie called “Rebel Without a Cause,” “key scenes” of which “were filmed at the Griffith Observatory in Spring, 1955.” The movie, the plaque continued, was “the first to portray the observatory as what it is and to contribute positively to the observatory’s international reputation.”

Had the place appeared in other movies as something other than an observatory--a hot dog stand or a massage parlor, maybe? Well, in any case, the rest of the quote sounded pretty good, and the sculpture was a handsome, powerfully wrought work by one Kenneth Kendall.


I went inside and asked a very genial fellow at the information desk if maybe the plaque forgot to mention some significant contribution James Dean made to astronomy. Nope, he smiled, Dean merely acted out a fistfight on the premises 35 years earlier for cameras.

Were there any plans to erect a nude statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger, since he appeared that way outside the observatory’s copper domes in “The Terminator”? No, he advised, there were no plans for anything other than the “Tribute to Rebel Without a Cause” bust. (It was explained that observatory employees are barred from referring to the work as the “James Dean bust.” Policy dictates that the monument recognizes the movie, not the man who starred in it.)

Further, the genial fellow offered that visitors generally enjoy the sculpture; that there has been only had one unfavorable comment to date--from a construction worker who, for unknown reasons, threatened to “bulldoze” it.

I strolled back outside, musing over this, and noticed a group of tourists gaily posing for photos with Dean--not paying a whit of attention to Galileo, et al., a few yards distant. And, well, who could really blame them? Galileo, after all, never made a single movie.


Yet something seemed out of whack here. James Dean is certainly deserving of his personality cult. The Griffith Observatory is primarily a tourist, rather than a research, attraction (although it has accomplished modest research in the “flare star” field), priding itself on being an L.A. trademark landmark with a therapeutic view of the city.

But why should Griffith have all the luck? Why shouldn’t other parts of Los Angeles made famous by their appearances in movies--or television, for that matter--be graced with their own memorials?

The possibilities abound. Why not a bust of Jack Nicholson--sliced nostril included--in Chinatown? And how about a full-size statue of Gene Barry outside City Hall, the site of the Martians’ last stand in the 1953 epic “War of the Worlds”?

And how about dual sculptures of James Arness and James Whitmore down in the concrete bed of the L.A. River, right near the storm drains where they fought those Gargantuan ants in “Them”? Maybe a bronze of Bruce Willis outside the Fox Plaza building in Century City, site of “Die Hard”? And, on Sunset Boulevard--well, what could be more appropriate than William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim?


In Beverly Hills, would justice be served if the steps of Beverly Hills City Hall were not only adorned with life-sized, detailed likenesses of Eddie Murphy (“Beverly Hills Cop”) and Nick Nolte (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills”), but also of Jed Clampett and the whole clan?

Isn’t it about time to give credit where it is due, and honor the people who have put Southern California on the map?

I could hardly contain my dismay at this preferential treatment for Griffith. That James Dean should be feted while Jed Clampett and many other important contributors to Los Angeles--and American--culture are slighted was, well . . . . I approached a pleasant-looking, well-groomed young woman in an Elvis Presley T-shirt standing near the Dean bust.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but don’t you think that other L.A. landmark locations that have appeared in movies also deserve recognition? I mean, why not a big statue of The King himself down on the Pacific Coast Highway, since he drove up and down it in that little dune buggy in ‘Easy Come, Easy Go,’ or an Elvis bust up at Big Bear, since it doubled for the Great Smoky Mountains in ‘Kissin’ Cousins’?”


The woman eyed me warily and backed away. Guess she didn’t share my sense of outrage. And judging by the lack of appropriate movie star monuments around this city, apparently not many other people do, either. It’s depressing. It’s almost sufficiently disheartening to make you stop caring about the more serious issues in life altogether, and retire with bruised idealism to the pursuit of some innocuous pastime; something that doesn’t really matter much to anybody.

Something like, oh, studying the stars.