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TV Festival Showcases James Dean’s Early Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Easter Sunday, 1951, a 20-year-old James Dean played John the Apostle on Father Patrick Peyton’s “Family Theater” production “Hill Number One.” It was his second professional job, following a commercial. His performance so mesmerized Catholic school girls at a local parochial school in Los Angeles that they formed the Immaculate Heart James Dean Appreciation Society.

“Hill Number One” is one of 20 almost-forgotten appearances that Dean made on television before he came to Hollywood in 1954 to star in “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.” The actor, who became a legend after his untimely death on Sept. 30, 1955, at age 24, honed his craft and developed his rebellious persona on the small screen.

Friday through Sunday at the Directors Guild, the American Cinematheque will present, in association with New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, “James Dean: The Television Work.” Included among the 11 programs is Dean’s first major television role in “Kraft Television Theater’s” “A Long Time Till Dawn,” which aired Nov. 11, 1953. Written by Rod Serling, the drama foreshadows “East of Eden” and “Rebel”: Dean plays a defiant youth just released from prison who is at odds, of course, with his father.

Gary Essert, the artistic director and chief executive officer of the Cinematheque and a longtime Dean fan, said the mini-festival is the result of a conversation he had five years ago with Robert Batscha, the president of the Museum of Television and Radio: “I told him my interest in James Dean and asked if there would be any possibility of having Jimmy’s TV material.”

“James Dean: The Television Work” is the first of the museum’s traveling exhibitions. Culled from archives and private collections, it kicks off here and will travel around the country.

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“It is the first of many different shows the museum will now do on many different subjects,” Essert said. The Cinematheque also will be presenting these exhibitions about every five months.

Essert said that the Dean festival “is going to be a real treat, a real revelation” for his legion of fans. “Even the people who do know he did do that television work--this has been impossible to see for about 40 years. They are very good prints.”

(Not everything in the festival has been “impossible to see”: The museum presented “Long Time Till Dawn” and “The Unlighted Road” five years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; “Hill Number One” and “Tales of Tomorrow” are available on Rhino Home Video.)

“When you see them in a concentrated period of time over three days--only his work--you see what he was doing, how he was growing and what he was doing to experiment,” Essert said. “I think he always sticks out like a sore thumb (from the rest of the cast). Sometimes (his acting) works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

The highlight of the festival, Essert said, is the 1955 “U.S. Steel Hour” drama “The Thief,” in which Dean plays the youngest son of a rich family who may have stolen money from the family’s chateau. Paul Lukas and Mary Astor also star.

“It really shows that although he sticks out, he tends to have his own acting style,” Essert said. “He really does relate to the other actors. It is sort of like having a problem child in the house. The family relates to the problem child and the problem child relates to them.

“A lot of people who are unsophisticated tend to say he is always the same in all of his work,” Essert said. “What he was, was always playing that kind of character who was sort of apart from the world, apart from the family, who hadn’t found his way. I think that if you ask me, most of us are like that today. It is so crazy. The world has gotten to exactly where people like James Dean said it was going to get.”

“James Dean: The Television Work” schedule:

Friday at 7 p.m.: “Kraft Television Theater: A Long Time Till Dawn,” “Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars: The Unlighted Road” (1955), with Pat Hardy.

Friday at 9 p.m.: “Armstrong Circle Theater: The Bells of Cockaigne” (1953), “Omnibus: Glory in the Flower” (1953), with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Saturday at 7 p.m.: “Kraft Television Theater: Keep Our Honor Bright” (1953), screenplay by George Roy Hill; “Tales of Tomorrow: The Evil Within” (1953), with Rod Steiger.

Saturday at 9 p.m.: “Robert Montgomery Presents: Harvest” (1953), with Dorothy Gish and Ed Begley; “The Steve Allen Show” (1956), in which Allen hosts a special tribute to Dean a year after his death. The segment also includes a 1953 clip from the “Campbell Soundstage” drama “Life Sentence.” Also screening: rarely seen outtakes from “East of Eden.”

Sunday at 6 p.m.: “Hill Number One”; “Highway Safety Commercial,” which features Dean talking about safe driving for the National Highway Committee just weeks before his death in a car crash; “Pepsi Commercial” (1951), Dean’s first professional acting job.

Sunday at 8 p.m.: “U.S. Steel Hour: The Thief”; “General Electric Theater: I’m a Fool” (1954), with “Rebel Without a Cause” co-star Natalie Wood.

Information: (213) 466-FILM.


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