When fresh-faced 18-year-old Dennis Hopper was cast to play a gang member in the classic 1955 drama “Rebel Without a Cause,” he thought he was “the best young actor around.” That was until he witnessed “Rebel” star James Dean in action. Hopper was flummoxed by Dean’s commitment to realism and intensity.
He recalls confessing to Dean: “I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract [at Warner Bros.] and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”
Dean took the young actor aside and gave him advice Hopper has heeded ever since. “He said you have got to start doing things and not showing them,” Hopper relates. “He said don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment to moment reality level and don’t presuppose anything.”
For the actors who starred opposite Dean in “Rebel,” the whole experience of making the film was transcendent.
“You had a sense of commitment when you walked away from that film,” says Frank Mazzola, who played Crunch, a gang member, and also served as the film’s technical advisor.
On Thursday, six of the surviving stars of “Rebel": Corey Allen (Buzz), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Jack Grinnage (Chick), Beverly Long (Helen), Mazzola and Hopper, as well as screenwriter Stewart Stern, will reunite for a 45th anniversary screening and discussion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theater.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause” struck a chord with teen audiences who identified with the characters’ feelings of alienation and loneliness. Dean, in his just second film role, gives a raw, nakedly emotional performance as Jim Stark, a troubled high school student. Each time a problem arises, his parents move to a new town. Life isn’t much better at home because his mother (Ann Doran) dominates his weak father (Jim Backus).
Taking place in just 24 hours, “Rebel” focuses on Jim’s first day at a new school, where he encounters several combative gang members, as well as the beautiful but troubled Judy (Natalie Wood) and the lonely, volatile Plato (Sal Mineo).
Dean died in a car crash Sept. 30, 1955, at age 24; “Rebel” was released less than a month later and became an instant hit and helped cement Dean’s cult status.
Steffi Sidney says that when teenagers today discover she was in the movie, “they just flip. I just find that amazing. They still identify with that movie.”
Dean, Hopper Went on to ‘Giant’
After “Rebel,” Hopper and Dean filmed George Stevens’ epic, “Giant” where they became friends. Hopper notes that Dean was standoffish on “Rebel.”
“He was really into his work and acting,” Hopper says. “I was 18 and he was five years older. That is really a big difference. His whole life was acting. Some days he could come in and you would say ‘hello’ to him and he’d walk right by you. He was totally concentrated on what he was doing. Other days he was gracious and open.”
Hopper recalls Dean’s passion for realism during the knife fight scene filmed at Griffith Park. “Corey caught his arm and actually cut him,” says the actor.
‘Nick said ‘Cut, cut cut.’ And Jimmy came out of his shoes, man. He said, ‘Don’t ever say cut when something real happens in a scene. Don’t ever do that.’ He really flipped out. He said, ‘It’s one thing for me to be cut, but it’s another thing for you to say cut.’ He went bonkers. So needless to say, Nick Ray never said ‘cut’ again until he knew Jimmy was through.”
Sidney, who now runs a publicity company with her husband in Washington, is the daughter of famed Hollywood columnist and producer Sidney Skolsky. Her best friend was actress Susan Strasberg, and it was Strasberg’s mother, Paula, who recommended Sidney to director Ray.
Sidney says she and Dean got to know each other well during the production. She remembers an interesting excursion the two had during the production.
“‘When we were shooting at Griffith Park one afternoon before lunch, we were both free. He said, ‘Do you want to take a drive?’ I said, sure. So he took me in his Porsche--not the one he got killed in--and we drove around the whole Griffith Park curvy thing. I started talking to him, and he said, ‘Don’t talk to me. I never talk when I am driving.’ ”
A month before Dean died, Sidney encountered Dean at a private party for Frank Sinatra. “My father took me, and Jimmy came in with his then-girlfriend Ursula Andress, who couldn’t speak a word of English,” says Sidney.
“He was very drunk. He came over to me and threw his arm around me and said, ‘We’ve never taken a picture together, Steffi.’ I said, ‘Fine, let’s take a picture.’ Afterwards he got thrown out because he was too drunk. But the 8-by-10s of that picture came [to me] on Sept. 30, 1955.”
Hopper describes Mazzola, who subsequently edited such films as “Performance,” as the spiritual leader of “Rebel.”
The son of a silent-movie comic, Al Mazzola, he actually led a Hollywood gang called the Athenians. “We chose Athenians because the guys were athletes, and some were scholars,” Mazzola says. “It wasn’t like Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ of New York. It was Hollywood. But in those days, you kind of had to defend your turf because you were from Hollywood, and guys would come in from different parts of the city. On weekends, you’d walk down the boulevard with your girlfriends and your club jackets, and they would try to elbow you to see if they could knock you off the sidewalk there. So we got a reputation for kind of being the club that defended their turf.”
Director Ray was so impressed with Mazzola that he not only cast him in the film, but also gave him an office next to his so Mazzola would advise the director on gang matters, language and cars. Mazzola also staged the knife fight sequence that was based on an encounter he had had with a rival gang member.
Mazzola and Dean also became fast friends. And Dean also took to hanging out with the club members.
‘Jimmy was 24 and a little concerned about playing a teenager,” Mazzola says. “When I look back, I see why Jimmy wanted to hang out with the club--because he wanted to get under the skin of the character. He would come to all the club meetings. My brother would havea little jazz trio over to the house, and Jimmy liked to play congas.
“I think Jimmy was breaking up with Pier Angeli at the time and he kind of felt comfortable with an Italian family and [to be able to] talk to my mom and grandma. It was a real nice, warm relationship.”
To Mazzola, Dean was a “very giving guy” as an actor. He recalls the time he and Dean were having problems with the sequence in which Crunch confronts Jim on the steps of the police station.
“I kept upstaging myself, and Jimmy kept walking out of the shot,” he says. “Nick came over to me after the 12th take and said, ‘What’s happening? Talk to Jimmy about it.’ ”
So Mazzola asked Dean what the problem was. “He said, ‘The whole movie is mine, Frank, and if you want to be an actor, you have got to pay attention to what is going on technically because all they are going to see is the back of your ear and my face. The scene is yours. Just make sure you turn me around sideways and get us into a 50-50 shot so you can see your face.’
“I look at my performance from that point on, and it went up a couple of notches because he gave me confidence,” Mazzola says. “He threw some magic my way, as I call it. The thing about Jimmy--for the people who worked with him, you felt you were in his orbit.”
* “Rebel Without a Cause” 45th-anniversary screening takes place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Leo S. Bing Theater, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Admission is $7; and $5 for Museum and AFI members, seniors 62 and over and students with I.D. To purchase tickets call (877) 522-6225.