The making of Rebel Without a Cause
by Jack Grinnage
In Rebel Without a Cause I played Moose, one of the gang members. Dennis Hopper played Goon, and Nick Adams played Chick. Corey Allen, who later became a TV director, was the gang leader. The female gang members included Steffi Sidney, the daughter of a movie columnist, and, of course, Natalie Wood.
I had to audition a number of times before I got the role. First, my agent, Isabel Draesemer, sent me over to meet Nick Ray, the director, and David Weisbart, the producer Warners had assigned to the picture. Draesemer had handled Jimmy Dean earlier in his career but was no longer his agent. Anyway, I showed up at Ray's office. As I remember, he asked me my age. Even though I was 24 at the time, I lied and said I was 21. Nick asked me if I thought I could play a teenager. I joked and told him that I really didn't think I was 21. The director took a Polaroid picture of me and tacked it to a big board. He and Weisbart then thanked me, and I started to leave. But I went to the wrong door and found myself staring into a closet. Maybe this struck the right note since I was called back to read.
The second interview, or reading, went well. It was a kind of free for all, as though Nick Ray wanted to throw fifty or sixty kids together to see what happened. How they would react to each other--like real school kids, like kids in a gang. I was asked to read the part of Goon. It was a scene at a drive-in where Goon flips out on drugs. Nick and the writers were constantly reworking the script--and this scene was cut before filming began. I decided to improvise and began singing a song, making up the lyrics, as I went along. I guess that also went over well since I was called back for another reading.
Nick Ray wanted the film to be realistic. He and Leon Uris had spent time interviewing kids in Juvenile Hall to get background material. One of the actors, Frank Mazzola, had supposedly been in a local gang when the director signed him. In keeping with Nick's method, we were told to bring our own cars to the final audition, and they were used in the scene. Most of the kids took Nick's improvisation a bit far and apparently didn't bother to learn their lines. So I wound up reading for about five different characters, playing opposite Corey Allen, a UCLA student, whom Nick had chosen to play Buzz, the gang leader. The audition abruptly ended when a number of cars pulled up and a bunch of kids piled out and started to grab us and rumble. I guess this also was a touch of realism. Then someone yelled, "Cut," and the action ended.
I didn't hear anything from the studio for a month. I was set to begin another movie, Forbidden Planet, but choose to pass on it and gamble that I would be selected for Rebel. My hunch proved right. One day my agent telephoned and told me to report to Warners for a screen test with James Dean. The test was filmed on a set that had been used for A Streetcar Named Desire. The whole gang was there: Nick Adams, Dennis, Beverly Long, Tommy Bernard, and Jud Taylor (who later became a director). We were asked to stand between Corey Allen and Jimmy and that's all we did while the technicians tested for lighting and sound. Years later Warners found the print and showed the test when Rebel was re-released about fifteen years ago.
What was it like to be in a movie with James Dean? This is a question I have been asked over and over. In fact, when I was in King Creole with Elvis Presley, the King pulled me aside one day and wanted to know, "How was it working with Jimmy?" There have been rumors that Dean was difficult on the set of Giant and East of Eden (which I think is the "best" of Dean's films). But in Rebel, Jimmy Dean was a very dedicated, professional actor. He always knew his dialogue.
When we began filming, Jimmy was quite removed from the rest of us. As work progressed, he warmed up. We played word games between scenes. Off the set, Nick, Dennis, and the others would go out together--almost like the gang we portrayed--but Jimmy and Corey Allen, who were older, were not a part of that.
Young people are still drawn to James Dean. Why? Maybe it is because he represented the struggles that teenagers encounter growing up--that timeless realization of the differences between parent and child. Rebel Without a Cause may have been the first film to sympathetically address that conflict from the teenager point of view. I don't have the answer as to why any film becomes a cult classic. Yet, Rebel was a good film in every way. The camera work was by Ernie Haller, who filmed Gone With the Wind, and the movie still looks good up on the big screen.
(This essay was adapted from an interview conducted by Brandon Yip, an American Legends editor. A number of books provided background material: Randall Riese, James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z, Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1991; Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, London, Farber and Farber ed., 1993)