Laurel Canyon—The Dark Side: The 'Rebel Without a Cause' Curse

Was 'Rebel Without a Cause' cursed? Why did all the actors die mysterious deaths?

Warner Brothers had lots of young, talented actors under contract in the 1950s and fan magazines like Modern Screen had tremendous influence in those days. 

A fan mag could send a reporter to any given studio and demand an interview with top-tier talent.  The studios would often arrange dates for some of their talent.  On any given night in Hollywood one might catch a glimpse of Liz Taylor and James Dean dining at Scandia or leaving Ciro's.  Fans would never know that bitter rivalry existed between studio bosses or that one studio might try to sabotage another's product.

Prostitution has always been a thriving business as well. Scott Richfield Gas Station at the corner of Fairfax and Hollywood Boulevard purposely hired young, good-looking men as gas jockeys. They'd fill your tank, wipe your windshield and give you a private lube job in one of the back rooms. Scotty's filled the needs of the gay community.  For heterosexuals there was a palatial Venetian brothel run by Madam Lee Francis atop the Sunset Strip. She housed a stable of white girls but for her well-heeled Hollywood celebrities she could arrange for any exotic choice the gent might demand.  Cocaine and heroin were readily available—anything to keep the community happy—there was always someone who knew someone who could satisfy the needs of Hollywood players.

Prior to production on Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, the director of the film held interviews at his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont.  Natalie Wood wanted desperately to play the female teenage role but Ray had told her she wasn't right for the part.  She persisted and would hang around while he was casting other parts.  One night she went out drinking with a group of friends and they ended up in a fender bender.  The media pounced on the story.  Nat was taken to the hospital and Ray rushed to her side on hearing the news.  She looked up at him and said, "You know what the police called me?  A juvenile delinquent! Do I get the part now?" Nicholas Ray acquiesced and Natalie Wood got the part.

James Dean, Nick Adams and Sal Mineo were all cast in Rebel along with Natalie Wood.  They would all die under suspicious circumstances.  Dean would die before the movie was released -- he also starred in Giant with Elizabeth Taylor another film completed but not released before his life would be taken in a car crash. Nick Adams voice was used for dubbing Dean's in post-production.

On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean sat in his rented log cabin house in Sherman Oaks (14611 Sutton Street) with his close friend Bill Hickman. Dean's landlord, Nicco Romanos—Maitre D' at the famed Villa Capri—had made a pot of coffee and the three talked about the new car Dean had bought from Competition Motors on Vine Street.  It was a silver grey Porsche Spyder—Dean had the number '130' and 'The Little Bastard' painted on the car. 

He would be driving it up to a car rally in Salinas, California accompanied by his mechanic Rolf Wuentherich.  Hickman would follow driving Dean's Ford station wagon with a trailer for the Porsche.  Photographer Sanford Roth would ride with Hickman. 

Dean loved his log cabin home for which he was paying $250 a month, plus utilities. He was fond of Nicco, loved to eat at the Villa Capri and Googies on Sunset and Crescent Heights.  Now he would enter his new car in a race—life was good.  The Porsche had met with disapproval by several of Dean's friends. 

had warned him not to buy the car.  Alec Guinness had said, "If you drive that car, you'll be dead in a week!"  Now Dean got behind the wheel, Rolf in the passenger seat and they rolled down to Ventura Boulevard to fill the tank.  Coincidentally he stopped at the same gas station where the Manson Family would one day stop at to wash the blood off their hands after they murdered Sharon Tate.

James Dean had been stopped and ticketed for speeding on SR 46 as he traveled westbound.  Twenty-three year old Donald Turnupspeed was traveling east on the opposite stretch of highway and had pulled out to make a left turn onto Highway 41 when he saw the Porsche coming at him at an extremely high rate of speed.  There was a head-on collision.  James Dean was killed on impact while the others suffered injuries.

The car had a history all its own.  Although it had been severely damaged, a garage owner wanted to buy it for its historical value.  As it was being loaded on a towing platform it rolled backwards, breaking the legs of a mechanic who was helping to load it.  The engine was sold to a doctor who was a racing enthusiast.  He mounted the engine in his own race car—the car went out of control killing the doctor.  Someone had purchased two of the tires—both blew out simultaneously severly wounding the driver.  The car was shipped to New Orleans to be put on display and with no plausible explanation broke apart into 11 pieces.

Nick Adams had met James Dean while both were filming a soft drink commercial in Griffith Park in 1950.  They became friends and were happy to be working together on Rebel.  Nick had been divorced and was father to two children.  Rumors were always rampant in Hollywood.  People had wondered about the sexuality of both men.  Were they bisexual?  Everybody seemed to fall in love with James Dean. 

Did he have affairs with people of both sexes? On the evening of Feb.7, 1968 Nick had a dinner date with his attorney, Erwin Roeder, and when he failed to show up Roeder drove to Nick's home, noticed his car in the garage, broke a window and climbed inside.  He discovered Nick's dead body slumped up against a wall in his bedroom.  We was dressed in jeans, shirt, boots and a phone was well within reach.  Dr. Thomas Noguchi performed an autopsy and listed the death as accidental suicide.  There was paraldehyde throughout his body along with sedatives and other drugs but no needle marks.  Roeder, who was an ex-LAPD officer had spotted some papers at Nick's house which he thought needed safe-keeping and took them home.  One morning, about a month later, Roeder and his wife were gunned down and murdered in the driveway of their condo.

On the evening of Feb. 12, 1976 Sal Mineo was returning from a play rehearsal (PS, Your Cat is Dead) in Westwood.  He pulled his Chevelle into the carport of his apartment on Holloway Drive and started toward the entrance of his apartment (in a building owned by prominent attorney Marvin Mitchelson).  A figure leaped out and savagely stabbed him through the heart.  He died on the spot.

Natasha Zahkarenko was a sweet child who grew up at 3331 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City.  She would begin her acting career at the age of five as Natalie Wood in 'Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street' and continue working the rest of her life. Her mother Marie would consult a psychic about her talented daughter.  The psychic assured Marie that Nat would become a star—she would be happy, rich and famous but she would die by drowning.  Natalie Wood died on Nov. 29, 1981. While two men who cared for herwere busy fighting over her, she was drowning.

Isn't it strange that each of these talented people died under mysterious circumstances?  It seems inexplicable that these deaths were coincidental.  Was the film cursed or were there other forces at work here?  One brilliant star was abruptly snuffed out in each decade.  The mystery lingers after all these years and we may never learn the truth.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Scott Zwartz February 14, 2012 at 06:14 AM
Where's the mystery in James Dean's death? He was speeding in a small sports car and collided with another vehicle. That is as much of a non-mysterious death as one can imagine.
Ilona Saari February 14, 2012 at 03:24 PM
From all I've read and heard, all the people involved were interviewed at great length by the police - some were interviewed a few times, at the time of Natalie's death. The police have it all - they just weren't released to the public.
Ilona Saari February 14, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Anyhoo - it's been a fun discussion...
Bob Blanchard February 14, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Obviously, Scott, you're not a fan of James Dean and you didn't read the entire article in order to have an appreciation for some of the unusual circumstances surrounding him, the trip and the car.
Pat February 15, 2012 at 04:52 AM
I agree. There's been a whole urban mythology cooked up about the Porsche Spyder, it being portrayed as a car that was cursed from the very beginning, which makes for very good reading but really nothing much else. And it may be that Sir Alec Guiness knew enough about James Dean's bad driving record to make the comment he did. It could be that Dean was drawn to fast cars like a moth to a flame, and when you get too close to a flame, you burn up.
Rudy Garza February 15, 2012 at 07:16 AM
The Ciy Council will be avaluating City Mgr., Paul Arevalo's performance during a Closed Session of City Council this Thursday, February 16, 2012, 6:30pm at City Hall. Here is the link for the agenda. http://weho.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=9944 There will be a Public Comment prior to their private discussion. Please people, keep it civil, but let the City Council know how you feel that the highest paid employee, over $300,000 (higher than the same job in LA wih millions of residents) We need a City Manager who will tell us the truth at all times and take our input and USE it in future planning of our parks, our facilities and our neighborhoods.
Craig Clough (Editor) February 15, 2012 at 07:42 PM
The mystery of the James Dean death car continued when the wreckage of the car mysteriously disappeared. It's a mystery that endures. George Barris even hired a private investigator to try and find the wreckage. Hear Barris tell it himself in Patch's interview with him - http://patch.com/A-gz86
Irene DeBlasio February 15, 2012 at 08:30 PM
You're right, Craig. The car, the engine, the tires -- everyone who touched that car had a deadly experience it seems. I've mentioned a few in my blog post above.
Pat February 16, 2012 at 12:39 AM
I think you put this in the wrong place. It should go into the political section of this website.
Irene DeBlasio July 07, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Natalie Wood's death certificate change. According to TMZ, investigation is ongoing and cause of death has been changed from "accidental" to "undetermined". Eddie Greenberg are you listening?
Eddie Greenberg July 07, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Yes Maam, Hi Irene, I was on the computer just shortly after the announcement. It is a happening! I believe after Nov. 18th. 2011 when the public learned that the first non-investigation lasted only 12 days, that they began to pillory the Sheriff's and Coroner's Dept. in anger and dis-belief. Natalie Wood was one of the most beloved people on the planet. The first progress in 30 years. The justice of truth appears to be closer at hand!
Mike Szymanski July 07, 2012 at 07:13 PM
I've reposted Irene's compelling summary of the local angles of the James Dean/Natalie Wood fiasco and the interesting history shots of local buildings they lived in. http://patch.com/B-1Ht
Eddie Greenberg July 08, 2012 at 01:14 AM
Thank you Mike and Thank God for Irene!
Krystel Dean July 11, 2012 at 07:50 PM
James Dean's car is now located in the middle of the Nevada desert and will remain there. I am the great niece of him and we were contacted by some one letting us know about it. There has been too problems with it to where I don't want anything or anyone hurt, harmed or killed.
Eddie Greenberg July 15, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Now that we have a new classification of "undetermined" by the Sheriff and the Coroner in the death of Natalie Wood for marks on her body inconsistent with an accident, what is their theory on how the marks got there? Under these circumstances it seems to me that a "suspect" can't be ruled out. Yet they claim not to have one. Again that seems glaringly to be a contradiction, when she may not have been in the water by her own choice! Not accusing anyone but the question seems entirely logical.
Eddie Greenberg November 04, 2012 at 02:14 AM
In 26 days it will be the 31st, anniversary since Natalie Wood's death. Other than changing her death certificate to "undetermined" the Sheriff seems unusually deaf,dumb and blind! In fact the silence is deafening! So far as is known her husband at the time has not been re-interviewed in decades, and Mr. Walken has been walkin from the authorities since that terrible event. It should be under a polygraph test. What does one make of this? It could not happen to the average person and that is for sure.It does not pass the smell test. But we will stay on this until we follow the tiger to his lair! A mockery of justice! Natalie should still be among us!!!!!!!!!
Irene DeBlasio January 14, 2013 at 09:26 PM
The Coroner's Office has just released a 10-page addendum regarding the death of Natalie Wood. Apparently the bruises found on her body at the time of death may have been there prior to her body being in the water. Wood died in November of 1981. The investigation into her death continues.
Eddie Greenberg January 14, 2013 at 10:37 PM
The heart both bleeds and rejoices at the same time. There is little doubt that Natalie had seemingly been assaulted before going overboard. Dennis Davern the Splendour's boat captain heard the commotion in the main cabin and passed a polygraph test that this and other events in the case actually happened. Does that not explain why there was no search & rescue effort and that the coast guard was called hours later? A rescued Natalie would not have been what the assaulter would have wanted. Thus the delay. Still no suspects? Sherrif please pray tell what do they teach at your "academy" 101? Was Mr." Walkin" that sound asleep Sherrif? A commotion on a tied up wooden vessel of 55 feet could surely not be sound proof. It warms the cockles of the heart to those who loved Natalie and still do, that her murderer knows less and less peace everyday. Every phone ring and every doorbell must now sound ominous. My heart bleeds for Natalie's now adult children! Their journey has never been easy. Perhaps when the last refrain plays out they will have some modicum of peace. For we love them too! R.I.P. Natalie, your hour of justice is at hand!
Eddie Greenberg January 19, 2013 at 06:49 PM
Now we see that Mr. Wagner has refused 10 requests by police to talk to them on the re-investigation of Natalie's death. I suppose he has his reasons. Certainly not to assist this investigation as he proclaimed he would at the start. In my opinion this does not look good nor does it pass the smell test. Whatever happens lady justice will not be denied this time. The police are moving forward!
Irene DeBlasio January 21, 2013 at 05:40 PM
@EddieGreenberg Testimony is now coming into focus from a couple on a neighboring boat who heard the cries for help. This time the loose ends will be tied. Have faith the circumstances surrounding Natalie's death will be made clear soon. Hang in there, Eddie.
Dustin C May 07, 2013 at 05:58 AM
Fascinating stuff!
Geraldo Cruz May 07, 2013 at 09:21 PM
Great work, Ms. DeBlasio!
Eddie Greenberg May 07, 2013 at 09:24 PM
Irene is the very best!!!!!!!!
Irene DeBlasio May 07, 2013 at 10:31 PM
@DustinC. I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and comment.
Irene DeBlasio May 07, 2013 at 10:33 PM
@G.Cruz I'm flattered to have you as a loyal follower. Many thanks.
Irene DeBlasio May 07, 2013 at 10:36 PM
@EddieGreenberg We still have not gotten answers about Natalie Wood's death. I have faith the mystery will be solved one day. Hang in there, Eddie. Thanks for all your support. You rock!
William Bauer May 07, 2013 at 11:56 PM
I always liked this post and fervently hope at least some of these strange mysteries will be cleared up.
Irene DeBlasio May 08, 2013 at 04:34 AM
@WilliamBauer The mysteries still exist. We may never uncover the truth about these extremely talented people. I recently spoke with someone who was connected with the film. Apparently Dennis Hopper is one person who might have been able to shed more light on the "curse" but he died too.
Lucien Lacomb September 08, 2013 at 01:44 PM
This is a most fascinating blog -- please provide updates if anything develops. Once again, I thank you.
Lee Raskin December 03, 2013 at 09:04 PM
Irene Debasio certainly covered a lot of ground with her Rebel Without a Cause Curse...but fact checking was one component she definitely missed when attempting to convey James Dean's 9-30-55 infamous day and later, the George Barris highly embellished curse of the Little Bastard. See the real deal on the facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_James_Dean and James Dean At Speed, 2005 (Amazon.com) Lee Raskin, James Dean historian/author.


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