Alec Guinness and James Dean met by chance in September 1955. Guinness would later claim that he had a premonition that the young actor would be killed in his Porsche 550 Spyder and that he’d cautioned Dean not to get into the car, warning him that he’d be dead within a week if he did.
Celebrities have been known to make all manner of wacky claims. But, when an actor as apparently solid and sensible as Alec Guinness made such an off-the-wall claim, people sat up and took notice.
In recent years, there have been efforts online to conflate Guinness’s premonition with his Star Wars persona. Yet, it seems Guinness was not given to flights of fancy. In fact, he once dismissed Star Wars as ‘fairy tale rubbish’. (Reid, 2003, p. 504)
Moreover, in a 1977 BBC interview, Guinness was quick to tell Michael Parkinson that he’d had no similar experiences prior to his encounter with Dean.
The Chance Meeting
In September 1955, Guinness arrived in Los Angeles after a long haul flight from Copenhagen. Exhausted but hungry, he agreed to have dinner with Thelma Moss, an actress and screenwriter with whom he had worked.
After being turned away from a number of restaurants because Moss was wearing trousers, they went to a less formal Italian restaurant, Villa Capri in Hollywood. Yet, they were turned away from that restaurant as well because there were no available tables.
As they walked away from the restaurant, Guinness heard the sound of “running, sneakered feet” behind them. He turned and found himself face to face with James Dean. “You want a table?” Dean asked. “Join me. My name is James Dean.” (Guinness, 1985, pp. 34-35)
At the time of the chance encounter, Guinness had already received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Lavender Hill Mob, and (although it hadn’t helped in the restaurants) he was quickly noticed by the younger, method actor. On the other hand, it seems that the older, classically trained, British actor had not recognised James Dean. Of Dean’s three great movies, only East of Eden had been released.
Hungry and grateful, Guinness and Moss readily followed Dean. Before they reached the restaurant, Dean turned into a car park and said, “I’d like to show you something.” It was a silver sports car wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon. (Guinness, 1985, pp. 34-35)
“It’s just been delivered,” said Dean “I haven’t even driven it yet.” Guinness thought the car looked “sinister”. “How fast is it?” he asked. “She’ll do a hundred and fifty,” replied Dean. (Guinness, 1985, pp. 34-35)
Guinness recounts his premonition:
“Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognise as my own, ‘Please, never get in it.’ I looked at my watch. ‘It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’” (Guinness, 1985, pp. 34-35) (BBC Interview, 1977)
“Dean laughed. ‘Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!’” he replied. (Guinness, 1985, pp. 34-35)
BBC Interview: Alec Guinness (1977)
The following Friday, Dean was driving his new Porsche, dubbed the ‘Little Bastard’, from Los Angeles to a road race in Salinas. With him was his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich.
Late in the afternoon, a 1950 Ford Custom Coupe driven by Donald Turnupseed turned left in front of Dean’s vehicle leaving him no time to take evasive action. The Porsche was travelling at speed when it struck the Ford almost head-on. Dean was fatally injured. Turnupseed and Wütherich survived the wreck.
A Legend is Born
When Rebel Without a Cause was released a month after the accident, James Dean was posthumously elevated to superstardom, and his status as the moody and rebellious icon of popular culture was ingrained with the release of Giant the following year.
Sadly, James Dean died without knowing how famous and influential he would become.
- Read, P. (2003). Alec Guinness. 1st ed. London; New York: Simon & Schuster, pp.262-263, 504
- Guinness, A. (1985). Blessings in disguise. 1st ed. New York. Random House, pp.34-35.
- BBC TV. (1977). Alec Guinness Interview. Parkinson. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-nptoFE1Js [Accessed 2 April. 2019].