An Interview with Charles Paul Waters

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Charles Paul Waters is a James Dean enthusiast best known for his work in the rockabilly act Paul Waters,The Rockabilly Rocket.

Can you tell us a little about what it was like for you when you first discovered James Dean?

It actually happened in two separate events, one being a 1981 film class I had in high school in which we saw East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. The other was three years later, after music pursuits had relocated me to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and a local college campus theater screened all three of Dean’s films. In 1981 I was ALL about Buddy Holly, guitar playing and trying to get a permanent band going. The 1978 film, The Buddy Holly Story, had literally rescued me from the trenches of alienation, despair and angst by way of music and being drawn into Buddy’s colorful life and legacy. I temporarily lost sight of much that was my own dilemma and daily row with confusion, awkwardness and social ineptitude. When I graduated, just barely at the bottom of my class, then came the free fall into the aforementioned hallmarks of teen angst reality, from which music couldn’t shield me 24/7. Nothing could have prepared me for what seemed so real, yet idealized and colorfully glamorous, as Dean’s Cal Trask and Jim Stark, a few short years later in a Minneapolis theater. It was like a very potent but slow drip IV, a kind of emotional x-ray of Dean himself that made it impossible for me to watch him and be able to separate actor from role. I felt it in my guts in ’84, that to a huge degree, James Dean emotionally lived the identities of Cal, Jim and to lesser extent, Jett Rink.

What about was it about Jimmy that drew you in as it has?

It was many things, chiefly among them at the beginning were his completely natural manner, both quiet and nonchalant, then erupting into volatile. Dean also had, and has to this day, one of the most charismatic and photogenic images in film history, both in his movies and in the endless trail of still photographs that capture his every nuance. The way he moved and spoke onscreen was something comprising both what I already was, especially the awkwardness and pain, and what I yearned to be. He totally spoke for me in ways that I could not. No one has ever captured the outsider, the misfit and the rebel – the teenager – as perfectly as Jimmy did. He remains the yardstick against which all other rebels, both vulnerable and violently defiant, must be measured.

What about him as a person, as you see it, do you admire about him most?

Emotional honesty culled from his own psychological background, particularly viewed through the roles of Cal and Jim. There are also scattered pieces of that same authenticity to himself throughout his TV work and the young Jett Rink. Beyond that I have nothing but awe, respect and sometimes tearful affection for the one-man, creative integrity war Dean waged with old school established Hollywood and the studio system, and for a short time, won. The historic truth of the matter is, Jimmy Dean was an only child, and he came from America’s heartland, a small Indiana farming community, NOT a savvy, sophisticated showbiz family with loads of experience and connections. He cut his teeth theatrically on the Fairmount, Indiana high school stage, stoked his imagination about art, music and the outside world through his early mentor, the Rev. James DeWeerd, and then left the farm on Jonesboro Pike for the bright lights, trials and tribulations of the big city. To think of the guts and tenacity that had to take for him to, first, secretly defy his stilted and emotionally vacant father’s demands that he enroll in pre-law courses and basketball coaching ideas, then continue to pursue his acting dreams despite Winton’s disapproval, is the stuff of legend, yet truth. Dean basically came from “nothing,” as some have tersely called his background, but with his fractured family history, beginning with his mother’s death to cancer when Jimmy was nine, I’ve often wondered if his feelings of alienation and hurt towards his father may have also included a certain tinge of pain at clashing WITH Winton, because his father was all he had left of his immediate family. According to several who knew Dean and witnessed his behavior with his father, Jimmy was curiously NOT explosive and confrontational. Truthfully, he was overly gentle, polite and considerate to Winton, unlike the fictional over-the-top screaming scene in Franco’s 2001 portrayal, which is otherwise brilliant. As Jimmy’s life played itself out, he kept his most intense and painful feelings about his mother’s death and his father to himself,… until the cameras rolled. “Getting even with him,” (Winton) were his words to a friend about the role of Cal in particular, which biographer David Dalton vividly referred to as Dean’s “purest and most incandescent self portrait.”

 What do you find most interesting and most overlooked when it comes to Jimmy?

There is a collision of meanings, as well as importance, in what is interesting to me personally versus the view of Dean held by others, and what has been perhaps overlooked about Dean. For myself, as I have touched on previously, it’s the real life of Jimmy and how it fueled his cinematic achievements to an enormous extent. The intense drama of how his reckless, devil-may-care meanderings and eccentricities had him careening desperately close to the final abyss, until that grim specter came to take him away, leaving behind his enduring celluloid reflection, has been documented extensively and is my main interest, as are all things related to the dark side of Hollywood. On the other hand, it has been said by the late composer David Diamond, who knew Jimmy in New York, that the films do not preserve certain aspects of who he was, even physically, which I know will be hard for some to believe. In the years following Dean’s death and the rise of his posthumous legend, Diamond was one of several old associates who lamented, “Hollywood has defaced him (JD) completely…” However, others who knew Dean well, such as William Bast and Jimmy’s Fairmount high school drama teacher, Adeline Nall, said that the Jimmy Dean preserved in East of Eden is the true Dean, physically and emotionally, as he was in life. But it’s been noted also by others, especially Jimmy’s high school pals and other Fairmount residents, that some of his sense of good fun and humor have been either lost or ignored altogether. According to close friend Lew Bracker, whom recently published a brilliant memoir of their friendship in the last 16 months of Jimmy’s life, Dean was intensely interested in forming his own production company, with Bracker at the helm, to produce not only a comedy but also something way ahead of its time by at least twenty years, the anti-western. Many years before the wacky and unprecedented antics of Blazing Saddles, Jimmy already had his finger on the pulse of the future of brilliant American film making.

Why do you think there are so many widely varied stories in regards to his memory?

That’s a good question and one that is central to both his appeal and the multifaceted life that he led. It brings to mind the quote from his pal, Sammy Davis Jr., in the mid 70s documentary James Dean: The First American Teenager. (Paraphrased), “It’s very funny, if you bring together four or five people who knew Jimmy to share memories of him, they all have something to say about it. But it will sound like recollections about four or five different individuals…” This is indicative of not only the dynamically varied personality Dean was, but also the near-militant need he had to keep friends and associates in his life completely separate from one another, with few exceptions. I recall, again, biographer Val Holley’s observation that Jimmy compulsively “compartmentalized” people, sometimes to the extent that individuals living in the same city never brushed shoulders with one another, such was the careful almost paranoid efforts of Dean to keep them unaware of each other. Case in point was Dean’s Actor Studio partner, Christine White, and her query of Holley during an interview for Val’s Dean book. About Jimmy’s girlfriend, Barbara Glenn, Christine asked “wasn’t she the one he had on the west coast?” Amazingly, Glenn and White were both in New York and were frequently around Dean during the same period, circa 1952-early ’54, yet they never knew of each other in Dean’s lifetime. Roy Schatt, the famed New York celebrity photographer who took many of the most famous photos of Dean, believed Jimmy “was never a friend to anybody; he simply used people to obtain or learn something he wanted to know, then he dropped them. He was almost constantly in some kind of ‘character,’ as if trying out a scene or personality on you for effect, to see how convincing he could be,” something Bill Bast also remembered. While legions of fans would be drawn to Dean’s onscreen performances and many would be able to identify with his emotional plight, there was, and is, this undeniable and very wide cross section of fans the world over coming from different backgrounds and drawn to Jimmy for a multitude of reasons. But the one constant seems to be a kinship and bond forged with Dean’s sense of emotional pain, loneliness and the rebel/outsider status. It’s been said that there are nearly as many Jimmy Deans as there are fans; each of us taking what appeals to us and leaving that which does not resonate, such as myself and the fact that his bullfighting and race car obsessions do not interest me. Not that I skip over passages in books when those topics pop up, but they are examples of things I cannot relate to. This, again, is linked to the compelling, kaleidoscopic and rich tapestry of varied stories about Jimmy, coming from all those who encountered him, worked with him, briefly passed through his life or maintained a relationship, intimate or not, for a few short years. Some knew each other but most did not. I believe some of the careful separating of relationships in Dean’s life was rooted in the fear and uncertainty born out of the claim which Rogers Brackett had on Jimmy for helping him with contacts, connections, even personal financing in those early years. And like him or loathe him, Rogers Brackett was clearly Jimmy’s mentor and benefactor, after the Rev. DeWeerd. If someone came to him and offered to help out career-wise or whatever, and did so without expecting some kind of payback, Jimmy was okay with that as long as there was no ulterior motive or agenda. But someone, especially Brackett, mentally filing away every single favor for future compensation was a situation Jimmy bristled against. Many of the stories about Jimmy’s darker side do not sit well with some fans of a more conservative and right wing disposition, especially those regarding Brackett. Others that frequently cause offense and usually outright rejection are Dean’s wild and rude antics and sexual experimentation with John Gilmore; the emotional recruitment by Dean of Hollywood fringe nut, Jack Simmons and, of course, the many tales of Dean’s unflinching recklessness and supposed death wish, the last of which I simply do not believe. In the end, what it comes down to is many fans subconsciously projecting their own morality and sensibilities on to Jimmy, and thereby stripping him of the right to have been, in some ways, a person very different from themselves. It is complicated even further by the friends, lovers, and associates of Dean practically falling over one another in efforts to be the only “reliable” source, and completely discredit each other, as Holley observed with great amusement during his own research. Subsequently, one finds that many fans will aline themselves with those Dean friends and family, whose memories of Jimmy dovetail perfectly with their own moral compass. However, just because a multitude continue to speak out against stories of impetuous daredevilry, rude and crass behavior, drunken carousing and bisexual escapades does not mean that none of it ever happened. By the same token, I despise and loath the sadistic and cruel “sport” of bullfighting with a holy passion and always have. I like to think Jimmy, had he lived, would have quickly outgrown that interest and left it behind, because at heart he seemed to love most animals. But just because I hate everything about bullfighting does not mean the stories of Jimmy’s obsession with it never happened.

Do you think he was often misunderstood by his peers?

At times, yes, it seemed chronic and often to the point Jimmy would do or say things off the wall or outrageous just to get a rise out of people, like arguing about a film he never saw, basically saying it couldn’t be as good as someone insisted. It was a get together at Schatt’s place and a girl was raving about The Heiress. Dean continued to push and taunt and be derogatory about the film until finally admitting he hadn’t even seen it. Schatt was amused and noted Dean seemed to enjoy riling people. Like Jimmy disappearing from dinner at Schatt’s place to secretly haul one of Roy’s living room arm chairs out into the busy New York street, where he proceeded to flop down in it and casually smoke a cigarette. The ensuing ruckus from the street outside Roy’s window sent him, Landau, Bob Heller, Billy Gunn and others rushing downstairs to find traffic backed up, and one large angry guy out of his car about to pound the hell out of Jimmy. They quickly pulled Dean out of the chair, dragged it and him to safety, Jimmy comically dissolving into a loose, flopping rag doll the whole way. “Don’t you sons of bitches ever get bored? I mean, before I pulled that stunt there was a herd of nine to fivers going home to their wives like they do every night, the same old routine. Now, they’re all juiced up about it, so are you guys! Hell, they’ll talk about it for years,” exclaimed a grinning Jimmy, as Schatt and the others all asked variations of the same question, “you crazy son of a bitch, have you lost your mind?” On a more cerebral note, Jimmy’s friend Lew Bracker noted in the 1957 film, The James Dean Story, how Dean was, on a very basic level, a very shy young man who took a while to warm up to people and trust them even a little bit. And, judging by the historical record of other similar stories, there had to be a painful number of occasions wherein someone meeting Jimmy for the first time wouldn’t give him any more than a fleeting window of opportunity to open up. Again, Jimmy couldn’t always grant trust in a new person in his life right off the bat, so it was like he didn’t respond in detail or quickly enough, “so they would just write him off,” as Lew remembered. Probably the most consistent area of misunderstandings between Jimmy and others was during production of the films and involving Dean’s co-stars and bit players. This, along with other revelations are rendered beautifully in Bracker’s recent memoir of his friendship with Dean, Jimmy and Me. There seems to be a consistent pattern through the work done on all Dean’s films where he commits and is signed to do the film, proceeds to immerse himself in it completely, to the point that the cast and crew become a sort of family for him. Many of his co-stars and bit players had the mistaken assumption that Jimmy occasionally being warm, joking and gregarious with them, during the months of filming, meant they had a new close friend in Dean, and that they would remain so. With the exception of Giant co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, whom was able to get closer to Jimmy than any cast member of any film, Dean simply moved on and didn’t look back. Nick Adams, from the Rebel gang, took Jimmy’s exit from his life very personally, having attempted ingratiated himself as Jimmy’s “best pal” during shooting, a feeling I do not believe for a second Dean shared. According to what Bracker has written on the Rebel crowd, Jimmy pretty much washed his hands of Adams in particular after Nick’s possessive and public embarrassment of Natalie. Up until Jimmy’s death, Nick was still trying to find his way back into Dean’s life and good graces. As with others, the result of Jimmy leaving his temporary ‘family’ and not maintaining ‘friendships’ was a lot of hurt feelings, even resentment. After Jimmy died, the shameless publicity antics of Nick Adams and Dennis Hopper, especially, in regard to them riding Jimmy’s posthumous fame for how it could benefit them, can be seen as a glaring act of posthumous exploitation and revenge for how Jimmy walked away from the cast of Rebel and joined his new ‘family’ in the Giant production.

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