Rebel Without A Cause: The Sad Deaths Of Its Stars

Fueled by the rise of car culture and the alarming popularity of that newfangled rock 'n' roll music, the notion that teenagers and young people were their own separate thing with their own tastes and values took hold for the first time in the 1950s. Hollywood reflected and exploited that, and so came a slew of movies about teenage delinquents. 

While they were mostly cheap, forgettable nonsense, one of them stood above the rest for its thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and electrifying performances — Rebel Without a Cause. Directed by Nicholas Ray and with a title taken from a 1940s psychiatry book, it made stars out of young, talented, and attractive actors James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, and it went down in history as a classic and quintessentially American film.

But while the movie's legacy lived on, a lot of its cast met tragic, mysterious, and untimely ends. Here are all of the dearly departed cast members of the seemingly cursed Rebel Without a Cause.

The star of Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean died in a horrific car accident

James Dean basically originated — and perfected — the brooding cinematic anti-hero with his portrayal of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, a tough, car-racing, knife-fighting, red jacket-wearing teen suffering from deep-seated emotional trauma. (It's best exemplified by Dean's on-screen breakdown, clawing at his face and shouting, "You're tearing me apart!") Following a couple dozen one-offs on 1950s TV shows, Dean broke into film in 1955, and the charismatic Brad Pitt lookalike instantly became a star with his roles in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. The following year, Dean starred in his third and final film, Giant, which, like Rebel, was released after his death.

According to the Los Angeles Timeswhile driving his Porsche to road races in Salinas, California, Dean was involved in a head-on accident at the intersection of two highways in a rural area. Rushed to War Memorial Hospital in Salinas, Dean was pronounced dead on arrival. According to the physician who examined him, Dean suffered several bone breaks and severe lacerations, but it was the broken neck that killed him instantly. Dean was only 24 years old.

Years after Rebel Without a Cause, Natalie Wood died mysteriously at sea

Former child star Natalie Wood — she co-starred in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street — became a leading lady in 1955, co-starring in Rebel Without a Cause as Judy, a high school student who finds empathy, and ultimately love, for the misunderstood Jim. Wood received an Academy Award nomination for her work, and she became a major film star, soon leading the casts of Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Wood's career cooled off considerably by the early 1980s, and in 1981, she took a role in a so-so science-fiction film called Brainstorm. It didn't hit theaters until September 1983, nearly two years after Wood perished at age 43 in a bizarre and mysterious boating accident that remains unsolved. Wood was married to actor Robert Wagner, and along with her Brainstorm costar Christopher Walken, the group went sailing on Wagner's boat off the coast of California one day in November 1981. According to The Daily Beast, Wood and Wagner allegedly fought, with a reportedly drunken Wagner furious over his wife's perceived flirting with Walken. Wood disappeared after that, and while Wagner later claimed that his wife probably meant to take a tender back to shore and slipped and fell overboard, her body was found near Catalina Island. In 2018, police re-opened the cold case and labeled Wagner a "person of interest" in Wood's death.

Sal Mineo was murdered in the night

Poor Plato. Otherwise known as John Crawford, he's a sad, sensitive teenager abandoned by both parents who meets Jim Stark — and comes to fixate upon him — when they're both in a police station, although for very different reasons. Jim is drunk, but Plato is being investigated for possibly killing puppies. The unsteady liar latches onto the de facto family he forms with Jim and Judy, but things end tragically for Plato when he dies in a standoff with police, a life-shattering event and turning point for Jim.

Sal Mineo received an Academy Award nomination for playing Plato, and while Rebel Without a Cause made him a teen idol and a role in the epic Exodus brought him a second Academy Award nomination, Mineo's career faded into a collection of mostly bit roles on TV shows. In a 1972 interview with LGBT issues journalist Boze Hadleigh, Mineo came out as bisexual, making him one of the first prominent public figures to do so. But after returning to his apartment in West Hollywood in February 1976, Mineo was stabbed to death by a mugger, according to the Los Angeles Times. Mineo, just 37 years old, died from his wounds. Per The New York Times, his assailant, Lionel Williams, received a 50-year prison sentence for an array of charges, including ten robberies and the death of Mineo, which was ruled a second-degree murder.

Nick Adams' curious, drug-related demise

What's with all the chickens in Rebel Without a Cause? Jim Stark won't hesitate to beat up anyone who calls him "chicken," and the automobile square-off that leaves the character of Buzz dead is called a "chickie-run," while actor Nick Adams plays a youthful miscreant known only as Chick. Keeping up the wordplay theme, Adams closely followed his role in Rebel Without a Cause with one on the similarly named TV series The Rebel. On the 1959 to 1961 Western (which Adams co-created), he portrayed Johnny Yuma, a war-haunted Confederate soldier wandering the frontier in search of meaning. 

Adams jumped back to the big screen in a big way with 1963's Twilight of Honor, portraying a murder suspect so well that he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And for the kaiju fans out there, he also showed up in the Godzilla flick Invasion of Astro-Monster. However, by the end of the '60s, Adams had descended into forgettable movies like Mission Mars and Los Asesinos. 

On February 7, 1968, according to the Los Angeles Timesthe body of the 36-year-old actor was discovered in his home. The circumstances of that death are somewhat unclear. Authorities believed the cause of death at first to be a drug overdose, but no pills were found at the scene, and several of Adams' prized possessions had been stolen. Adams' death certificate has been edited a few times, variously citing the reason for the actor's demise as homicide, suicide ... and undetermined.

Jim Backus passed away after developing Parkinson's disease

Both the face and voice of Jim Backus should be familiar to anyone who ever watched TV in the 20th century. He played Thurston Howell III, aka "the millionaire," on the endlessly rerun 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island, and he also breathed life into the elderly and visually impaired cartoon character Mr. Magoo on the series of the same name. Those are both roles where Backus garnered laughs, a far cry from his portrayal of Frank Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, the weak-willed but combative father of James Dean's Jim Stark, a man who's constantly fighting with his wife but never much able to stand up for himself.

Backus lined up literally hundreds more acting gigs apart from Rebel Without a Cause and Gilligan's Island (and its various offshoots and spinoffs). But after two weeks of hospitalization in 1989, the actor died at age 76, per The New York Times. Backus had reportedly suffered for many years from Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that leads to tremors and slurred speech before eventually hindering movement.

Corey Allen battled Parkinson's disease

Apart from encroaching adulthood and society in general, the main villain in Rebel Without a Cause is the oh-so-'50s named gang leader Buzz Gunderson, who survives a knife fight with Jim Stark before challenging him to the film's extremely memorable game of chicken involving cars and a cliff. Alas, poor Buzz doesn't win the battle. His cool leather jacket gets stuck on his door handle, and he's unable to exit the vehicle before it plunges to its destruction with the driver inside.

Baby-faced actor Corey Allen brought depth to the role of the fallen Buzz, and after Rebel Without a Cause, he acted primarily in guest star roles on action and Western TV shows, including Sea Hunt, Combat!, Gunsmoke, Have Gun — Will Travel, and Bonanza. But what Allen really wanted to do was direct, and he was an in-demand helmer of series television, taking charge on shows like Hunter, Dallas, Simon & Simon, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Allen survived into his 70s, but like his Rebel castmate Jim Backus, he fought a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, according to The New York Times. Allen died in 2010 at age 75.

William Hopper had a stroke and got pneumonia

Rebel Without a Cause is so focused on the teenage point of view that some of the most prominent adult characters aren't even named. The dad of acting-out Judy is listed only as "Judy's Father," and actor William Hopper memorably portrays the tough and distant man who responds to his daughter's attention-getting clothes by calling her a "dirty tramp."

While Rebel Without a Cause certainly improved Hopper's visibility and standing in Hollywood, two years after the film's release, he started playing the role that would make him a TV legend — the over-it-all private detective Paul Drake on the long-running legal drama Perry Mason. After that show wrapped up after nine seasons in 1966, Hopper would act just one more time, in the 1970 camp classic Myra Breckinridge, before his untimely death that same year. While in the middle of a hospitalization in Palm Springs, California, for a stroke suffered at home, Hopper developed a fatal case of pneumonia and died (per The Desert Sun). He was only 55.

Edward Platt committed suicide

A major through line in Rebel Without a Cause is the push and pull of defiant teens and the authority figures who mean well but may cause more harm than good. This is all represented in the character of Inspector Ray Fremick, the police officer who keeps having to deal with Jim, Judy, and all the rest of the wayward youths. Portraying him was stage veteran and character actor Edward Platt. While he appeared in dozens of movies and TV series in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, he's likely best known for his law enforcement roles. In addition to Ray Fremick in Rebel Without a Cause, he was also "the Chief" on the wacky spy spoof Get Smart.

Platt died suddenly in 1974, just a few weeks after his 58th birthday. According to Turner Classic Movies, news reports at the time cited a heart attack as the cause of death, but his son later revealed that the actor suffered from an untreated case of depression and ultimately took his own life.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Decades after Rebel Without a Cause, Dennis Hopper died from prostate cancer

At just 18 years old, Dennis Hopper landed his first film role, playing a silent street tough named Goon in Rebel Without a Cause. That was an auspicious debut for the actor, who would forge a legendary career playing tough guys, unsettling figures, and countercultural icons. He co-wrote and directed both the hippie-biker fantasia Easy Rider in 1969 (in which he starred as a captivating driver named Billy) and the cult classic The Last Movie. He also made memorable appearances in the disorienting war epic Apocalypse Now, David Lynch's opus Blue Velvet (as gas-huffing nightmare Frank Booth), and Speed (the villain who rigs up a bomb to a bus).

As part of a divorce proceeding, Hopper's lawyer revealed in January 2010 (via BBC) that the actor had fallen gravely ill from prostate cancer, his weight dropping below 100 pounds, and that he could no longer handle powerful, sickness-fighting chemotherapy treatments. A few months later, according to HuffPostHopper passed away at age 74.