Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: James Dean not only was a “Stunt Tester” for Beat the Clock, but he was fired from the gig for an amusing reason.
James Dean is one of the most iconic movie stars in the history of film, highly recognizable and popular while only starring in three films.
What’s interesting is that for a guy who broke into the industry at a young age, he still spent a sizable amount of time trying to GET that break.
Dean acted while in school in Los Angeles, but dropped out just a little shy of his 20th birthday, in 1951, to fully concentrate on acting.
He got a role in a commercial and had a few walk on roles in films, but he was making a slow go at it as an actor, so in the fall of 1951, at the urging of a few of his acting acquaintances, Dean headed for New York City, where most television work (and practically all notable theater work) took place.
It was while in New York as a struggling actor that Dean took part in the amusing situation that is at the heart of this legend.
Before he left for New York, Dean befriended a radio executive named Rogers Brackett. Brackett was a big supporter of Dean, and he hooked Dean up with some contacts while in New York while Dean was trying to get that one “big break.”
The first job Brackett helped him out with was a job on Beat the Clock.
Beat the Clock was a popular game show during the 1950s that was hosted by the great Bud Collyer (voice of Superman on the radio!).
You see, game shows were a very popular place for struggling actors to find work. First of all, they all filmed in New York, which was thick with unemployed actors. Second, the hours were flexible. Third, often the companies that made game shows also had interests in scripted dramas, so it was a good place for contacts. And finally, it was an actual job on a television show!
So a good deal of young actors who later became famous worked for game shows during the 1950s. Robert Redford, for instance, was on a little known game show called Play Your Hunch where a contestant had to guess if the contestant’s twin brother was behind Screen A or Screen B (one of the screens had Redford behind it and the other the twin brother).
Dean’s job, though, was a lot more fun – he was a “stunt tester.”
You see, the concept behind Beat the Clock would be that contestants were given ridiculous tasks to perform, only they also had to do the tasks within an allotted amount of time.
So naturally, if the show were to tell someone “Dig three balloons out of a vat of whipped cream using a spoon held in your mouth,” they had to be able to know how long such a task would reasonably take so that they could fairly challenge someone to do it. Heck, they had to know that the task could be performed PERIOD!
So they would hire “stunt testers,” people who would perform the stunts so they could figure out how long each stunt took.
And that was what James Dean did for them.
But here’s the twist.
The young, athletic Dean (who was just about 21 at the time) was way too good at stunts. SO good that they ultimately had to let him go as he was doing the stunts so quickly that they couldn’t accurately gauge how an “average” person would perform them.
Luckily, by this time, Dean was starting to get small roles on television and in 1952, he gained admission into the Actor’s Studio to work with Lee Strasburg. At this point, it was pretty clear that he was going to make it as an actor, and by the next year, he was starring in his first film, East of Eden.
Another young actor later in the 1950s had better luck sticking with Beat the Clock while HE was trying to find work as an actor.
That was the great Warren Oates, star of a great many awesome westerns (plus a great turn in Stripes as Sgt. Hulka)…
The legend is…
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