Thirty-five years ago, on Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean sped his silver Porsche Spyder through the intersection of California routes 466 and 41, a mile east of Cholame, and collided broadside with Immortality. As an amateur race-car driver, a wild and kinky partier, and no stranger to the illicit drugs of the day, the 24-year-old movie actor personified the teen-age chant, ''Live fast, die young.'' Dean, as novelist Joy Williams once observed, ''knew how to do death right.''
Today, Dean has taken his place in an honored pantheon of fallen entertainment idols. In only three starring roles Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, and East of Eden (the only film the public had seen at the time of his death)-he established himself as the prototype for the mixed-up-kid-as-martyr.
Dean in 1990 is more popular than ever. Thousands of Dean posters are sold each year to young fans who have never seen his films. His likeness appears on sunglasses and greeting cards. His films have just been rereleased on video, and a new movie about his life is in the works. Each Sept. 30, Dean's followers, from as far away as England and Japan, crowd around his grave in Fairmount, Ind., to hold a memorial service and mock funeral. Would Dean mind all the hoopla? ''I don't think so,'' says Dean archivist David Loehr. ''He wanted immortality, and he got it.''