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James Franco‘s long and controversial career began over 20 years ago. While fans may point to Freaks and Geeks or Spider-Man as the Oscar-nominee’s big break, a made-for-television biopic, James Dean, helped Franco become a leading man. According to Franco, he learned to express himself in ways he never knew by becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest names.

How James Franco became Hollywood royalty

James Dean is more than an actor in the mind of many. His death at 24 made him an iconographic piece of the cultural lexicon. According to IMDb, the actor rose through the ranks as a television actor, but superstardom was inevitable after his acclaimed turn in East of Eden. Unfortunately, a car crash took his life at 24, just days after he finished filming Giant. From there, his name only got bigger. 

With so much nostalgia and mythology surrounding Dean, James Franco had a heavy weight to hold. The up-and-coming Oscar nominee was fresh off Freaks and Geeks, and Spider-Man was months away.

“If I respect (Dean), then I should give him everything that I can,” Franco told USA Today in 2001. Later on, he spoke about how acting in roles such as James Dean, and he learned about the artistry behind performances. “I didn’t really know who I was or how to express myself. It wasn’t until I got to L.A. and I found the acting thing. It was like a miracle. It changed me.”

The actor’s candid words show what Dean meant to him more than 40 years after the actor’s death. One could argue that Franco got to show off the type of potential that Dean never had a chance to see through. 

James Franco on portraying James Dean

James Franco as James Dean in the television movie 'James Dean'
James Franco as James Dean in ‘James Dean’ | Courtesy of TNT/Getty Images

James Franco was just 19 years of age when he made his stage debut, and by the time he was 25 years old, Hollywood had found a rising star who showed some of the promise Dean showed during his short-lived career. It’s easy to see how a young actor like Franco would embrace filling such unforgiving shoes without letting anyone down. 

Franco’s physical presence wasn’t quite uncanny, but it sold the rebel persona Dean made famous. From there, he had to learn how to get out of his head and act as Dean would – not as an actor. After all, acting is more than looking like the subject. It’s physicality and subtlety that make people unique.

“It just took fate and confidence on my side to say, OK, this is one facet of me. Obviously, it’s not me. I had to do a lot of research to get it. I am somebody different,” he told USA Today. 

While James Dean may not have been Franco’s big commercial breakthrough, it gave him the confidence he needed to take on the following roles that defined his career. Not content with playing Dean as a Hollywood caricature or an extension of Franco’s lofty ambitions, his old Hollywood looks combined with his risk-taking was a success. The role got him cast in City by the Sea and helped secure dramatic roles beyond his comic and comedic roots. 

Franco’s early success in James Dean was a testament to his artistry and skills. However, the actor’s alleged off-camera behavior put a blemish on a thriving career as an actor and director.

Franco didn’t get a Hollywood ending


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James Franco was one of the biggest names in Hollywood in 2018. He acted, directed, wrote, and taught classes to younger generations. Coming off the success of The Disaster Artist, many saw Franco’s best days ahead of him. That’s when things went downhill. According to the Los Angeles Times, five women accused Franco of sexual exploitation in his classes. 

While it didn’t end his career outright, it put a stain on his resume that many in Hollywood didn’t want to deal with. While he kept a dual role in The Deuce and has more projects along the way, Franco’s fall from grace led to a tragic, albeit more preventable, end.