This brings us up to the '70s. Dean would have turned 40 in 1971; it's difficult to guess how he would have proceeded without knowing whether he'd have been a leading man or a character lead (Stewart Granger: "I never aged into a character actor. I'm just an old leading man").
A problem for Dean would have been the waning of rural American cinema: westerns and Southern melodramas/character studies a la Williams and Faulkner. The increasing suburbanized nation would curiously become more and more urbanized cinematically.
Clint Eastwood managed to survive this by updating the western formula to Dirty Harry. I have trouble seeing Dean as a gung ho cop – I actually think he would have been more comfortably cast as Scorpio (if you're saying “too old”, remember the role was intended for, I kid you not, Audie Murphy). Few of Eastwood's non-western roles would have suited Dean. One I can see him trying is Escape From Alcatraz, basically Birdman meets The Great Escape.
Warren Oates after The Wild Bunch had a brief period of leading roles. I can see Dean in most of them: Two Lane Blacktop, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch itself. But Oates could not maintain his stardom, which may tell us something of how Dean would have done in trying to be a character star.
Jack Nicholson has always struck me as the polished up Warren Oates: not quite as eccentric, not quite as intimidating. I think Dean might have been comfortable in a number of Nicholson roles – can't you seem him pushing lunch onto the diner floor in Five Easy Pieces? I see Dean playing either role in the Nicholson-Brando The Missouri Breaks, but then it was a western. Dean might have worked well as McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Of course the character is a rebel, but not explicitly connected to youth angst. Nicholson isn't bad, but Dean might have given it more menacing unpredictability, in the manner of Warren Oates and his legendary L.A. little theater performance of 1966 (the theatrical production I most wish I could have seen).
But I don't think Dean would have been comfortable in Chinatown. He just doesn't seem to fit as a cop/detective. Neither really did Paul Newman (with the partial exception of Harper) which may help explain the decline in his great film roles after the '60s.
I also can't see Dean in any of The Godfather roles, even Tom Hagen. I can see Dean in another Duvall part from that year, as the good-ole-boy heavy in the Clint Eastwood western Joe Kidd (which I actually consider superior to his Godfather performances -- it's one of the great western villains). Most of Duvall's other notable roles are too overbearing for the introspective Dean.
Could Dean have done Apocalypse Now? Not Duvall's role, the lead. It was offered to McQueen and Caan (among many others) before ending up with the less-than-ideal Martin Sheen. It would have been another Dean-Brando pairing, after The Chase ("Brando and Dean -- TOGETHER AGAIN!!").
Gene Hackman, one year older than Dean, finally achieved stardom in The French Connection, as a rogue cop. As I've said I don't think that sort of role would have been successful for Dean. The one Hackman part I can see Dean in is The Conversation – inner-directed and confused, instead of storming the streets busting heads.
Bruce Dern, like Warren Oates, had a brief period of leading roles in the '70s, but he never struck me as a leading man. Maybe Dean could have played unpleasant Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (perhaps Dern's best role). Another possibility is Coming Home, as the career soldier who turns out to be more confused than committed. Note that both of these were supporting parts, not leads.
Last time we pondered Dean instead of Robert Blake in In Cold Blood. Dean could also have played the vengeful Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (or maybe the Marshal played by Robert Redford – he couldn't possibly have been duller than the latter) or the motorcycle patrolman in Electra Glide In Blue – a rare cop role that might have worked with Dean. Blake – described by Richard Boone in the early '60s as “the new Brando” -- would go on to his greatest success in the self-parody of TV's Baretta. Could Dean have ended up there?
Burt Reynolds got one of the last great Southern roles in Deliverance, and then became a superstar by spoofing the character type in the Golden Age of Redneck Cinema. Burt's biggest problem was that when he jumped out of the saddle or the Trans Am, he seemed completely out of place. Reynolds was perhaps the star hardest hit by the decline of the western. Previous stars such as Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews and even Fred MacMurray had been able to extend their careers by 5-10 years thanks to westerns – but that career trail was no longer open to Reynolds. Once the fashion for Good Ole Boy epics waned, so did his time in features, and he ended up on TV with astonishing speed.
So many of Reynolds' films are self-parodying or self-referential (self, self, self; we're definitely in the Me Decade, and starting the Age of Irony) that I can't see Dean trying them (or don't want to see it). I certainly hope he wouldn't have ended up in Cannonball Run, even in a cameo (or a Camero). Of course there's Deliverance (in the Voight or Reynolds roles), but I can't see any others. Reynolds was a new kind of star. Not a comedian, but not to be taken seriously either. That doesn't really jibe with Dean's extreme eartnestness.
And after the '70s, what? Would James Dean have aged into a character actor? I think he would have done it more successfully than Paul Newman, who was still a leading man, an old leading man, in his 70s. I can see Dean doing character leads and then straight character parts, occasionally returning to the stage. Perhaps he would have been Jor-El in Superman or The Joker in Batman, and cleaned up financially like Brando and Nicholson did.
But we'll never know. James Dean died much too young, and we never got to see him grow as an actor. But then, we never saw him get fat like Brando or do Nike commercials like Dennis Hopper. In one sense, a thoughtlessly selfish sense, maybe that was a good thing.