By Jim Heffernan
The 75-year-old actor wouldn’t have warranted a Times obit had he not had a role in the 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring – who else? – James Dean. Dean was already dead from an auto crash by the time “Rebel” was released.
I was in my teens then – starting my junior year in high school – and I cannot possibly convey the impact that movie had on us. You had to be there, be a teenager, be ready at that same time for “Rock Around the Clock” and the imminent arrival of Elvis.
Heady times. Not any “headier,” I suppose, than anyone else’s times. Things are pretty heady for every generation when there are 16 candles on the cake. But James Dean and Elvis Presley arriving in the mid-50s got our attention, and they hold our attention today, although you sense some fading now more than a half-century later.
Why all this over the passing of a minor actor in one iconic movie? Well, here’s why: Dark-haired and ominous looking, clad in a leather jacket and Levis, Allen played the leader of the high school gang that confronted Dean when he showed up, new to the school.
The Allen character never cracked a smile; got into a knife fight with Dean and later challenged him to a game of “chicken,” which he called a “chickie run,” in which the two would drive a pair of speeding stolen cars toward a cliff over the ocean and the first one to jump out of the car was the chicken.
Whew. This all seemed pretty scary to a good Lutheran boy like me from Duluth. But everybody knew things were different in California. That’s the way teens were in California, right?
But something just before the “chickie run” caught my ear that I found, well, if not shocking, amazing. Allen shakes Dean’s hand as they head for their respective cars and says, “I’m Buzz Gunderson.”
Buzz Gunderson! Cripes, what’s a good Scandinavian boy doing leading a Los Angeles gang of hoods? I knew some Gundersons back here in Duluth: Grandparents from Sweden or Norway, parents hard-working, God-fearing Lutherans or Covenants or Baptists or what we used to call “holy rollers” (not so many Scandinavian Catholics in those days). The kids in the younger generations were no saints (we even wore leather jackets, sported duck tail haircuts), but we weren’t doing chickie runs off Skyline Drive or having knife fights in the shadow of our high schools.
I suppose enough time has passed so that many people reading this don’t know how the movie chickie run ended. Buzz Gunderson went over the cliff and was killed when his jacket sleeve got tangled in the door handle. James Dean rolled out of his car and lived, but only for a few months in real life before crashing his sports car. Corey Allen lived for another 55 years.
And I’m still around, despite surviving many a chickie run…to KFC.
Note: A reader commented on the actor, Corey Allen, who played the high school hood in "Rebel Without a Cause." He had a full career in acting as well as behind the camera work and received many awards. The reader mentioned that his performance in the 2009, "Quarantined," was awesome. Here's his obit in the July 1 NY Times (Click HERE) to learn more about this actor/director.