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Kenneth Kendall, 84; artist helped preserve James Dean’s memory

Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Kendall, a West Hollywood portrait painter and sculptor, met James Dean only once, when the young actor dropped by Kendall’s studio on Melrose Avenue.

But that meeting in early 1955 would have a lasting effect on Kendall, who devoted the next half a century to preserving Dean’s memory through oil paintings, sculptures and monuments.

Kendall, whose best-known work is the bronze bust of Dean at the Griffith Observatory, died of complications of diabetes Sept. 3 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Bruce Lane, a longtime friend. He was 84.

Lane, the trustee for Kendall’s estate, said he decided to make Kendall’s death known publicly now to coincide with the reopening of the Griffith Observatory today after a nearly five-year restoration and expansion project.

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The Dean bust is on a walkway on the western edge of the front lawn of the observatory, which was used as a key location for the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Dean’s visit to Kendall’s studio in January 1955 was prompted by his desire to view a bust of actor Marlon Brando that Kendall had recently completed.

“I brought out a folio of my Brando stuff, all the magazines and stills from ‘The Wild One’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ that I used in sculpting Brando,” Kendall recalled in a 1995 interview with Kip Brown, who is writing a book on Dean.

“At one point, he turned to me and asked, haltingly -- he could hardly get it out -- ‘Would you be interested in sculpting me?’ This kind of took me by surprise. I must say, he didn’t look like much when he came in. He needed a shave, his skin was chalky white.... He wore horn-rimmed glasses.... [But] I was sufficiently flattered ... so I told him yes.”

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Dean’s filmmaking schedule prevented him from seeing Kendall again to talk about the sculpture. And on Sept. 30, 1955 -- eight months after they met -- Dean was killed when his silver Porsche 550 Spyder collided with another car on a highway east of Paso Robles.

Spurred by Dean’s tragic death at age 24, Kendall began creating a bust of Dean using magazine photographs and a life mask loaned to him by Dean’s father.

In 1958, a bronze of Kendall’s bust of Dean was installed at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Ind., where Dean was buried; the bust mysteriously disappeared nine months later and was never seen again.

Thirty years later, another casting of Kendall’s Dean bust was dedicated at the Griffith Observatory.

“Mozart may have written his own Requiem,” Kendall said at the time, “but James Dean ordered his own monument.”

In 1995, Kendall was in Fairmount for the dedication of the James Dean Memorial Park, whose central attraction is a replica of Kendall’s bust of Dean at Griffith Observatory.

Over the years, Kendall painted more than 100 oil canvases of Dean, many of which he had reproduced on postcards, which he frequently handed out to Dean fans.

“That’s one of the ways he’d keep Dean’s memory alive,” Brown told The Times on Thursday.

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Kendall also sold miniatures of his Dean bust -- fellow “Rebel” cast member Natalie Wood had one, Brown said. And some of Kendall’s Dean artworks were loaned to -- and later purchased by -- the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount.

“He didn’t want Dean to be forgotten, is how he put it,” Brown said.

Although he had only a slim connection to Dean, Kendall appeared in several documentaries on the actor, including “James Dean: The First American Teenager,” “Forever James Dean” and “James Dean and Me.”

Dean wasn’t Kendall’s only encounter with a celebrity.

Robert Mitchum, Mae West and Steve Reeves were among those who sat for portraits with Kendall, who was largely self-taught as an artist.

He also was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of theater history, opera and 18th and 19th century British portraiture.

Kendall was born Nov. 27, 1921, in Los Angeles. His father, Fred, was a theatrical agent and former vaudevillian; his mother, Hazel, was the sister of silent film actress Patty DuPont, who, billed as “Miss DuPont,” had a leading role in Eric von Stroheim’s 1922 film “Foolish Wives.”

Kendall, who appeared as an extra in numerous films, graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1940 and served two years in the Navy.

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He had no immediate surviving family members.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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