This is the actual bust that Kenneth Kendall, the artist known for his many paintings and sculptures of James Dean, made for Steve Reeves’s mother.
The inscription within the neck area says
“For His Mother.
Kenneth worked as an extra for various film studios in Hollywood. He was also a self-taught artist and sculptor. Marlon Brando starred as Mark Antony in the film Julius Caesar. Kenneth, an extra, was blown away by Brando’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech and felt that he had been a “witness to theatrical history.” Kenneth stood just 10 feet away and experienced “the power of great acting”. He was inspired to produce the bust of Marlon Brando which in turn, would soon catch the eye of James Dean.
James Dean was at a local coffee shop with a friend. Dean had heard about the Marlon Brando bust and knew that Kendall’s studio was not far away. They walked to the studio and admired the Brando bust that sat in a window of the studio.
Dean admired it so much he arranged to meet Kendall and told him that he hoped one day Kendall would sculpt him. Kendall told me he was thoroughly unimpressed with Dean during the brief meeting in his home. He thought he was a slob and really couldn’t believe that Dean thought he was in the same class as Marlon Brando and Steve Reeves (another famous person that Kendall often painted and sculpted). However, all that changed as Dean was leaving the studio. He gave the artist a look that Kendall would later refer to as “the whammy” and Kendall was forever hooked. Telling Dean that he would need a life-mask and the studio could make one, the future piece of art was already beginning to gestate.
Steve Reeves at Kenneth Kendall Studio 1947
Years later, Kendall painted this portrait and attempted to recreate “the whammy”:
Another chance to work on the Caesar production, this time as a soldier, gave Kenneth the opportunity to again get closer to Brando. Kenneth’s curious and ingenious solution to a costuming problem attracted attention. In his hand-written recollection of the time, Kenneth noted: “We were up in Bronson Canyon wearing Roman Soldier costumes with sandals and you couldn’t walk 3 steps without getting gravel under your foot, which wasn’t too comfortable. That night I took an old pair of white tennis shoes and painted toes on them and made them flesh-colored. Then I put the sandals on over them and could walk in comfort. My ‘Toe Shoes’ were the sensation of the set. All the stuntmen were interested. I even had Marlon Brando on his hands and knees looking at them.” Seizing the opportunity, Kenneth personally offered his artistic services and inquired about photographs to assist in the process, but was brushed off again.
James Dean bust by Kenneth Kendall at Griffith Observatory above Los Angeles
Despite Brando’s aloof responses, Kenneth was not deterred in his efforts to draw, paint and sculpt the actor. He continued by gathering available photographs and created an oil portrait that was used by MGM publicity. Kendall also obtained access to the actor’s life mask in the MGM makeup department. This proved to be the key to delivering a final sculpture that captured the actor as the powerful force that Kenneth had witnessed during the forum scene. Ultimately, this same sculpture, which was rejected by one actor, was valued by another. James Dean dropped by Kendall’s Melrose studio with his friend Toni Lee Scott to view it first hand when it was displayed in the window.
Kenneth Kendall’s house with Steve Reeves bust, Marlon Brando bust, James Dean art
The rest is history.