John Kerr: Actor best known as the sensitive college boy seduced in 'Tea and Sympathy'
Wednesday 13 February 2013
An actor whose youthful looks and tentative manner were particularly suited to roles of shyness, sensitivity and inner confusion, John Kerr won a Tony award for his first major role on Broadway, as the gentle collegiate labelled "sister-boy" by fellow students in Robert Anderson's celebrated play Tea and Sympathy (1953). He repeated his role on screen, and will also be remembered for his portrayal of a young Second World War lieutenant who falls in love with a native girl and has to fight his inbred racism in the musical South Pacific (1958).
Later he starred in Roger Corman's version of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), considered the best of Corman's films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Despite these high- profile roles, Kerr lacked dynamism, and his career failed to ignite. He eventually became a lawyer.
Born in New York City in 1931, Kerr had a distinguished pedigree. His grandfather, Frederick Kerr, was a successful actor-manager in London before performing in the US. His son Geoffrey Kerr, John's father, was a playwright and actor who married the American actress June Walker. The marriage was stormy, and in the mid-1930s Geoffrey returned to the UK. "I grew up in New York, my mother a single parent," John recalled.
After Phillips Exeter Academy in New England, Kerr worked in repertory, notably with the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was spotted by a Broadway producer and offered a role in Mary Chase's comedy Bernardine (1952). As one of a group of love-struck teenagers at a military academy he won a Theatre World Award as outstanding newcomer.
He made several appearances on live TV drama before he was cast in the Broadway play Tea and Sympathy (1953) as Tom Lee, a college boy ridiculed by his colleagues for his "unmanly" dislike of sports, his skill at sewing and cooking, and his ambition to be a folk singer. The play starred Deborah Kerr (no relation) as Laura, the headmaster's wife who helps the youth regain his self-esteem.
Kerr returned to Broadway in Robert Anderson's next play, All Summer Long (1955), but it was not a success, and he took up an offer from MGM to make his screen debut in Vincente Minnelli's dark melodrama The Cobweb (1955), set in a mental institution where the staff behave more neurotically than the patients. In the role (turned down by James Dean) of a suicidal inmate, Kerr held his own with an all-star cast, and his scenes with Susan Strasberg are among the best in the movie.
The studio then offered him a two-picture deal to star with Leslie Caron in Gaby then play his original part in the screen version of Tea and Sympathy. Gaby (1956) was the story of a soldier who while on leave falls in love with a dancer, who later turns to prostitution. Given a happy ending, it was an effective soap opera but only a moderate success.
Kerr than starred on screen in Tea and Sympathy (1956). Deborah Kerr also repeated her Broadway role, as did Leif Ericson as her desperately hearty husband. With the brilliant direction of Minnelli, the film succeeded despite censorship restrictions. Laura's words, as she prepares to make love to the boy, have become one of the most famous curtain lines in Broadway history: "Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind." Because adultery had to be punished, the film was given a framing device in which Tom is reading a letter from Laura 10 years later in which she states that what they did was wrong and that she was divorced by her husband, the two of them then leading lonely lives.
After The Vintage (1957), a tedious tale of two Italian fugitives seeking refuge in a vineyard, Kerr was given the plum role of the confused Lieutenant Joe Cable in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (1958). Dubbed by Bill Lee (who later sang for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music), he had two solos, the passionate love song "Younger Than Springtime" and the bitter plea for racial tolerance, "Carefully Taught", plus the wistful duet with Mitzi Gaynor, "My Girl Back Home". He was also serenaded by the character of Bloody Mary, who sings while her daughter mimes to "Happy Talk".
Though the film was a box-office hit it did little good for its stars. "It ran for two years in London," said Kerr, "but critics were very negative. They thought it should have starred Doris Day, and they didn't like the filters. There was also a sense that it was not as good as the show, and I think it really did affect everyone."
He was cast by Roger Corman as a dour young man investigating the death of his sister in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), co-starring Vincent Price and Barbara Steele: "I knew that Corman's House of Usher had been very successful, and I really liked Vincent Price. He was a wonderful man, erudite about art and everything. The film was made in three weeks, but I saw it recently and it really is pretty good. In the pendulum scene, they did a very good job of hiding the fact that the blade that hit me was balsa wood and that I had a piece of steel strapped across my chest so that I wouldn't be hurt. I remember that the pendulum was really huge!"
For several years Kerr worked primarily on television, with continuing roles on Arrest and Trial and Peyton Place. He also guest-starred on such series as Gunsmoke and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and directed episodes of Run For Your Life. In several shows he played attorneys, and in 1967 he decided to become one, applying to UCLA Law School and passing the California bar in 1970. He became a successful attorney, specialising in personal injury and medical malpractice, though he still acted occasionally on TV – in the 1970s he had a recurring role as a prosecutor in Streets of San Francisco. He retired from law in 2000.
John Grinham Kerr, actor and lawyer: born New York 15 November 1931; married 1952 Priscilla Smith (divorced 1972; one son, two daughters), 1979 Barbara Chu; died Pasadena 2 February 2013.
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