John Kerr dies — actor was star of stage, film and TV

Posted at 10:32 PM, Feb 12, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-12 22:34:31-05

(LOS ANGELES TIMES) — John Kerr, 81, a stage, film and TV actor who won a Tony Award for his performance in Elia Kazan’s 1953 Broadway production of “Tea and Sympathy” and went on to reprise his role in the 1956 film version, died Saturday of heart failure at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, his son Michael said.

Kerr’s other film roles included the youthful Lt. Cable in the 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific” and the young man investigating his sister’s murder in Roger Corman’s 1961 cult classic “The Pit and the Pendulum,” starring Vincent Price.

But Kerr received his best notices for “Tea and Sympathy,” playing Tom Lee, a sensitive adolescent whom his prep school classmates suspect of having homosexual tendencies and who is comforted by the headmaster’s wife, played by Deborah Kerr. It was the Broadway debut for the actress, who was not related, and she also repeated her role in the movie drama directed by Vincente Minnelli.

John Grinham Kerr was born Nov. 15, 1931, in New York City. His mother was theatrical actress June Walker and his father, Geoffrey Kerr, was a playwright who had also been an actor. His grandfather, Frederick Kerr, also acted on the London stage and in films.

After his parents’ marriage ended, Kerr attended boarding schools and Harvard University, where he began acting while a student. His first Broadway appearance was a starring role in the comedy “Bernardine” in 1952.

He also was a busy television actor during the heyday of live dramatic anthology series in the 1950s. He had a regular part as a district attorney in “Peyton Place” in 1965 and ’66.

In the late 1960s, Kerr tired of acting and decided to make a career change, enrolling at UCLA’s law school. He passed the bar in 1970 and went into private practice as a lawyer, specializing in personal injury defense. He occasionally acted on TV in the 1970s, notably as a district attorney on “The Streets of San Francisco.” He retired a few years ago.