John Kerr, Star of ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ Dies at 81

February 9th, 2013

via Photofest

Deborah Kerr and John Kerr in “Tea and Sympathy,” the play.

John Kerr, a Tony Award-winning actor who was best known for roles that challenged bigotry in the 1950s in films like “Tea and Sympathy” and “South Pacific,” and who turned down a starring movie role because of ideological differences with its subject, Charles Lindbergh, died on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Michael.

Mr. Kerr won the Tony in 1954 for his role in the Broadway production of Robert Anderson’s “Tea and Sympathy.” He played a sensitive teenager whose prep school classmates torment him because they assume he is gay. When he starred in the 1956 film version, MGM avoided mention of homosexuality by having his tormentors harass him for being a sissified “sister boy.”

The character, who turns out to be neither, falls in love with the schoolmaster’s wife, played by Deborah Kerr (who was no relation) in both versions.

In 1957 Mr. Kerr appeared in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” playing Lt. Joseph Cable, whose racial prejudice keeps him from marrying the girl he loves.

Mr. Kerr had stage, film and television roles throughout the 1950s. He played opposite Leslie Caron in “Gaby” (1956), a movie about a doomed love affair in London during World War II, and appeared on television series like “The Alcoa Hour” and “Playhouse 90.”

He was offered the Lindbergh role in 1956 for the Warner Brothers film “The Spirit of St. Louis,” about Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight. His decision to turn it down was widely publicized.

“I don’t admire the ideals of the hero,” Mr. Kerr told The New York Post, referring to statements Lindbergh had made sympathetic to Nazi Germany before America’s entry in World War II. The part went to James Stewart, despite studio concerns that he was too old for the part. (Mr. Stewart was 23 years older than Mr. Kerr.)

“My father was no radical, but Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer,” Michael Kerr said.

The decision roughly coincided with the zenith of Mr. Kerr’s film stardom, and he was never sure if it had hurt his career. His enthusiasm for the work began to wane around that time, too. “He never loved Hollywood — the waiting around and the boredom,” his son said.

Mr. Kerr had roles in other movies, notably in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Roger Corman’s 1961 adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story; it starred Vincent Price. But he worked mainly in television in the ’60s, including a recurring role as a district attorney on “Peyton Place.”

John Grinham Kerr was born on Nov. 15, 1931, in Manhattan. His parents, Geoffrey Kerr, a British playwright, and June Walker, an American actress, divorced when he was 8. He graduated from Harvard College in 1952.

Besides his son, Mr. Kerr is survived by his wife, Barbara Chu; two stepchildren, Sharon and Chris Chu; two daughters from his first marriage, Rebecca Kerr and Jocelyn Kerr-Thantrakul; and seven grandchildren.

In 1966, while continuing to work in television, Mr. Kerr became a full-time law student at the University of California, Los Angeles.. He graduated in 1969 and was admitted to the California bar in 1970. He maintained a successful private practice in Los Angeles until his retirement in 2000, specializing in personal injury and medical malpractice cases.

“My dad originally intended to become a novelist,” Michael Kerr said. “He saw acting as a way to support himself in the meantime. Then he won the Tony. Then he went to Hollywood.”

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