John Kerr was 23 when he won a Tony award for his performance as a troubled prep school student in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. It was his second gong in as many years, winning a Theatre World award for his Broadway debut the previous year in the high-school comedy Bernadine.
Seemingly predestined to tread the boards – his parents and his grandfather were actors; his father, Geoffrey, and grandfather, Frederick, were both British-born – Kerr grew up in New York. After graduating from Harvard, he enjoyed a season in summer stock at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His Broadway successes led to television – debuting on NBC’s 1954 drama Justice – and film, co-starring with Leslie Caron in Gaby in 1956 (the 1931 version of which, Waterloo Bridge, featured Kerr’s grandfather). The same year, he appeared in a big-screen adaptation of Tea and Sympathy, alongside Deborah Kerr (no relation).
His refusal to play Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St Louis – a role that subsequently went to James Stewart – because he didn’t “admire the ideals of the hero”, saying that Lindbergh was an early supporter of the Nazis, positioned Kerr as a controversial figure in McCarthyite America.
His other film appearances included South Pacific in 1958 (although his singing voice was dubbed), The Crowded Sky (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), after which his acting career was devoted to television, notably as a regular in Arrest and Trial (1963-64), Peyton Place (1965-66), Police Story (1973-76) and The Streets of San Francisco (1973-77).
In 1970, Kerr graduated in law from the University of California, Los Angeles, and worked as a Beverly Hills lawyer for the next 30 years before retiring.
John Kerr was born in New York on November 15, 1931. He was twice married and died from congestive heart failure on February 2, at the age of 81. He is survived by his second wife, three children from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second.
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