John Kerr: ‘Tea and Sympathy’ gay teen on stage and screen has died
John Kerr, best known for playing the sensitive (and suspected to be gay) adolescent opposite Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy both on Broadway and in Hollywood, died of heart failure at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, northeast of downtown Los Angeles, on Saturday, Feb. 1. Kerr was 81.
John Kerr (born John Grinham Kerr on Nov. 15, 1931, in New York City) belonged to a theatrical family. His mother was stage actress June Walker (The Farmer Takes a Wife, Lorelei Lee in the 1926 Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who also appeared in a handful of movies, e.g., as Robert Montgomery’s leading lady in War Nurse (1930). His father was playwright/actor Geoffrey Kerr, who was featured in a few silents and early talkies, and who (as per the IMDb*) co-wrote the screenplay for the René Clair / Robert Donat supernatural romantic comedy The Ghost Goes West (1935). And his paternal grandfather was Frederick Kerr, who acted on stage in London and in several Hollywood movies, including 1931 James Whale movies: Frankenstein and Waterloo Bridge.
Kerr began acting while in his mid-teens. In 1947, two years after his parents divorced (they had been separated since the late ’30s), he was featured in summer stock productions of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine, starring two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer, and Dream Girl, starring The Ghost Goes West leading lady Jean Parker. The following year, Kerr supported Broadway legend Gertrude Lawrence in a summer-stock production of O Mistress Mine.
After graduating from Harvard in 1952, Kerr landed his first Broadway role: the male lead in Mary Chase’s comedy Bernardine, which lasted 157 performances and earned him a Theater World Award. (Kerr’s part went to Pat Boone in the 1957 film version.)
John Kerr and Deborah Kerr: Tea and Sympathy
In late 1953, John Kerr (pronounced “Kurr”) was paired with Deborah Kerr (pronounced “Karr”; no relation) in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Directed by Elia Kazan, by that time already an Oscar winner (Gentleman’s Agreement), the play was an enormous success, lasting 712 performances (with Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins later replacing the two Kerrs).
At the 1954 Tony Awards, 22-year-old John Kerr won as Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor. Deborah Kerr, however, lost that year’s Distinguished Dramatic Actress Tony to fellow movie star Audrey Hepburn in Ondine.
[“John Kerr: Suspected Gay Teen in Tea and Sympathy Has Died” continues on the next page. See link below.]
* In his essay “Reminiscence by John Kerr,” Kerr recalls that in the late ’40s his father was hired by MGM to write a treatment for a remake of The Ghost Goes West. Kerr adds that his father’s friend Robert Emmett Sherwood wrote the screenplay for the 1935 movie.
Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy is notable for a variety of reasons: the play marked Deborah Kerr’s Broadway debut (on her 32nd birthday, Sept. 30); one of its lead characters turns out to be a sympathetic adulteress; it tackles the issue of homosexuality, which, despite the Elia Kazan-directed (both film and play) A Streetcar Named Desire, remained mostly taboo in the ’50s.
Also of note, watching Tea and Sympathy today proves that the last six decades haven’t necessarily led to a major lessening in social prejudices, as Anderson’s play would still be considered quite daring – even if for somewhat different reasons. (Image: John Kerr and Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy.)
In Tea and Sympathy, John Kerr plays the sensitive adolescent Tom Lee, whose bullyish New England prep-school classmates assume is gay because, well, he’s sensitive, he’s a loner, he’s not into sports, and, gasp!, one day he is caught sewing. Eventually, Tom himself begins having doubts about his sexual orientation. Luckily for him, beautiful headmaster’s wife Deborah Kerr – whose husband (Leif Erickson) may be himself a nasty closet case – sets the record straight, both figuratively and literally: “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”
In the ’50s, Kerr’s highly sympathetic adulterous seductress was young Tom Lee’s savior and sex tutor; in the early 21st century, she’d be every ambitious district attorney and tabloid publisher’s dream: a predatory sex offender.
Tea and Sympathy movie
Vincente Minnelli, himself reportedly a closeted gay man (at the time already divorced from Judy Garland), directed the 1956 film version of Tea and Sympathy for MGM. As to be expected, problems arose during the making of the film because of Production Code restrictions.
Tea and Sympathy producer Pandro S. Berman told the New York Times in 1955: “The theme of the play is essentially this: what is manliness? We haven’t changed that at all. The boy is regarded by fellow students and the housemaster as an ‘off-horse’ because he doesn’t flex his muscles and knock himself out climbing mountains or playing basketball. To them he is soft physically and becomes suspect. They conveniently pigeon-hole their standards for manliness and anyone who doesn’t conform is an oddball. We never say in the film that the boy has homosexual tendencies—I don’t believe the word homosexual was actually spoken in the play either—but any adult who has ever heard of the word and understands its meaning will clearly understand this suspicion in the film.”
In order to further appease the Production Code enforcers, MGM’s Tea and Sympathy has the main story told in flashback, with a new ending added to the tale: the now married Tom reads a letter from Deborah Kerr’s character, in which she explains that her actions led to the breakup of her marriage. “Prudish and unnecessary,” complained the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther.
Unfortunately, Minnelli’s film version of Tea and Sympathy, though adapted by Robert Anderson himself, is much too careful in its handling of the key characters to have much dramatic impact. For instance, there’s precious little to indicate that either Tom or the headmaster – or both – might indeed be gay. Compounding matters, everything about the gorgeous-looking production, including the performances, comes across as artificial and stage-like. (A not uncommon occurrence in those days when transferring Broadway plays to the screen, e.g., Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed and Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain.)
John Kerr was bypassed at Oscar time (though his work earned positive notices); Deborah Kerr received an Oscar nomination that year, but for Walter Lang’s musical The King and I. Kerr, however, did get shortlisted for Tea and Sympathy at the BAFTAs, in the Best British Actress category.
John Kerr movies
Though a handsome and likable screen presence, John Kerr was never to become a Hollywood star. He had earned good notices for his first film role, that of a psychiatric patient in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), but his follow-up movie, the aforementioned Tea and Sympathy, was a prestige production, not a box office hit.
Curtis Bernhardt’s Gaby (1956) was a poorly received remake of Waterloo Bridge, with Kerr and Leslie Caron in the old Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh roles (and even older Douglass Montgomery and Mae Clarke roles). Jeffrey Hayden’s The Vintage (1957), with Kerr and Mel Ferrer as Italian brothers, also failed to generate much interest. Pier Angeli played Ferrer’s love interest, while the more mature and married Michèle Morgan (shades of Tea and Sympathy) became Kerr’s object of desire. (Image: South Pacific John Kerr, France Nuyen.)
Also in the mid-’50s, John Kerr turned down the opportunity to play the young Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) because he didn’t “admire the ideals of the hero.” Lindbergh had been accused of having Nazi sympathies, but that didn’t stop James Stewart – about twice Kerr’s age – from making it known that he wanted the role. Stewart was eventually cast as Lindbergh and the $6 million-budgeted The Spirit of St. Louis turned out to be one of Warner Bros.’ biggest bombs of the late 1950s, earning only $2.6 million.
Joshua Logan’s 1958 film version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific became a major blockbuster, but that was basically an ensemble piece. Also, John Kerr’s plot thread, that of an American soldier whose romance with Pacific Islander France Nuyen is doomed by racism, was secondary to those of Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. (In the singing sequences, Kerr was dubbed by frequent Disney voice actor Bill Lee.
John Kerr: Movie career over at 30
By the early 1960s, John Kerr was getting cast in supporting roles in lesser fare such as Joseph Pevney’s The Crowded Sky (1960), toplining fading stars Dana Andrews and Rhonda Fleming, and the B World War II prison camp drama Seven Women from Hell (1961), with Cesar Romero, Patricia Owens, and Denise Darcel. Kerr’s last film appearance of note was in Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), starring Vincent Price; in this adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, Kerr investigates the suspicious death of his sister (Barbara Steele). Kerr was then 30 years old and his film career was virtually over.
As per the IMDb, John Kerr would be seen in only two other minor feature films, both times in uncredited roles: as a stockbroker in Paul Williams’ Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972) and as a hotel bartender in Paul Bogart’s Class of ’44 (1974).
John Kerr on television
Besides his stage and film work, John Kerr was also featured in dozens of television productions from the early ’50s to the mid-’80s. One of Kerr’s most notable TV appearances was is the part of another “different” young man, the young Welsh miner in The Corn Is Green (1956), co-starring Eva Le Gallienne as Miss Moffat and with Joan Lorring reprising her 1945 movie role as the flirty Bessie Watty.
In the early days of television, Kerr also played a different type of “different” young man: Jesse James in the “The Capture of Jesse James” episode from the series You Are There. James Dean played Robert Ford.
Additionally, Kerr guested in dozens of TV series, and had recurring roles in Arrest and Trial, Peyton Place, The F.B.I., and The Streets of San Francisco.
Following a stint directing and producing stage productions, and June Walker’s death in 1966, Kerr decided to switch careers. He studied Law at UCLA, going into private practice in the ’70s. According to the IMDb, John Kerr’s last appearance in front of the camera was a bit as a reporter in the TV movie This Park Is Mine (1986), starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Reminiscence by John Kerr
At first, John Kerr reportedly wanted to become a writer; acting was a way to make some money. A few years ago, he wrote a brief (and highly readable) essay, “Reminiscence by John Kerr,” in which he recalls his distant relationship with his parents. Curiously, Kerr, like Tea and Sympathy‘s Tom Lee, also went to a New England prep school. “Reminiscence by John Kerr” can be found here.
Also worth checking out is a Tea and Sympathy essay found at altscreen.com.
South Pacific John Kerr, France Nuyen photo: 20th Century Fox.
John Kerr and Deborah Kerr in a Tea and Sympathy publicity shot: MGM.