Vintage Hunk: John Kerr

By: Mike McCrann

Actor John Kerr died earlier this year at the age of 81, survived by his wife, three children, and two stepchildren. He was long retired from films and living in peaceful obscurity, but the actor will always be remembered as the cute blond star who rose to fame in the play and film Tea and Sympathy, a '50s artifact that has to be seen to be believed.

John Kerr was born to affluent parents in NY in 1931. He graduated from Harvard and began summer stock. He later made his Broadway debut in the innocuous Bernardine, a high school comedy that would later be filmed with Pat Boone. Kerr hit it big in 1954 when he was cast in Tea and Sympathy, receiving rapturous reviews and winning a Tony Award.

Kerr starred as Tom Lee, a sensitive young man in a boy's school who is perceived as gay. He is then saved and proves both his heterosexuality and maleness by having sex with the headmaster's wife, who was played by Deborah Kerr — no relation. The play pushed boundaries for its time and caused a sensation.

Soon Hollywood called and Kerr made two films with Vincente Minnelli: The Cobweb, in which he played a tortured inmate in a mental institution, and Tea and Sympathy, in which Kerr reprised his role as Tom Lee. Minnelli’s 1956 film adaptation of the play was considered to be a daring piece of work in the mid-century Eisenhower years. In fact, MGM had to tack on an ending with a letter written by the poor wife telling the young lad that what they did was wrong and had destroyed lives!

Critics raved about Kerr's performance in Sympathy, but the film itself is wonderfully ludicrous by today’s standards; highlights include a bonfire pajama raid and the hero's grotesque visit with a prostitute, where he is so shaken by being unable to perform that he attempts suicide.

The handsome Kerr went on to play Lt. Joe Cable in the big budget film version of the musical South Pacific, but he never really got a major film role again. He later retired from acting, attended law school, and eventually became a successful lawyer.

John Kerr was very appealing in his fleeting time as a movie star. Watching Tea and Sympathy, which now seems both camp and depressing, it’s still fun to see Kerr as poor Tom Lee, knitting on the beach with the faculty wives, saying, "I'm always falling in love with the wrong people."