John Kerr, star of ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ ‘South Pacific,’ dies at 81

Tony winner eventually became Beverly Hills attorney

John Kerr, a Tony winner and the star of the films “Tea and Sympathy” and “South Pacific,” died suddenly after a short illness on Feb. 2. He was 81.

Kerr began his acting career on the stage, making his Broadway debut in “Bernardine” in 1953. He won a Tony for his role as a sensitive, effeminate schoolboy in the Robert Anderson play “Tea and Sympathy” and starred with Deborah Kerr (no relation) in the 1956 film version. He played Lt. Joe Cable, who grows beyond the racism he learned as a child, in the 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.”

The actor was also noted for his performance in Vincent Price horror film “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961) and had a substantial career acting in television. Kerr first appeared on TV in a 1953 episode of “Lux Video Theatre,” appeared on “Studio One in Hollywood” and “Playhouse 90” and made guest appearances on shows ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” He recurred as an assistant district attorney on “Arrest and Trial” and as the DA on “Peyton Place.”

John Grinham Kerr was born in New York City into a family of actors; his parents were Geoffrey Kerr and June Walker.

He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College.

In the late 1960s he sought to become a television director, and though he was mentored by Leo Penn, he soon decided that such work was not for him, and Kerr went to UCLA law school and became a practicing attorney in Beverly Hills. He continued to make occasional appearances on television, however, recurring as a prosecutor on “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Kerr was married to Priscilla Smith from 1952-72.

Survivors include second wife Barbara Chu, whom he married in 1979; a son and two daughters by his first marriage; and two stepchildren by his second.

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