Acting was a genetic certainty for John Kerr. His grandfather Frederick Grinham Kerr had been treading the boards since the 1880s and would be best remembered today for his roles in Frankenstein (1931) and opposite actors like Ronald Colman in Raffles (1930) and Bette Davis in the original Waterloo Bridge (1931) Indeed both John’s parents, June Walker (1901-66) and Geoffrey Kerr (1895-1971) had been in appearing in films since 1917. June had worked with actors like Robert Montgomery and Anita Page while Geoffrey had starred opposite Ivor Novello and Ruth Chatterton. So acting was very much in the blood when at the age of twenty-two John began his film career after stage work at Harvard and then New York. By 1954 he had already won a Tony award for his stage role in Tea & Sympathy and there was little surprise when he was reunited with Deborah Kerr and Leif Erickson for the movie version. To me this remains John’s signature role despite his successes in films like Gaby, The Pit & the Pendulum, South Pacific, The Cobweb and The Crowded Sky. His portrayal of a sensitive young man trying to survive and find solace in a seemingly masculine world borders on brilliant and the movie stands the test of time. It is sentimentality without being mawkish or saccharine. The chemistry between John and Deborah Kerr is pure magic and remains as one of her most memorable roles outside Separate Tables and From Here to Eternity.
In fact, in the space of only five years John made eight very different films, each testing his range as an actor and ensuring a versatility many actors never achieve. However, by the mid-60s, John was already strongly attracted to the idea of practicing law full time. Never would he give himself fully to a film again although he made more than two dozen TV guest appearances over the following fifteen years. However, for John, the career of Hollywood lawyer would become his greatest role. He obtained his J.D. at UCLA in 1969.
Today, John has retired from his successful practice in Encino, but he still signs autographs for his many fans and his movies are often seen on Cable or DVD. I was fortunate enough to catch up with John and learn a lot more about his life and his two fine careers as you will read below.
David: You grew up in a family where your parents were multitalented entertainers. What are your strongest memories of your parents at work? Were there any truly humorous moments your recall from this period in your life?
John: My parents separated in when I was five or six years old. My father was English, and he returned to England to live. This was in the middle or late nineteen thirties before the start of the Second World War. I stayed in this country with my mother so you can’t really say that have any memories of my parents at work because they weren’t together as I was growing up. And while I wasn’t around when my father worked, I was there when my mother worked.
My mother, June Walker was a wonderful actress and there was no question that, I was very strongly influenced by her. Not only in my attitudes towards the theatre, but also in my appreciation for what I thought was good acting and, good theatre. I’ve never changed that basic approach. She was very unusual, and she had a lot of very bad luck in her life, and in the theatre, which interfered with her having the kind of career that she really deserved. She started out very young and she was a star on Broadway when she was in her twenties. And then she had a terrible accident and almost lost her leg, when she was in her early thirties. She was in and out of the hospitals for two years. And that injury plagued her throughout the rest of her career because she had a very bad scar on the front of her leg just below her knee. And I remember once going to a play that Helen Hayes was in, called Happy Birthday. They were good friends, and going back stage I heard Helen saying to my mother that this would have been a wonderful part for my mother if it weren’t for her leg. My mother didn’t limp or anything, but she had this terrible scar. It really had a terrible effect on her. And I’m sure it greatly affected her career.
As I said my memories are just those of my mother. Of watching her on the stage when I was young, and all through my life, when she was working; and then later working with her. We acted twice together. Once in the play called All Summer Long by Robert Anderson, the author of the play Tea and Sympathy. And then again a few years later in the Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I thought we worked very well together. It was a delight to work with my mother. I think that held true for just about everyone who worked with her.
She worked with a lot of young people as she got older, and in a number of plays. She was in a play with Edward G. Robinson, in which Gena Rowlands made her (I think) stage debut. And all the young people in the companies that she worked with just loved her. They would sit around as she told them stories about the roaring twenties, and about what the theatre was like back then.
Another thing that was wonderful for me was that she knew so many people who were in the arts; writers and actors and painters, though not so many musicians. And some of her very dearest friends were wonderful artists in their own right. For example, Dorothy Parker was a dear friend of hers. So I was exposed to this in my earliest adolescence and as I continued through school and onto college and it had a tremendous influence on me. I think back on those times with a great deal of nostalgia and joy.
David: Can you tell us what life was like at Harvard during the early fifties and something about your stage work during this period? At this early stage did you find yourself torn between wanting to practice law against a career in acting?
John: I was at Harvard from 1948 in the fall to 1952 in the spring. 1948 was the presidential election year in which Truman won out over Thomas Dewey. That’s the famous year, when Dewey was called out by the press. They said “he’s the winner,” then it turned out to be wrong. That’s the last time that the polls were mistaken. And in 1952 of course, was when Eisenhower was elected over Bradley Stevenson. I think I’m right. Anyway, they were times of a great deal of turmoil politically in this country. In 1948 the Second World War had been over for about three years. Many of the people attending the college and sharing my classes were older, were veterans who had returned from the war, and who had often been in combat. And for me it was a very, very serious and meaningful experience to be going to college with the people like that. It was just different then, than it is today. Of that, I am sure.
David: How did your move from stage to screen come about?
John: When I was a freshman at Harvard in the fall of that year, 1948, I tried out for a play that was being done by one of the college theatre groups called The Harvard Theatre Workshop. The play was Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. And I got a fairly large part. I think the workshop had money, and after they graduated in a year or so, they continued the theatre. They purchased the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began to run a quasi repertory company year round. This was one of the earliest of these regional theatres which started sprouting up later in the 1950’s across the country. I worked at the Brattle Theatre while I was in college. I think the first play I was in was in Twelfth Night with Betty Field. I played her twin brother Sebastian. And then in the summer of my, I think it was my senior year, I played the lead role in Billy Budd. This was the longest running play that they ever had at the Brattle and ran for about eleven or twelve weeks. The way they customarily operated was they would put on a play for a limited run of four weeks; much the way that most of the regional theatres operate today. However, if they had a really successful play, the producers would extend the run. Well they had this with Billy Budd. It was very successful and they did extend the run. I then appeared in a Christopher Fry play called A Sleep of Prisoners. I remember that one in particular because (Dr.) Guthrie McClintock came up to me because he was interested in having me in a play that he was producing on Broadway in the fall called Bernadine. After I graduated, I went up to New York and I appeared in this play. And Bernadine was the play that led to my being cast as the young boy in Tea and Sympathy opposite Deborah Kerr.
David: How did your move from stage to screen come about?
John: Well, I think it probably would have come about one way or another. In a similar way that it actually did. I was in a play in New York in the fall of 1954 called All Summer Long, which I mentioned earlier. The play wasn’t a success and closed after two or three months. So just sometime around the end of November I was offered the role that I played in the Cobweb at MGM. This was rather sudden, but I found out later what happened was this: James Dean had been set to play that part and then he pulled out of the picture in order to make Giant with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. So they had to quickly recast the part as they were starting to shoot in early December as I recall. We shot throughout December 1954 into January 1955. Again I was fortunate as this break was due to me having a good agent. Not the same agent as later in my life, but a really good agent at MCA named Ed Henry. He more or less got me the job. At that time he didn’t have any film on me. I’d been in a few television shows but none that were in color. I think I had made a success in Tea and Sympathy, which is really how I got into films. And that was a film which I did as a one picture contract. Then later when MGM bought the rights to Tea and Sympathy I signed for a three picture deal. Gaby with Leslie Caron being filmed first, then Tea and Sympathy and after those two I appeared in another movie called The Vintage which was made in the south of France with Michelle Morgan and Pier Angeli.
David: Do you recall the moment when you signed your very first autograph and how you felt at that time? How do such memories make you feel half a century later?
John: Well I can’t remember signing the first autograph. I’m sure that when I was working in the theatre I received some requests for autographs. I do remember once when I was going to Milwaukee to work in a regional theatre that was being managed by a friend of mine, and wonderful actor, and man of the theatre named Ray Broil. The publicity was organized so that the little plane that I arrived on, that went from Chicago to Milwaukee, was met by the publicity people and a group of high school kids. I remember one girl wanting me to autograph her arm. Well, I was just appalled you know. I thought, “You want me to autograph your arm, you’re not going to wash your arm for years and years because you got my autograph on it?” Anyway, I don’t honestly remember if I did sign her arm or not, but I did think it was a very strange request. Nowadays, I guess we wouldn’t think it was so strange, with the various marks and tattoos and skin paintings and whatnot kids have these days. (Or even older people for that matter). But at the time I thought it was bizarre.
David: Were you fully committed to your acting from 1955-65 or were you already thinking about a career as a practising attorney? Were there any outside factors influencing the direction of your film career during this period that made an alternative career more attractive?
John: I didn’t think about practicing law until a good fifteen years after I graduated from Harvard. I worked as an actor; firstly in the theatre, and then moving to California to make films and television. And it wasn’t until, oh I guess, around 1965 and 1966 that I decided that I wanted to change professions and do something besides acting. My mother passed away in early 1966. I had been helping to take care of her and that removed a certain financial burden from my shoulders and made it at least possible to think about going back to school. So that’s what I did. I lived very close to the campus at UCLA. I walked up the hill one day and went into the Law School, picked up an application and submitted it. And that’s was what happened. I was accepted and started law school in the fall of 1966 at the UCLA Law School. We had to do a certain amount of belt tightening over the years although I did moonlight during that whole period of time, taking television jobs whenever I could get them. I had a wonderful agent named James McCue who knew that I was planning to leave the acting profession and knew that he wasn’t going to be able to make a lot of money, as an agent for me. Yet he continued to find work for me and was really instrumental in helping me economically so that I was able to get through law school. I only had to take off one quarter, in order to go back to New York, to work in a play, which was a limited run at the City Center, in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man. So I actually graduated from law school a quarter late in December of 1969 instead of in June.
And even after I graduated from law school and was admitted to practice, and was working as an attorney, I did do some occasional work, as an actor in television. Acting has been very good to me. As a result of all of my work in films and television, I’m getting, drawing a small pension from the Screen Actors Guild. And I continue to remain active and interested in what’s going on here.
David: Looking back what role do you think represents your finest work? Did you prefer the stage or the screen?
John: The answer to that is that I preferred the stage because I thought I did my best work on it. When I’ve seen myself in film or on television from time to time I’m not too happy with my performance. There is a kind of kind of... I feel that I’m constrained by the technical requirements, and that I’m not really working very well. I think I felt that was true of my performance in South Pacific. I’ve been criticized for being stiff in that film. I think that’s a justifiable criticism in some instances, in some scenes. I think I was stiff, I wasn’t comfortable, I didn’t flow, I didn’t feel, it wasn’t real you know. But I love it anyway; that I’m thought of as a movie actor. Usually when I’m asked, “What do you think was the best role?’. I have to respond, Tea and Sympathy probably because I played that role on the stage for a year as well in the film, with pretty much the same actors, Deborah Kerr and Leif Erickson. So I never felt the impediment of performing in front of a camera that I have felt so often with other films. I did some very good plays on the stage and had some wonderful roles. I played for example, Hamlet as a guest artist at Stanford University. And as you know I played with my mother in The Glass Menagerie. I played Oedipus in the cocktail version of the Oedipus Drama of the Infernal Machine. I thought I really stretched and did a really good job in that role. Still I have to say that I guess Sympathy represents my best work, certainly on film and even possibly on the stage. Although the character in Sympathy is really a teenage boy and I played parts that were, you know, men. And there’s a difference…
David: Can you tell us if you ever knocked back or missed a role that you wanted to perform? Is there a film that you wished you hadn’t been involved with?
John: Very early in my film career, I had the opportunity to play the role that Anthony Perkins ended up playing in the William Wyler film, The Friendly Persuasion. My agent at MCA back then kind of talked me out of it and I’ve always regretted that. I wanted very much to be in that movie. But as I recall there was a conflict in the shooting schedule. I was to be in Gaby, or at least I was being offered that and I couldn’t do both. My agent thought that it would be more important for me to play a leading role opposite Leslie Caron, than a supporting role in the Wyler film. I didn’t know the difference so I went along with his advice. I can’t recall any films that I wish that I hadn’t been involved with. Though some of them didn’t turn out to be very successful and in some cases didn’t turn out to be very good. I was always grateful for the job and glad to have the experience.
David: Were you really committed to your acting from 1955-65, or were you already thinking about a career as a practicing attorney? Were there any outside factors influencing the direction of your career, film career, during this period that made an alternative career more attractive?
John: Well, I think I kind of answered some of that earlier. I was fully committed to acting for a period of about fifteen or sixteen years. Although I became increasingly frustrated with the kind of thing I was doing. I really didn’t feel I was using myself very fully. I was making a fairly good living and I had good relationships with the people I worked with. I was on a series called Peyton Place that was a really wonderful job and a wonderful work situation. Yet I just didn’t feel I was getting anywhere and I didn’t feel that I was using myself the way I would like to. So as I said earlier, when my mother passed away and the opportunity came along to do something about it (and I wasn’t getting any younger) I felt well you better do it. You know? I mean there really wasn’t any risk involved in going to law school. At that time it was a public education, it was comparatively inexpensive, I lived very close to the campus and it wasn’t a terribly expensive endeavor. However was very demanding of my time, as it is of everyone’s time. I was a good student and I liked it. I grew to love my work, I really did, when I became an attorney and finally got into the kind of niche work that I wanted to do. But looking back, I wish that I had done it much sooner. As Bill Tilden once said “It takes five years to make a tennis player and ten years to make a champion”. And certainly with the practices with law or I’m sure any profession it takes a good deal of time just getting the experience to succeed? Anyway, I’ve been a lawyer now for over thirty years and I loved every, well, I can’t say every single minute of it, but I’ve loved my work as whole. I have worked very hard and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.
David: Could you paint a picture about what it is you love most about practicing the law?
John: I literally can’t paint a picture or anything like that. But let me try to put it as succinctly as I can. I’ve been a trial lawyer. I practice on the civil side not the Criminal side. Most of my practice has been defense, which involves working primarily for insurance companies. And perhaps ten or fifteen percent of my practice over the years has also involved representing plaintiffs. And I’ve specialized in fields of general personal injury, medical malpractice and product liability. For me the most rewarding aspect of practicing law is having a case turn out right. Sometimes that means winning and sometimes that means working out a fair and equitable settlement. Both of those results require a lot of work on the part of the attorneys involved. I’ve been retired now going on for 4 years. I think I was a good lawyer. I know I had a pretty good reputation among the other civil trial lawyers in the community in which I practiced. That also has meant a great deal to me over the years. I looked at a case as a problem to be solved as a means of achieving a good result. I think most good and serious lawyers would agree with me.
David: Have you found that people have occasionally underestimated your legal-ness and steely toughness due to their preconceptions of you from having seen your various movie roles? How did you find the transition from acting on stage to acting in the wordy world of legal briefs?
John: Well as the years went by fewer and fewer people have recognized me. I used to get recognized quite a lot when I first started practicing law. Sometimes by juries or prospective jurors when we were setting up to try a case! I always asked, perspective jurors at least, to try to disregard what they may have thought of me as an actor and just listen to what the evidence said and what I had to say about the evidence. Once or twice I’ve had my opposing council comment that I was just acting so they couldn’t believe everything I said. When they said something like that, I generally felt that I had made a good point. For the most part, people that have recognized me have been very complimentary about the work that I did as an actor. To this day I still get compliments about South Pacific and Tea and Sympathy. In particular those are the ones that seem to stand out in people’s memories. And that’s been true of other members of the profession whom I’ve met as well. They’re complimentary about that but they put it in the proper perspective.
As far as making the transition is concerned, I think there’s no question that my experience as an actor has been very helpful in my work as an attorney. Especially in being able to present a case and talk on my feet and being persuasive in argument. I also don’t think that one has to have been an actor in order to have those kinds of abilities. Those are things you can get with experience and practice, and with some training and maybe some coaching. I found that, that transition fairly easy.
David: What has been your greatest moment since being admitted to the bar? What was the toughest or worst moment during your long career as an attorney?
John: That’s a difficult question because I haven’t had any awards or prizes or any formal recognitions as a lawyer. I won a few prizes as an actor but I never went to a thing, and I never stood up and received an award or thanked everybody in the world for helping me get it. And that certainly hasn’t been true in my practice as a lawyer. But some of the most gratifying and most memorable moments, so to speak, that I’ve had as a lawyer have been in resolving cases in a way that was favorable and meaningful to my clients. Probably I’ve had stronger feelings of gratification representing plaintiffs where I’ve been able to obtain good results for them and have them be pleased and grateful for the work that I have done, than it has been in my work as a defense lawyer. But I do recall being very gratified by some praise by some of the insurance people that I have worked for. So it’s about even I guess.
Thinking about this ‘worst moment’ question, I think it was losing the case that I had which involved the death of a six year old girl from viral encephalitis in a hospital where the issue had been whether her symptoms had been recognized early enough for the doctors to save her life. It was a very difficult case and the parents were totally heartbroken over her loss. The mother could barely testify in her grief. She just sobbed, broke down and sobbed. The case turned out that although the doctors in the hospital were negligent, in the way they treated the girl, the virus was so fermenting, so powerful and came on so rapidly that the negligence was not the cause of the little girl’s death. I felt very strongly about the case, but I knew it was a very difficult case for the plaintiff. He spent a lot of time and a lot of money preparing it. And I felt really terrible for the parents as we had not gotten the result we were hoping for. So that probably was my worst moment, and the worst outcome possible and I felt about the worst in my career.
David: During your career you have signed quite a few photos including several you have signed with France Nuyen. Have you ever signed with other actors? And can you tell us the funniest moment you have encountered with a fan.
John: Well I never signed with any other actors together. I just happened to have kept in touch with France Nuyen over the years. As a matter of fact, I represented her as a lawyer briefly in some minor personal matters. You know she has been a good friend and occasionally the request would come through, could both of us sign the picture. Then also we have gone to these autograph signing meetings and sat next to each other so that people would have the opportunity of getting both of our signatures on the picture. That’s the case with France Nuyen but not with anyone else.
I can’t tell you the funniest moment I’ve ever encountered with any fans. I haven’t encountered any funny moments with any fans I don’t think. Generally my experience with fans is they’re very respectful and are appreciative of your work, whether they buy an autographed photo or not. I’ve had so many people come by the table and say that they remember my work and how much they liked it. But I can’t remember any outstandingly funny moment.
David: Have you ever attended a memorabilia show? And if so, how did you find the experience?
John: I’ve attended a number of them. There is Ray Court’s show here in the Los Angeles area that I’ve been invited to several times. That’s where I’ve been with France Nuyen. Then I’ve been to one or two in other parts of the country by invitation. They’re pretty much all the same. I enjoyed the experience. One of the nice things about it is you get to see actors and people you haven’t seen in a long time. And you know there are always lulls in during the day when you get to visit with people and kind of reminisce a little bit which is always pleasant.
David: I know you don’t like to chat about the nuts and bolts of your acting career, but I have a question I always ask the people I interview. If you could ask anyone in history to sign an autograph for you, who would you ask and what would you have them say in their dedication?
John: Well David, I have thought about this one for a long time. I am not an autograph seeker and I don’t collect autographs and I’m not interested in having an autographed photograph or what not. But I did used to, and still do, have some friends who are writers. And when they have a new book or something I used to like to get them to inscribe their book for me. So I do have those kinds of inscriptions from a number of writers who have been friends in the past. I don’t have any autographs from people I don’t actually know. I can’t think of anyone in history that I would want to sign their autograph for me on a photo or a book.
David: Before we leave you to your torts and briefs are there any words of wisdom or messages that you would like to share with your fans around the world?
John: Well, I’ve thought about this question a long time too. And at the risk of maybe sounding a little pompous, thinking about the way things are going today and the public eye today, I would say that the most important thing is to be honest and forthright and not try to bend the truth or cover anything up. I’ve learned that in the practice of law certainly, my credibility is maybe the most important aspect I bring to a case, or to a discussion. And even though sometimes it’s hard to get over a bump in the road, it’s better to go over it, or try to go around it, or burrow under it; or whatever. So that would be the advice that I have to give people.
Article Copyright David Priol 2004
Photos copyrighted to their various owners