Obituary: Actor John Kerr fought bigotry in roles he took, and one he didn't

  • Article by: PAUL VITELLO , N ew York Times
  • Updated: February 11, 2013 - 8:47 PM

John Kerr played characters who challenged bias. But he turned down the role of Lindbergh in "Spirit of St. Louis."

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John Kerr and Mitzi Gaynor from "South Pacific."

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John Kerr, the Tony Award-winning actor, was best known for roles that challenged bigotry in the 1950s in films like "Tea and Sympathy" and "South Pacific." But what isn't as well known is that he turned down a starring movie role because of ideological differences with its subject, aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Kerr died of congestive heart failure on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles. He was 81.

He won the Tony in 1954 for his role in the Broadway production of "Tea and Sympathy," playing a sensitive teenager whose prep school classmates torment him because they assume he is gay. When he starred in the 1956 film version, MGM avoided mention of homosexuality by having his tormentors harass him for being a sissified "sister boy."

In 1957, Kerr appeared in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" playing Lt. Joe Cable, whose racial prejudice keeps him from marrying the girl he loves. He sang lyrics that were far ahead of their time: "You've got to be taught to be afraid, Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught."

Kerr had stage, film and TV roles throughout the 1950s. He played opposite Leslie Caron in "Gaby" (1956), a movie about a doomed love affair in London during World War II.

He was offered the Lindbergh role in 1956 for the Warner Bros. film "The Spirit of St. Louis," about the aviator's historic trans-Atlantic flight. Kerr's decision to turn it down was widely publicized.

"I don't admire the ideals of the hero," Kerr told the New York Post, referring to statements Lindbergh had made sympathetic to Nazi Germany. The part went to James Stewart. "My father was no radical, but Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer," son Michael Kerr said.

The decision roughly coincided with the zenith of Kerr's film stardom, and he was never sure if it had hurt his career. His enthusiasm began to wane around that time, too. "He never loved Hollywood -- the waiting around and the boredom," his son said.

Kerr had roles in other movies, notably in "The Pit and the Pendulum," the 1961 adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story. But he worked mainly in TV in the '60s, including a role as a district attorney on "Peyton Place."

In 1966, Kerr became a full-time law student at UCLA, and was admitted to the California bar in 1970. He maintained a successful private practice in Los Angeles until his retirement in 2000.

"My dad originally intended to become a novelist," Michael Kerr said. "He saw acting as a way to support himself in the meantime. Then he won the Tony. Then he went to Hollywood."

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