John Kerr: James Dean, TV Actor

(The 1950s were an exciting time for the performing arts in New York City. Broadway and television--then in its infancy--produced a generation of young writers (William Inge, Rod Serling) and actors (Tony Perkins, Ben Gazzara) whose talents attracted critical acclaim. One of the most promising new actors was named John Kerr, a Harvard graduate who had also studied Russian at Columbia. Kerr appeared on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy, playing a prep school student falsely accused of homosexuality and acted in many original television dramas. In the 1960s, Kerr abandoned his successful acting career to study law at UCLA and became a well-respected medical malpractice attorney defending doctors. Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, John Kerr remembers the early days of television--and another young actor, named James Dean.) 

This interview was posted on American Legends in November 1999. Kerr died in February 2013. Occasionally, in the 1970s Kerr appeared on the television drama The Streets of San Francisco. However, he had no regrets about leaving acting for the law where he was known as a gentleman advocate and was sometimes (to his mild delight) recognized by a juror from film or TV.


What was television like back in the early 1950s?


JK: There were a number of shows--Philco TV Playhouse, Studio One--that put on dramas every week, like a mini-play. Shows were broadcast live in New York City and were preserved by kinescope so they could be shown in the West. They didn't have tape back then. The kinescope process was primitive; the film quality did not last.



AL: The Paley Museum of Television & Radio recovered many shows that were thought to be lost. Programs Dean was in continue to surface. You and he were in a couple together.


JK: I played Jesse James in one, and James Dean shot me. He played Bob Ford. They thought I looked like an old photo of Jesse James and so I got the part. My false mustache kept coming off during the shooting. Dean and I did one other show together (Robert Montgomery Presents). I think we played brothers who were caught committing a minor type of crime. I liked Dean very much. We were friends on the set.


AL: The Jesse James story was an episode on You Are There.


JK: Walter Cronkite was the narrator. The show recreated historical events. Dean liked the part. We both enjoyed practicing "quick draw."


AL: Sidney Lumet directed.


JK: Sidney was a wonderful director, even then. He was a former child actor and understood working with actors.


AL: Not everyone worked well with Dean.


JK: If there are stories about Dean being temperamental--that was not my experience with him. Those are things associated with stardom and the glare of publicity. I thought he was tremendously talented. He had all the equipment to be a great actor. He was a good candidate but...who knows?



Did you get to know Dean on a personal level?


JK: In 1954 I was married and had a family. Dean was single. We didn't move in the same circles. But he would talk a little about his family--about his aunt who had raised him in Indiana. For some strange technical reason, CBS cameras made you look fat, but NBC made you look thin. Jimmy said whenever he was on NBC, his aunt would call and say he should eat more. 


AL: Some writers claim that Elia Kazan saw Dean on television and considered him for the lead in Tea and Sympathy.


JK: I didn't know that. But even after I went to Hollywood, our paths kept crisscrossing. MGM wanted Dean for The Cobweb, but he pulled out to do Giant--he was cast late in the day--and I stepped in to do The Cobweb which Vincente Minnelli directed. 


AL: You won a Tony on Broadway and starred in South Pacific and Tea and Sympathy on the screen. Then, you gave it up for law--why?


JK: I felt it was time for a change and wanted to do something different. In the 1960s I was a semi-regular on Peyton Place with Barbara Parkins, Mia Farrow, and Ryan O'Neal. I played a lawyer--and prosecuted Ryan O'Neal on the show, before heading off to law school.


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