Typecast: John Kerr, Born To Play Ivy Prepsters

Actor John Kerr

Every so often I get these little obsessions. The athletic ones drag out for years, and things like the taste for late 19th-century French chamber music are lifelong.

But every so often something cultural piques my interest, and I’ll spend a month or so furiously reading books and watching movies. I think last year’s was on the concept of cool and hip, for which I read half a dozen critical studies. The latest was triggered by Chris Sharp’s wonderful work this summer during Batik Week. I found myself inspired to revisit America’s pop fascination with Polynesia in the 1950s. Being a native Californian who took a couple of family vacations to island destinations as an impressionable teenager, this wasn’t my first time in these waters.

I stocked up on rum and ordered a big tiki coffee-table book. Then I ordered John Michener’s “Tales Of The South Pacific.” Then I started watching nearly every movie set on an island I could find, from “Mutiny On The Bounty” to “Blue Lagoon.” Once I reached “Return To Blue Lagoon,” things were clearly winding down.

This was all supposed to stop with the end of summer, but there were plenty of warm days in September and the rum and movies lasted until the third week of the month. The finale was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which I hadn’t seen in many years. Halfway through it I started to get the feeling I knew one of the main actors from something else. It was his voice more than his face. The little grey cells kept quietly cranking until suddenly I got a vision of the actor sprinting not across a sandy beach, but a campus quad.

Sure enough it was John Kerr, star of 1956’s “Tea & Sympathy,” which we wrote about in the first year of Ivy Style.

I did some quick googling and it turns out Kerr was destined to play Ivy prepsters. In “Tea & Sympathy” he’s a prep school kid, and in “South Pacific” he’s a fresh-faced Princeton grad. Kerr just had that look. Then again, the casting was a form of destiny: Kerr had attended Harvard as an undergraduate. But even after roles in films as big as “South Pacific,” he looked on to other things. He enrolled in UCLA law school and passed the California bar in 1970. He died last year at the age of 81.

It’s cool and windy now and the rum is gone. I have no idea what the next mini-obsession will be, but as always I’ll keep you posted of my findings. — CC

3 Comments on "Typecast: John Kerr, Born To Play Ivy Prepsters"

  1. He came from an acting family. Went up to Exeter, then Harvard after early life here in Manhattan.

    I had no memory of his really long TV career in the 60s and 70s.

  2. A very minor nit-picking on my part. “Tales of the South Pacific” was written by James A. Michener.

  3. Cristina Payumo | November 26, 2019 at 5:41 pm | Reply

    “South Pacific” was the last movie that we watched on DVD before my mother got admitted to the hospital for almost two weeks. Listening to the songs and watching clips from the movie has sustained me on really sad days, and it still is my “go to” of late to help me get by through the day. Now, I am completely smitten with John Kerr! I remember seeing “South Pacific” as a kid and how his love scenes with the very pretty France Nuyen would make me blush. I think I may have already had a crush on him then but didn’t realized it. Too bad, the movie “Tea and Sympathy” is not available in our country (unless I order the DVD online), and there seems to be very few interviews of John Kerr as well. Thank you for posting this article.

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