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Deborah Kerr Biography

A gifted, sensitive Scottish-born leading actress, Deborah Kerr trained as a dancer in her aunt's drama and ballet school in Bristol, England. She won a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells Theatre School and at age 17 made her professional dancing debut in London in the corps de ballet of Prometheus. She moved into stage acting and gained some experience in British repertory theater before segueing to films. Kerr landed her breakthrough screen role in 1940 as a frightened Salvation Army worker in the fine, all-star adaptation of the potent Shavian satire, Major Barbara. Although the shy, quiet side would often remain in Kerr's later star persona, she, like Greer Garson, gradually acquired a stiff-upper-lip attitude as her native land's and later Hollywood's postwar personification of the delicate yet strong, often impassioned English rose.

Kerr moved into leads in an adaptation of the controversial novel which was England's equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath, the touching study of Depression-era poverty, Love on the Dole (1940). Although she did well in films, including the grim Hatter's Castle (1941), it was really Kerr's lovely work in three roles in the splendid Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger time-spanning saga The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), as the various women in the hero's life, that really set her on top. She followed up with several excellent performances in fine films: the mousy wife whose marriage is revitalized when she enters wartime service in Perfect Strangers (1945); the Irish spy in the gripping I See a Dark Stranger (1946); and especially, a marvelous, award-winning performance as the determined yet fallible Sister Superior who attempts to establish a school and hospital in a remote Himalayan castle in Powell and Pressburger's uniquely unsettling Black Narcissus (1947).

With a string of performances like these, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood (Louis B. Mayer and MGM) beckoned the graceful star, and Kerr was soon co-starring opposite Clark Gable in the enjoyable satire of advertising, The Hucksters (1947). In many ways, she filled the void Irene Dunne would soon create by leaving films. Gracious, ladylike and smart, Kerr would in fact recreate two Dunne roles: the proper Englishwoman who becomes governess to a potentate's brood in the musicalized version of Anna and the King of Siam, The King and I (1956; with her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon); and the heroine prevented from making a crucial rendezvous with her lover in An Affair to Remember (1957; based on Dunne's better Love Affair). The actress' regal quality suited her for period adventures including Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and she also ventured into comedy in Dream Wife (1953) and The Grass Is Greener (1961).

Perhaps the key difference between Kerr and earlier classy, genteel heroines such as Joan Fontaine was that the passions sparking Kerr's characters were often of a more overtly sexual nature. As questions of sex and censorship manifested themselves in the 1950s, her persona, prim only on the surface, proved ideal (as did Grace Kelly's) for suggesting the torrid side of romantic love. One of the most famous images of Kerr's career was that of her straying wife in From Here to Eternity (1953) making love on the beach with military officer Burt Lancaster. The Proud and Profane (1956) was such a similar film (and role) that it suffered by comparison, but there are similar dimensions in other Kerr roles such as the wife who helps an effeminate college youth "prove" his masculinity in Tea and Sympathy (1956) and even her nun, trapped on an island with a swarthy soldier, in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).

One of her finest films came at the end of the decade when she made The Sundowners with director Fred Zinnemann. Her role as a sheep farmer's wife was performed without makeup, and her natural beauty was both affecting and illuminating. She received her final Academy Award nomination, and the film is considered one of her finest achievements.

Even if her mother-dominated spinster in Separate Tables (1958) was rather overdone, Kerr was a radiant, sincere and reliable actress, and since her appeal did not really depend upon youthful beauty, she continued impressively, if less prolifically, into 1960s films. Her work as governesses who encounter ghost-possessed charges in The Innocents (1961), an excellent adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and free-spirited ones in The Chalk Garden (1964) was well crafted, and she had fine moments as a gentle tourist caring for her aging grandfather in The Night of the Iguana (1964) and as a matron who encounters liberated mores in the belabored but amusing sex farce, Prudence and the Pill (1968). Kerr subsequently returned primarily to stage work, keeping very busy in plays ranging from Candida to Long Day's Journey Into Night (both 1977), and enjoying considerable success in London and a worldwide tour in The Day After the Fair (1972-73, 1979). Variable health and problems remembering her lines interfered with some of her work, but her presence was always cherished, and she made a successful one-shot return to films as a repressed widow in The Assam Garden (1985).

She is tied with Thelma Ritter for the most nominations for an actress for an acting Oscar without winning (six times - (Edward, My Son, 1949, From Here To Eternity, 1953, The King and I, 1956, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, 1957, Separate Tables, 1958 and The Sundowners, 1960). Kerr was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 1994 ceremonies in recognition of the "perfection, discipline and elegance" of her screen work.

In 2001, it was confirmed that she was suffering with Parkinson's disease and had been confined to a wheelchair. Deborah lived on a large estate with two trout ponds in the Alpine resort of Klosters, Switzerland with her husband Peter Viertel, a novelist-screenwriter. She also had a villa in Marbella, Spain. Because of illness, she was no longer able to sign autographs at the end of her career. Deborah Kerr passed away October 16, 2007 in Suffolk in eastern England. She is survived by Viertel, two daughters and three grandchildren.

CLICK HERE to read her obituary(ies).

    bullet Also Credited As:
      Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer
    bullet  Born:
      on September 30, 1921 in Helensburgh, Scotland, UK by the Firth of Clyde
    bullet  Job Titles:
      Actor, Dancer


    bullet  Father: Arthur Charles "Jack" Kerr-Trimmer. Civil engineer. Died when Kerr was 15 years old.
    bullet  Mother: Kathleen Rose "Colleen" Kerr-Trimmer.
    bullet  Brother: Edmund "Teddy" Trimmer) was murdered in a road rage incident in August 2004 in the Midlands, UK. He was 78 at the time of his death.
    bullet  Husband: Peter Viertel - the son of Austrian poet Berthold Viertel and screenwriter Salka Viertel. Married on July 23, 1960.
    bullet  Daughter: Melanie Jane Bartley born on December 27, 1947.
    bullet  Daughter: Francesca Ann Bartley. Married to actor John Shrapnel. Children: writer Joe Shrapnel and actors Lex     Shrapnel and Tom Shrapnel.
    bullet  Aunt: Phyllis Smale. Operated a drama and ballet school.
    bullet  Great-nephew: Benjamin Viertel
    bullet  Niece: Laura Petrella

Significant Others

    bullet  Husband: Anthony Charles Bartley. Born in March 1919; married on November 28, 1945; divorced in 1959; died on April 6, 2001.
    bullet  Companion: Burt Lancaster. Had relationship during filming of From Here to Eternity.

    bullet  Northumberland House, Clifton, Bristol, England
    bullet  Hicks-Smale Drama School
    bullet  Sadler's Wells Theatre School, London, England, 1938


    bullet  1937 Stage debut in Harlequin and Columbine
    bullet  1938 Danced in the corps de ballet of the Sadler's Wells production of Prometheus
    bullet  1939 Began acting career in English repertory theaters
    bullet  1939 Film acting debut in small role of a hatcheck girl in Contraband - role cut from film
    bullet  1940 First prominent role in films, Jenny in Major Barbara
    bullet  1940 Had leading role in Love on the Dole
    bullet  1943 Acted on the London stage in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House; also toured
    bullet  1943 Had three roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    bullet  1945 Performed on tour in the stage melodrama Gaslight for British troops in Europe
    bullet  1947 Cast as a nun on a religious mission in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus
    bullet  1947 Invited to Hollywood; first film there, The Hucksters
    bullet  1947 Voted one of England's top ten money-making film stars in the annual Motion Picture Herald exhibitors poll
    bullet  1948 Received first of six Best Actress Academy Award nominations for Edward, My Son; played the unhappily wed mother of a suicide
    bullet  1950 Played female lead in King Solomon's Mines
    bullet  1953 Appeared as Portia in the all-star filming of Julius Caesar
    bullet  1953 Made Broadway debut in the female lead of Tea and Sympathy
    bullet  1953 Offered perhaps her most memorable performance as the adulterous wife of an army officer in From Here to Eternity; received second Best Actress Oscar nomination
    bullet  1955 Again played an adulterous wife in the film version of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair
    bullet  1956 Portrayed the proper British governess to the children of the monarch of Siam in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I; received third Academy Award nomination; singing voice dubbed by Marni Nixon
    bullet  1956 Recreated stage role from Tea and Sympathy in the feature version
    bullet  1957 Cast opposite Cary Grant in the romance An Affair to Remember
    bullet  1957 Earned fourth Oscar nomination for her turn as a nun stranded on a Pacific Island with an army officer (Robert Mitchum) in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
    bullet  1958 Delivered a fine performance as a middle-aged spinster in Separate Tables; earned fifth Academy Award nomination
    bullet  1959 Portrayed writer Sheilah Graham in the film adaptation of Graham's memoirs Beloved Infidel
    bullet  1960 Co-starred with Mitchum as a married couple operating a sheep ranch in The Sundowners; received sixth and last Best Actress Oscar nomination
    bullet  1961 Acted in the BBC production of Three Roads to Rome
    bullet  1961 Portrayed the governess who may or may not be haunted by spirits in The Innocents, based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw
    bullet  1964 Co-starred in John Huston's version of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana
    bullet  1964 Starred in the film version of The Chalk Garden
    bullet  1968 Had lead in the uneven comedy Prudence and the Pill, co-starring David Niven
    bullet  1969 Last features for 16 years, The Arrangement and The Gypsy Moths
    bullet  1972 Starred on the London stage in The Day After the Fair
    bullet  1973 Performed on tour in the USA in The Day After the Fair
    bullet  1975 Appeared on Broadway in Edward Albee's award-winning, but short-lived play Seascape
    bullet  1978 Toured in the stage play The Last of Mrs. Cheney
    bullet  1982 US TV-movie debut in remake of Witness for the Prosecution (CBS)
    bullet  1984 Played lead of Emma Harte in the British miniseries A Woman of Substance; syndicated in the USA
    bullet  1985 Acted on the London stage in The Corn Is Green
    bullet  1985 Made one-shot return to feature films in the lead of The Assam Garden
    bullet  1985 Reteamed with Robert Mitchum in the HBO romance Reunion at Fairborough
    bullet  1986 Reprised role of Emma Harte in the syndicated miniseries sequel Hold the Dream; final screen performance


Birth name - Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer

Height - 5' 7" (1.70 m)

Trademark - Playing classic English ladies

Deborah displayed a penchant for dramatics at a very early age. She often staged presentations for her family. Her co-star in these productions was usually her baby brother, Teddy, whom she costumed in dresses. In school, she was active in singing, dancing, painting and piano.

When she was a young girl, she had a strict Victorian grandmother who made her lie on her back on the floor for long periods of time in order to straighten her back and ensure good posture.

Appeared in Shakespearian plays at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, London, and at one of these performances, Robert Atkins, a film director, and John Gliddon, a talent scout, were impressed with Deborah's elegance, beauty and acting abilities. They offered her a five year film contract which she signed on November 1, 1939.

Performed with the Oxford Repertory Company 1939-40.

Her first appearance on the West End stage was as Ellie Dunn in Heartbreak House at the Cambridge Theatre in 1943.

She performed in France, Belgium and Holland with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association, or Every Night Something Awful) - The British Army entertainment service.

Had a bit part in Contraband, but her part was eventually cut from the film.

Deborah joined the Salvation Army as a volunteer so that she could gain insight into her character in Major Barbara.

Although the Scottish pronunciation of her surname is straightforward, when she was being promoted as a Hollywood actress by MGM, her last name was pronounced the same as "car." In order to avoid confusion over pronunciation, the slogan "Deborah Kerr - Her Name Rhymes with Star!" was used.

After 1947, Kerr established herself in Hollywood, typecast by MGM—in what Kerr referred to as “tiara roles’—as a well-bred young British matron.

Played Laura Reynolds in the Robert Anderson play Tea and Sympathy. Deborah's performance was praised by the critics and public, and she won the Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress. She would reprise the role for the film version two years later.

Yul Brynner, who played the King on Broadway for four years, personally chose Kerr for the film version of The King and I.

Kerr's wardrobe for Bonjour Tristesse was designed by Givenchy.

She was awarded a BFI Fellowship (1986).

She was awarded a Special British Academy Award in 1990.

Awarded a CBE (Commander of the order of the British Empire) in the 1997/8 New Year's Honors List.

Joan Crawford was originally meant to play her role in From Here to Eternity (1953).

Maureen O'Hara was originally meant to play her role in The King and I (1956).

For her contributions to the motion picture industry, Deborah Kerr has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1709 Vine Street.


"In my dressing room, I think, I must be mad to do this!"

"I respect anyone who has to fight and howl for his decency."

"Personally, I think if a woman hasn't met the right man by the time she's 24, she may be lucky."

"All the most successful people these seem to be neurotic. Perhaps we should stop being sorry for them and start being sorry for me - for being so confounded normal."

[speaking in 1969] "When I was under contract to MGM, with people like poor Robert Taylor and so many others, the cinema's job was solely entertainment. It filled a public need then. Now the cinema serves so many other purposes; it functions as psychiatrist, politician, message-maker, money maker and, incidentally, entertainer. But it's no good regretting that things are different. Times have to change."

"When you're young, you just go banging about, but you're more sensitive as you grow older. You have higher standards of what's really good; you're fearful that you won't live up to what's expected of you."

"He's a warm, kind-hearted, loving, generous, intellectual genius." [On John Wayne]

"I suppose the part nearest me is Laura Reynolds in Tea and Sympathy. Of course playright Bob Anderson didn't know that, but he wrote Laura Reynolds, and Laura Reynolds happened to be me. It was the coming together of a part and an actress - the same attitude to life, a certain shyness in life, a deep compassion for people who are being persecuted for anything." (Quoted from an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, 10/17/78)

"I came over here (Hollywood) to act, but it turned out all I had to do was to be high-minded, long suffering, white-gloved and decorative."

"[Autobiographies] are all the same -- it's always rags-to-riches, or I-slept-with-so-and-so. Damned if I'm going to say that."

"I am really rather like a beautiful Jersey cow, I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes."

"I adore not being me. I'm not very good at being me. That's why I adore acting so much."

"Fred Zinnemann, on From Here To Eternity and The Sundowners, really brings out of me, in a completely different way, an awful lot that perhaps I'd never have the courage to lay bare, to open up. He just knows how to get you to do it, to bring out some inner quality." (Quoted from an interview with The Times, 9/2/72)

"For Karen Holmes (in From Here to Eternity), I studied voice for three months to get rid of my English accent. I changed my hair to blonde. I knew I could be sexy if I had to." (Quoted from an interview with The New York Daily Mirror, 11/8/53)

"There's nothin' belligerent about it. It's entirely a question of which side I'm neutral on." --as Bridie Quilty in The Adventuress (1946).

"Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind." --as Laura Reynolds in Tea and Sympathy (1956)

"Do you think it will ever take the place of night baseball?" --as Terry McKay in An Affair to Remember (1957)

"I am not a promiscuous trollop! It never happened before." --as Hilary Rhyall in The Grass Is Greener (1960).

"I should think as one grows older, dying would seem more natural." --as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden (1964).

"Love is the most important word in any language. From love comes happiness." --as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden (1964).

"At our last meeting, I died. It alters the appearance." --as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden (1964).

Deborah Kerr by Eric Braun

This is a truly fantastic book. I finished it in less than three days, because I just couldn't put it down. It gives you insight into the actress' life, career choices and character, without being too explicit and vulgar. After you read it, you really feel like you KNOW Deborah Kerr... And wish you had.

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