The career of an actor can hold many surprises. The biggest surprise for John Kerr is that after landing key roles in deluxe Hollywood movies, his best-remembered acting stint may be skulking the plush corridors and dank secret passageways of Vincent Price's Spanish castle as a glumly determined young man investigating the death of his sister. The movie is Pit and the Pendulum, arguably the high point of Roger Corman's celebrated cycle of Poe films of the '60s.

The son of June Walker, a Broadway actress, and Geoffrey Kerr, a stage and screen actor turned writer, Kerr seemed predestined for a theatrical career. Within several weeks of his 1952 graduation, Kerr landed a leading role in the Broadway play Bernardine. He won an award as outstanding newcomer, then went on to an even more conspicuous success, playing opposite Deborah Kerr in Robert Sherwood's theatrical blockbuster Tea and Sympathy. Kerr's sensitive performance as a student falsely accused of being a homosexual (only to be seduced by the headmaster's wife) earned him critical recognition and more awards. (He and Kerr repeated their roles when Tea and Sympathy was adapted for the screen under Vincente Minnelli's direction.) More film work followed, including a major role in the big screen version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein's milestone musical South Pacific (1958). Despite his impressive résumé, Kerr felt his career was running out of gas. Changing his venue from the stage to a courtroom, he embarked on a legal career, specializing in medical malpractice, personal injury and defective products cases.

JOHN KERR: My father was a playwright. He started as an actor, and HIS father had been an actor-manager in London in the '20s, Frederick Kerr. [Frederick Kerr also appeared in Hollywood movies like James Whale's Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein, both 1931.] My father came to this country I guess in the '20s, and he and my mother were married in the mid-20s. He was an actor, and one of the successful plays that he was in was called Just Suppose, which had to do with, "What if the Prince of Wales should fall in love with an American?" [Laughs] I think that Leslie Howard was in it, and my father played his best friend. I was born in New York in 1931, and then he went back to England not very long before the War. I think it had to do with the fact that their marriage was very rocky, and he went back home. (They subsequently were divorced, after the War was over.) I grew up in New York; my mother a single parent, and I went to a lot of boarding schools. Actually, that was the best thing in the world for me. I went to some very good schools. I went to a school outside of White Plains called the Harvey School, which was an excellent school, and from there I went to Exeter [Phillips Exeter Academy in New England], and from Exeter I went to college.

TOM WEAVER: Did you have your sights on an acting career throughout your youth?

JOHN: I don't think I really focussed, but I think that was sort of what was in store for me. When I was in college, I worked at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, and I worked in summer stock, and I did do a lot of acting. At that time, certainly, acting was what I wanted to do.

Q: When you were at the Brattle, did you know [future horror film star] Bryant Haliday?

JOHN: Oh, I knew Bryant, Bryant was one of the founders of the Brattle. I don't know where his money came from, but he was one of the two quite-wealthy people who started it; Miles Morgan was the other. Morgan was a Morgan of the J. P. Morgan family. I had a lot of respect for Bryant and I thought the world of him. He had one of the most beautiful voices that you'd want to hear, and he played all the Shakespearean leads, the young male leads. And he was just wonderful. A producer came up to see me in a play at the Brattle Theatre, and he asked me to try out for Bernardine, a play that he was going to produce that fall. I did, and I got the job, and that was the start of my career.

Q: Did you also do TV in New York?

JOHN: Yes, I did quite a bit of live TV. There were those hour-long dramatic series, and I was in every one of those at least once. I also did [the plays] Tea and Sympathy and All Summer Long, and from All Summer Long I went out to Hollywood and did The Cobweb [1955], and then I had a two-picture deal to do Gaby and Tea and Sympathy [both 1956] at MGM.

Q: But your film debut was in The Cobweb.

JOHN: Right. It was made around the turn of the year, December 1954-January 1955. I think I got that because Jimmy Dean was supposed to be in it, and then he did Giant [1956] instead.

Q: In an old interview you said that the negative reviews that the movie South Pacific [1958] got set back your career, and the careers of everybody else who was in it.

JOHN: I think that's true.

Q: I was under the impression South Pacific was a very well-received movie.

JOHN: It was a popular success, no question about that. It ran for two years at a first-run theater in London, for example, and I think it ran quite a long time in New York and Los Angeles, the major cities. But the critics were very negative towards it. They thought that it should have been cast with, like, Doris Day instead of Mitzi Gaynor. And they didn't like the filters. There are points throughout where they racked a filter across the screen; sometimes yellow and sometimes red. (They were [ordinarily] used for photographing surgery, to get a better definition of the vessels and so on.) That was universally condemned by the critics, they didn't like it at all. Also, there was sort of a sense that the movie wasn't as good as the show [the Mary Martin-starring stage musical]. So the critics were very negative about it and, really, I think it did affect everyone.

Q: You were offered the role played by Anthony Perkins in Friendly Persuasion [1956]. Do you think your career would have benefited if you had taken that part?

JOHN: [Pause] Nobody's ever asked that before ... how did you know about that?

Q: I do my homework!

JOHN: Well, lemme put it this way: No, it probably would not have made that much difference. What you start out as doesn't really make that much difference in terms of 10, 15 years later. Unless you were in something really extraordinary, like Jimmy Dean. But who remembers the first movie that Marlon Brando was in? Do you know?

Q: The movie where he was the G.I. who comes home in a wheelchair. I can't think of the name of it...

JOHN: The Men [1950]. But who remembers that? What you remember is Marlon Brando, the great actor, from his great movies. So I don't really think that it matters, down the road, what your first choice was; although it's very important at the very beginning [laughs]! I really loved the story Friendly Persuasion, and they wanted me very badly; Jessamyn West, who wrote the original novel, called me and talked to me. I would have loved to work with [director] William Wyler, I would have loved to work with Gary Cooper, I would have loved to have that kind of a "package." But would it have made any difference 15 years later, would it have affected my decision about staying in the business or changing professions? I don't think so. And I don't think that it would have led to different types of roles. I think I was considered for Psycho [1960], for example. I think I was, because everyone was. Tony Perkins was a friend of mine, and I think Tony was wonderful in Psycho. But after Psycho, he was always only identified with that. So I would have steered clear of that.

Q: Let's say you can turn the clock back and either be in Friendly Persuasion or the movie version of Tea and Sympathy. Which would you pick?

JOHN: Oh, Tea and Sympathy! Tea and Sympathy, every day. But that was not what the choice was, the choice was Gaby or Friendly Persuasion. My agent was a good agent and no fool, and he said to me, "Do you wanna be a supporting actor [in Friendly Persuasion] or do you wanna be a leading man? These MGM roles are leading man roles, blah blah blah blah." But I would never have not played Tea and Sympathy; I mean, [playwright-screenwriter] Bob Anderson had approval of cast, and he would not have agreed to anyone else but me. Unless I was dead, I guess!

Q: Do you remember the circumstances leading up to your co-starring role in Pit and the Pendulum?

JOHN: It's a funny story: My agent called me one day and said, "I got you this job in one of these Edgar Allan Poe things, Pit and the Pendulum." They were going to have a three-week shooting schedule, and they had offered a certain amount of money. My agent thought it was per week, and they thought it was for the whole picture [laughs]! So that had to be resolved! I knew that House of Usher [1960] had been very successful with Vincent Price, and I really liked Vincent Price; I'd met him slightly and I got to know him a little bit. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, erudite about art and everything. And so I thought, "Why not?" I knew it wasn't going to be something that you were going to hang on the wall as one of the greatest things you ever did, but it was a job. Well, I saw it just recently; one of my fans sent me a tape of it. I knew that it had become kind of a cult movie, so I watched it and I thought, Jesus, this is really not that bad. In fact, it's pretty good! My character's always climbin' up and down stairs, sayin', "What was that noise?"I really was a straight man there! But the movie is effective, and psychologically it's grotesque, it's bizarre. And I thought it was kinda good! I can't say that I'm proud that I was in this movie, but I'm glad I was a part of it. The acting was excellent, the way it was shot was really good, and I thought that (with one or two exceptions) I did a pretty good job in it.

Q: Well, that begs the question: What would those exceptions be?

JOHN: One of them was at the very end, when they untie me off of the pendulum slab and I'm mumbling, "Gee, he thought I was Sebastian..." As I recall, that was Roger Corman's choice, he wanted me to be dazed and not in a great emotional turmoil. He just wanted me to be dazed ... and then get off! And I did. So I don't think I did that moment very well. And there were maybe one or two other moments throughout the rest of the picture; for instance, I don't think that I was serious enough about breaking down the wall to get to Barbara Steele's coffin. But Roger didn't want dramatics.

Q: Your character really is very dour and touchy from one end of the movie to the other.

JOHN: I didn't mind that. I came to Spain with one purpose only, and that was to find out what happened to my sister [Steele]. That was driving me. There's an indication of some attraction between me and Luana Anders, a little scene where I say, "If things had been different, perhaps we might have gotten to know each other in another way," something like that. But there wasn't any foolin' around, no romance, no hanky-panky going on as far as my character was concerned. I was just there to find out what happened to my sister, by God! I was gonna do that come hell or high water. And I thought it played.

Q: Vincent Price had a reputation for being a bit of a prankster.

JOHN: Oh, Vincent kept breaking me up. I'd be trying to look sternly at him, saying to him, "What's going on?? What's happened to my sister? You haven't answered my questions!", blah blah blah. And he'd just give me one of those funny looks of his [laughs]! I remember one time we were rehearsing, and he said, "Whatever happened to Baby LeRoy?" and I just fell over laughing at that. I had to bite the inside of my cheek in order not to grin!

Q: I didn't think that on a Corman picture like that, there'd be much time for rehearsals.

JOHN: Oh, yeah, we would rehearse the scenes. As I recall, Roger had gone to or was going to some kind of acting classes, and so he was conscious of the actors' need to rehearse and adjust and "make it his own" and everything. And so we got that [rehearsal] time. He shot very fast and they lit it very fast.

Q: When you talk about rehearsing, you mean that you rehearsed each scene just before you shot it.

JOHN: That's the way it usually works. We didn't sit down and rehearse for a week before we got onto the stage, we did it right then and there before we shot it; the whole movie was shot in only three weeks, and that's fast, really fast, for a color [movie].

Q: On your bigger movies, the MGMs and South Pacific, did you rehearse the whole thing before shooting began?

JOHN: No. The only one I ever rehearsed before we started shooting was a picture with Anne Francis called Girl in the Night [1960]. We had three or four days where we went over the scenes and rehearsed. I've never had it in any other.

Q: What were some of the other differences between making Pit and the Pendulum and working at a major studio?

JOHN: Let me tell you frankly that they could have made South Pacific the way they made Pit and the Pendulum, to South Pacific's advantage. We shot South Pacific very fast, but with very little real rehearsal, but that was because of the weather. They were constantly trying to get it shot before it'd start raining again; this is the exterior shots I'm talking about, of course. They would have profited from the professionalism and the knowledge and the experience of the people who made those low-budget pictures and knew how to get it done fast. But on South Pacific they had such a lot of equipment, and cameras with the big wide lenses and stuff like that. And once we got to it, there was very little rehearsal and very little shooting. We'd do four or five takes and that would be it, print it. Really, I don't think I'm exaggerating; a very low number of takes for what was involved in South Pacific, like the songs and some other things. Very few takes. And it was very unusual that you would do it in that few takes. You hear stories about people like William Wyler, who'd get up to Take 35...!

Q: And how many takes on Pit and the Pendulum?

JOHN: Also under 10, because that's part of "the deal." You get actors who can "deliver," and that's it.

Q: How did you like working for Corman?

JOHN: Roger was very quiet, very intense. And he was very supportive of the actors; he would let the actors go. Obviously, he had to keep a very tight rein on the staging, because of the constrictions of time. If there was anything about that film that you could criticize, there was a certain lack of humor. (Of course, it's hard for me to criticize it for that!) I thought, maybe, there could have been just a little bit; but there just wasn't any. But those [Corman-Poe] movies are classics. I know they're classics because I was told they were classics!

Q: Did you see any of the other ones?

JOHN: No. I never saw House of Usher, or any of the later ones.

Q: Mark Damon, the young leading man of House of Usher, now tells people that he actually directed Pit and the Pendulum.

JOHN: I have no recollection of him being there and doing things that one associates with the directing. That's not to say that he could not have met with Roger, [outside of] the working day, and helped to plan shots and things like that. But on the set, I have no recollection of anyone except Roger Corman.

Q: Any temptation on your part -- or anybody's part -- to employ an accent?

JOHN: I was playing an English character, the brother of the English wife of Vincent Price. I don't remember any discussion about it, but there may have been some thought about having me put on some kind of English accent. But, as you've noticed, there isn't any; I just tried to speak well, maybe a little bit clipped.

Q: What memories of the pendulum scene?

JOHN: I think they did a very good job of hiding the fact that the blade that hit me was balsa wood, and that I had a piece of steel strapped across my chest so that I wouldn't be hurt. And I remember that the pendulum was huge [laughs]; it really was huge! And they did swing it and have it come down as I was laying there looking at it. Even though I knew it wasn't gonna hurt me, it really was imposing. The scene was very broken up, a little of this and a little of that, so when we were shooting it there wasn't any sense of the scene rising to a climax; it was all put together in the cutting room. But, yes, the pendulum set was impressive; I thought all the sets were very good. And then there was the one exterior we did, where they added a painted castle onto the film of the carriage driver and me on the beach. That was shot somewhere south of Los Angeles, on the beach, and we spent about a half-day or three-quarters of a day doing that.

Q: Did you have a double at any point during the pendulum scene?

JOHN: Absolutely not. This was three weeks, low-budget.

Q: And Price was a nice guy all throughout shooting?

JOHN: Oh, he was a wonderful man. A wonderful man. Just the most charming, gentle, humorous, lovely, lovely person.

Q: How about some of the other cast members?

JOHN: I didn't get to know Luana Anders particularly, but I enjoyed working with her; I enjoyed working with all of them. I didn't get to know anyone. [Barbara] Steele was interesting, and had kind of a sense of humor. Also, she complimented me about the way I wore tights, so naturally I liked Steele [laughs]!

Q: Are you someone who socializes a lot on a set, or do you stay to yourself?

JOHN: It depends on my mood. I saw a picture of Ricardo Montalban in the paper over the weekend, and I was reminded that I was in a television show with Ricardo at Universal years ago. I didn't like the show (even though it was a pretty good show!), but when Ricardo would hit the stage in the morning, his whole personality would expand. He just loved it, he loved being there. He could be in his dressing room, he could be getting coffee, he could just be sitting around, but he just loved being on the stage, it brought him alive. It was like, "This is the meaning of life!", you know. And ... I never had that [laughs]! When I saw him, I thought, "Oh, Ricardo, I wish [acting] made me feel the way it makes you feel. I really wish I loved it the way you do." But all I think of is, "Oh, jeez, I'm gonna get up three hours earlier than I usually get up, and hopefully I get there okay, and (if you'll pardon me!) I hope I'll be able to have a bowel movement!" [Laughs] All of that stuff that has to do with changing your routine. I thought, "I wish I could enjoy it like Ricardo, he just loves it," but I didn't.

Q: And was that one of the reasons you got out of the business?

JOHN: I was segueing into that. A number of things happened; my mother passed away, after I'd been helping take care of her, and I had come to a point in my life where I just wanted to do something different than being the kind of actor I was in the Hollywood of the early 1960s. My agent also represented Leo Penn, the actor who became a director, and Leo was a dear man; really, what a nice man. My agent got me to work as an apprentice with Leo, directing. I worked on the Ben Gazzara TV show ... Hey, Stop Running or whatever it was called...

Q: Run for Your Life.

JOHN: That's the one. And the director had to do everything. They'd take a picture of a note pinned to the wall, and he's got to say [dramatically], "...Action!" [Laughs] And I thought, "Oh! I can't do this. I just can't do this, either." I had directed on the stage and, actually, I had done some very good work, but this was just completely different. I just figured I'd better get out of it. So I did: I went up this hill from where I lived to the UCLA Law School and applied, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted.

Q: You also played a number of lawyers on TV, both before and after.

JOHN: [Laughs] Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, at the time I was in the original Peyton Place [TV series] playing a lawyer. And then subsequently, my agent Jimmy McHugh (who knew that I was gonna change careers, who knew he was never gonna ring the bell with me) continued to represent me and got me work for years; it must have been for at least four or five years after I became an attorney. I would moonlight as an actor and make extra money. I was originally with a firm but after that I was on my own, and I needed to make the money. On [TV's] The Streets of San Francisco I was one of the D.A.s.

Q: What kind of law do you specialize in?

JOHN: I do personal injury and medical malpractice trial work, although I'm hoping to phase out and be able to retire in the first three or four months of next year [2000]. I've been doing it for about 30 years.

Q: I once pestered Sam Arkoff to name some of his favorite AIP movies, and after some hemming and hawing he finally said Pit and the Pendulum.

JOHN: Well, that's nice. It's really nice to have been in a ... in a ... in an underground movie [laughs]! The thing that is interesting to me is that people go back to see it and back to see it, and it's still being run on television. And I've done one or two autograph shows, and people come up to me with photos from ... guess what? They bring me the posters and this and that. If you had told me years ago that Pit and the Pendulum would be The One out of all the stuff I've done, if you had told me that this would be the cult-type movie that people would be collecting memorabilia on, I would have said, "You're out of your gourd." Just ... no way. Noooo way!

Tom Weaver is the author of John Carradine: The Films, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co..

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