- By TOM WEAVER
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
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.
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.
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
, and then I had a two-picture deal to do Gaby
and Tea and Sympathy [both 1956] at MGM.
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
an old interview you said that the negative reviews that
the movie South Pacific  got set back your
career, and the careers of everybody else who was in it.
JOHN: I think that's true.
was under the impression South Pacific was a very well-received
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
were offered the role played by Anthony Perkins in Friendly
Persuasion . 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?
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?
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 . 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 , 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.
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!
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  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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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].
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 . We had three or four days
where we went over the scenes and rehearsed. I've never
had it in any other.
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...!
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
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!
you see any of the other ones?
JOHN: No. I never saw House of Usher, or
any of the later ones.
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.
temptation on your part -- or anybody's part -- to employ
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.
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.
you have a double at any point during the pendulum scene?
JOHN: Absolutely not. This was three weeks,
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
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]!
you someone who socializes a lot on a set, or do you stay
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.
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
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.
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 . I've been doing it for about 30 years.
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