Oscar Actors: Kerr, Deborah–Background, Career, Awards (Cum Advantage, NYFCC. Tony Nom, Emmy Nom)

Research in Progress (Sep 22, 2021)
Deborah Kerr Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Nationality: UK, Scottish

Social Class: Upper Middle; father, pilot lost leg, naval architect, civil engineer

Family: only daughter; younger brother


Training: Ballet

Teacher/Inspirational Figure: Michael Powell

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role: Major Barbara , 1941; aged 20

Oscar Role:

Other Noms: 6 Best Actress noms; Edward My Son, 1949; aged 28

Noms Span, 11 years, 1949-1960

Other Awards: 3 NYFCC awards (1947, 1957, 1960); Tony nom (Tea and Sympathy)

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image:

Last Film: The Gypsy Moths. 1969; aged 48; one comeback

Career Output:

Film Career Span: 1940-1969; 29 years, then TV and theater



Death: 86

Deborah Jane Trimmer CBE (September 30, 1921–October 16, 2007), known as Deborah Kerr was a Scottish film, theatre and television actress.

She was nominated six times for the Best Actress, and holds the record for an actress most nominated in the lead actress category without winning.

During her international career, Kerr won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Anna Leonowens in the musical film The King and I (1956).

Her other films include The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), From Here to Eternity (1953), Tea and Sympathy (1956), An Affair to Remember (1957), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Separate Tables (1958), The Sundowners (1960), The Innocents (1961), The Grass is Greener (1960), and The Night of the Iguana (1964).

In 1994, however, having already received honorary awards from the Cannes Film Fest and BAFTA, Kerr received an Honorary Oscar Award with citation recognizing her as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance”.

Deborah Jane Trimmer was born on 30 September 1921 in Hillhead, Glasgow, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Kerr Trimmer, a World War I veteran and pilot who lost a leg at the Battle of the Somme and later became a naval architect and civil engineer. Trimmer and Smale married, both aged 28, on 21 August 1919 in Smale’s hometown of Lydney, Gloucestershire.

Deborah spent the first 3 years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with her grandparents in a house on West King Street. Kerr had a younger brother, Edmund (“Teddy”), who became a journalist. He died, aged 78, in road rage incident in 2004.

Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School, Henleaze in Bristol, and at Rossholme School, Weston-super-Mare. Kerr originally trained as a ballet dancer, first appearing on stage at Sadler’s Wells in 1938. After changing careers, she soon found success as actress. Her first acting teacher was her aunt, Phyllis Smale, who worked at a drama school in Bristol run by Lally Cuthbert Hicks.

She adopted the name Deborah Kerr upon becoming actress (“Kerr” was a family name going back to the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr Trimmer).

Kerr’s first stage appearance was at Weston-super-Mare in 1937, as “Harlequin” in the mime play Harlequin and Columbine. She then went to the Sadler’s Wells ballet school and in 1938 made her début in the corps de ballet in “Prometheus.”

After various walk-on parts in Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, she joined the Oxford Playhouse repertory company in 1940, playing, inter alia, “Margaret” in Dear Brutus and “Patty Moss” in “The Two Bouquets.”

Kerr’s first film role was in the British production Contraband (US: Blackout, 1940), aged 18 or 19, but her scenes were cut. She had strong support role in Major Barbara (1941) directed by Gabriel Pascal.

Kerr became known in Britain playing the lead in Love on the Dole (1941). Said critic James Agate, “is not within a mile of Wendy Hiller’s in the theatre, but it is a charming piece of work by a very pretty and promising beginner, so pretty and so promising that there is the usual yapping about a new star”.

She was the lead in Penn of Pennsylvania (1941), little seen; however Hatter’s Castle (1942), in which she starred with Robert Newton and James Mason, was very successful.

She played a Norwegian resistance fighter in The Day Will Dawn (1942).

She became an immediate hit with the public: A film trade paper reported in 1942 that she was the most popular British actress with Americans.

Kerr played three women in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). During the filming, Powell and she became lovers: “I realized that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.” Kerr made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as “car”. To avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as “Kerr rhymes with Star!”

Although the British Army refused to co-operate with the producers— and Winston Churchill thought the film would ruin wartime morale — Colonel Blimp confounded critics when it proved to be an artistic and commercial success.

Powell hoped to reunite Kerr and actor Roger Livesey in his next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but her agent had sold her contract to MGM. Powell’s affair with Kerr ended when she told him she would accept offer to go to Hollywood if one were made.

In 1943, aged 21, Kerr made her West End début as Ellie Dunn in a revival of “Heartbreak House” at the Cambridge Theatre, stealing attention from Edith Evans and Isabel Jeans. “She has the rare gift”, wrote critic Beverley Baxter, “of thinking her lines, not merely remembering them. The process of development from a romantic, silly girl to a hard, disillusioned woman in three hours was moving and convincing”.

Near end of the Second World War, she also toured Holland, France, and Belgium for ENSA as Mrs Manningham in Gaslight (retitled Angel Street), and Britain (with Stewart Granger).

Alexander Korda cast her opposite Robert Donat in Perfect Strangers (1945), a big hit in Britain. So too was the spy comedy drama I See a Dark Stranger (1946), in which she gave a breezy, amusing performance that dominated the action and overshadowed co-star Trevor Howard. This film was a production of the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.

Her role as a troubled nun in the Powell and Pressburger production of Black Narcissus (1947) brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. The film was a hit in the US, as well as the UK, and Kerr won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actress. British exhibitors voted her the eighth-most popular star at the box-office in 1947.

She relocated to Hollywood and was under contract to MGM.

Kerr’s first film in Hollywood was a mature satire of the burgeoning advertising industry, The Hucksters (1947) with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner.

She and Walter Pidgeon were cast in If Winter Comes (1947). She received the first of her Oscar nominations for Edward, My Son (1949), a drama set and filmed in England co-starring Spencer Tracy.

Screen Image

In Hollywood, Kerr’s British accent and manner led to  portraying refined, reserved, and “proper” English ladies. Kerr used any opportunity to discard her cool exterior. She had the lead in a comedy Please Believe Me (1950).

Kerr appeared in two huge hits for MGM in a row. King Solomon’s Mines (1950) was shot on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Richard Carlson. This was followed by the religious epic Quo Vadis (1951), shot at Cinecittà in Rome, in which she played the indomitable Lygia, first-century Christian.

She then played Princess Flavia in a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) with Granger and Mason.

In between Paramount borrowed her to appear in Thunder in the East (1951) with Alan Ladd.

In 1953, Kerr “showed her theatrical mettle” as Portia in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar.

She made Young Bess (1953) with Granger and Jean Simmons, then appeared alongside Cary Grant in Dream Wife (1953), a flop comedy.

Kerr departed from typecasting with performance that brought out her sensuality, as “Karen Holmes,” the embittered military wife in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The AFI acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which Burt Lancaster and she romped illicitly and passionately amidst crashing waves on a Hawaiian beach. It ranked 20th in its list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.

She made her Broadway debut in 1953, appearing in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. Kerr performed the same role in Minnelli’s film adaptation released in 1956; her stage partner John Kerr (no relation) also appeared. In 1955, Kerr won the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance in Chicago during a national tour. After her Broadway début in 1953, she toured the U.S. with Tea and Sympathy.

Kerr’s career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress. She played the repressed wife in The End of the Affair (1955), shot in England with Van Johnson. She was a widow in love with William Holden in The Proud and Profane (1956), directed by George Seaton. Neither film was much of a hit. However Kerr then played Anna Leonowens in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956); with Yul Brynner in the lead, it was a huge hit. Marni Nixon dubbed Kerr’s singing voice.

She played a nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) opposite her long-time friend Robert Mitchum, directed by John Huston. It was very popular as was An Affair to Remember (1957) opposite Cary Grant.

Kerr starred in two films with David Niven: Bonjour Tristesse (1958), directed by Otto Preminger, and Separate Tables (1958), directed by Delbert Mann; the latter movie was particularly well received.

She made two films at MGM: The Journey (1959) reunited her with Brynner; Count Your Blessings (1959), was a comedy. Both flopped, as did Beloved Infidel (1959) with Gregory Peck.

Kerr was reunited with Mitchum in The Sundowners (1960) shot in Australia, then The Grass Is Greener (1960), co-starring Cary Grant. She appeared in Gary Cooper’s last film The Naked Edge (1961) and was in The Innocents (1961) where she plays a governess tormented by apparitions.

Kerr made her British TV debut in “Three Roads to Rome” (1963). She was another governess in The Chalk Garden (1964) and worked with John Huston again in The Night of the Iguana (1964).

She joined Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a love triangle for a romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks (1965).

In 1965, the producers of Carry On Screaming! offered her fee comparable to that paid to the rest of the cast combined, but she turned it down in favor of aborted stage version of “Flowers for Algernon.”

Oldest Bond Girl

She replaced Kim Novak in Eye of the Devil (1966) with Niven, and was reteamed with Niven in the comedy Casino Royale (1967), achieving the distinction of being, at 45, the oldest “Bond Girl” in any James Bond film, until Monica Bellucci, at the age of 50, in Spectre (2015).

Casino Royal was a hit as was another movie she made with Niven, Prudence and the Pill (1968).

Only Nude Scene

Pressure of competition from younger upcoming actresses made her agree to appear nude in John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (1969), the only nude scene in her career.

She made The Arrangement (1969) with Elia Kazan, her director from the stage production of “Tea and Sympathy.”

Concern about the parts being offered to her, and the increasing amount of nudity included in films, led her to abandon movies at the end of the 1960s in favor of television and theatre work.

Kerr returned to the London stage, including the old-fashioned, The Day After the Fair (Lyric, 1972), a Peter Ustinov comedy, Overheard (Haymarket, 1981) and revival of Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green.

She toured England and Scotland in Heartbreak House.

In 1975, she returned to Broadway, creating the role of Nancy in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Seascape.

In 1977, she came back to the West End, playing the title role in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.

The theatre, despite success in films, has always remained Kerr’s first love, even though going on stage filled her with trepidation: “I do it because it’s exactly like dressing up for the grown ups. I don’t mean to belittle acting but I’m like a child when I’m out there performing—shocking the grownups, enchanting them, making them laugh or cry. It’s an unbelievable terror, a kind of masochistic madness. The older you get, the easier it should be, but it isn’t.”

Kerr experienced career resurgence on television in the early 1980s when she played the role of the nurse (played by Elsa Lanchester in the 1957 film of the same name) in Witness for the Prosecution, with Sir Ralph Richardson.

She also did A Song at Twilight (1982).

She took on the role of the older Emma Harte, a tycoon, in the adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance (1984). For this performance, Kerr was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Kerr rejoined old screen partner Mitchum in Reunion at Fairborough (1985). Other TV roles included The Assam Garden (1985), Ann and Debbie (1986) and Hold the Dream (1986), the latter a sequel to A Woman of Substance.

Kerr’s first marriage was to Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley RAF on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born 27 December 1947) and Francesca Ann (born 20 December 1951 and subsequently married to the actor John Shrapnel). The marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley’s jealousy of wife’s fame and financial success, and because her career often took her away from home. They divorced in 1959.

Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on July 23 1960. She became stepmother to Viertel’s daughter, Christine Viertel. Although she long resided in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain, Kerr moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health deteriorated. Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella.

Stewart Granger claimed in autobiography that she had approached him romantically in the back of his chauffeur-driven car during Caesar and Cleopatra. Though he was married to Elspeth March, he states that he and Kerr had an affair. When asked about this revelation, Kerr’s response was, “What a gallant man he is.”

Kerr died aged 86 on October 16, 2007 at Botesdale, village in the county of Suffolk, England, from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Less than three weeks later on November 4, her husband Peter Viertel died of cancer.

At the time of Viertel’s death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines, which includes Kerr and the Academy Awards.

She is buried in Alfold Cemetery, Alfold, Surrey.


1940 Contraband Cigarette Girl Michael Powell scenes deleted
1941 Major Barbara Jenny Hill Gabriel Pascal
Love on the Dole Sally Hardcastle John Baxter
1942 Penn of Pennsylvania Gulielma Maria Springett Lance Comfort
Hatter’s Castle Mary Brodie
The Day Will Dawn Kari Alstad Harold French
A Battle for a Bottle Linda (voice) animated short
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Edith Hunter
Barbara Wynne, Johnny Cannon, Powell and Pressburger
1945 Perfect Strangers Catherine Wilson Alexander Korda
1946 I See a Dark Stranger Bridie Quilty Frank Launder
1947 Black Narcissus, Sister Clodagh Powell and Pressburger


1947 The Hucksters Kay Dorrance Jack Conway
If Winter Comes Nona Tybar Victor Saville

1949 Edward, My Son Evelyn Boult George Cukor

1950 Please Believe Me Alison Kirbe Norman Taurog
King Solomon’s Mines Elizabeth Curtis Compton Bennett
Andrew Marton

1951 Quo Vadis Lygia Mervyn LeRoy

1952 Thunder in the East Joan Willoughby Charles Vidor
The Prisoner of Zenda Princess Flavia Richard Thorpe


Julius Caesar Portia Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Young Bess Catherine Parr George Sidney
Dream Wife Effie Sidney Sheldon
From Here to Eternity Karen Holmes Fred Zinnemann

1955 The End of the Affair Sarah Miles Edward Dmytryk

1956 The Proud and Profane Lee Ashley George Seaton
The King and I Anna Leonowens Walter Lang singing dubbed by Marni Nixon
Tea and Sympathy Laura Reynolds Vincent Minnelli

1957 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Sister Angela John Huston
An Affair to Remember Terry McKay Leo McCarey

1958 Bonjour Tristesse Anne Larson Otto Preminger
Separate Tables Sibyl Railton-Bell Delbert Mann

1959 The Journey Diana Ashmore Anatole Litvak
Count Your Blessings Grace Allingham Jean Negulesco
Beloved Infidel Sheilah Graham Henry King

1960 The Sundowners Ida Carmody Fred Zinnemann
The Grass Is Greener Lady Hilary Rhyall Stanley Donen

1961 The Naked Edge Martha Radcliffe Michael Anderson
The Innocents Miss Giddens Jack Clayton

1964 The Chalk Garden Miss Madrigal Ronald Neame
The Night of the Iguana Hannah Jelkes John Huston
1965 Marriage on the Rocks Valerie Edwards John Donohue
1966 Eye of the Devil Catherine de Montfaucon, J. Lee Thompson
1967 Casino Royale Agent Mimi/Lady Fiona John Huston
Val Guest[26]
1968 Prudence and the Pill Prudence Hardcastle Fielder Cook


The Gypsy Moths Elizabeth Brandon John Frankenheimer;
The Arrangement Florence Anderson Elia Kazan

1985 The Assam Garden Helen Graham Mary McMurray


1963 ITV Play of the Week Moira Episode: Three Roads to Rome
1982 BBC2 Playhouse Carlotta Gray Episode: A Song at Twilight
1982 Witness for the Prosecution Nurse Plimsoll TV movie
1984 A Woman of Substance Emma Harte Miniseries
1985 Reunion at Fairborough Sally Wells Grant TV movie
1986 Annie and Debbie Ann TV movie
1986 Hold the Dream Emma Harte Miniseries


1953 Tea and Sympathy, Laura Reynolds, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Broadway
1973-74 The Day After the Fair Edith National Tour
1975 Seascape Nancy Shubert Theatre, Broadway


1944 A Date with Nurse Dugdale BBC Home Service, 19 May 1944.
Guest star role in the penultimate episode.
1952 Lux Radio Theatre King Solomon’s Mines
1952 Hallmark Playhouse The Pleasant Lea
1952 Hollywood Sound Stage Michael and Mary
1952 Suspense The Colonel’s Lady
1952 Hollywood Star Playhouse Companion Wanted

Oscar Awards and Nominations

1950 Best Actress Edward, My Son Nominated
1954 From Here to Eternity Nominated
1957 The King and I Nominated
1958 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Nominated
1959 Separate Tables Nominated
1961 The Sundowners Nominated

1994 Honorary Oscar — Won

She is tied with Thelma Ritter and Amy Adams as the actresses with the second most nominations without winning, surpassed only by Glenn Close, who has been nominated 7 times without winning.

British Academy Film Awards

1956 Best British Actress The End of the Affair Nominated
1958 Tea and Sympathy Nominated
1962 The Sundowners Nominated
1965 The Chalk Garden Nominated
1991 Special Award — Won
Primetime Emmy Awards

Year Category Work Result
1985 Outstanding Supporting Actress – Limited Series A Woman of Substance Nominated

Golden Globe Awards

1951 Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama Edward, My Son Nominated
1957 Best Actress–Motion Picture Musical/Comedy The King and I Won
1958 Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Nominated
1959 Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama Separate Tables Nominated
Henrietta Award (World Film Favorite) — Won

NYFCC Awards

1946 Best Actress The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Love on the Dole Nominated
1947 Black Narcissus, I See a Dark Stranger Won
1956 The King and I, Tea and Sympathy Nominated
1957 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Won
1960 The Sundowners Won

Kerr’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1709 Vine Street
Kerr was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1998, but was unable to accept the honor in person because of ill health. She was also honored in Hollywood, where she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1709 Vine Street for her contributions to the motion picture industry.

Although nominated six times as Best Actress, Kerr never won a competitive Oscar. In 1994, Glenn Close presented Kerr with the Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement with citation recognizing her as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.”

Kerr won a Golden Globe Award for The King and I in 1957 and a Henrietta Award for “World Film Favorite – Female.”

She was the first performer to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for “Best Actress” three times (1947, 1957 and 1960).

Although she never won BAFTA or Cannes Film Fest award in a competitive category, both organizations gave Kerr honorary awards: Cannes Film Fest Tribute in 1984 and BAFTA Special Award in 1991.