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Stage, Screen Actress Deborah Kerr Dies at 86

Kerr with Burt Lancaster in <em>From Here to Eternity</em>'s iconic beach scene.
Columbia TriStar/Getty Images
Kerr with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity's iconic beach scene.
Kerr played the patrician Portia opposite James Mason's Brutus in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film of <em>Julius Caesar</em>.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kerr played the patrician Portia opposite James Mason's Brutus in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film of Julius Caesar.

Actress Deborah Kerr, who danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I and rolled on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, has died. The actress, who'd been battling Parkinson's disease, was 86.

Kerr left Hollywood at the peak of her career, a six-time Oscar nominee celebrated for her reserve, her grace and her refinement. In one of her best early films, Black Narcissus, she played a repressed nun; elsewhere in the 1940s, she was cast as fragile governesses, loyal wives, and decorous beauties in such costume epics as The Prisoner of Zenda and Quo Vadis. She'd come to Hollywood to act, but lamented that all producers seemed to want her to do was be, as she put it, "high-minded, long-suffering, white-gloved and decorative."

All of which made her role in 1953's From Here to Eternity quite an eye-opener. There was nothing prim about the adulterous army wife she played, especially when she romped with Lancaster in the Honolulu surf, sharing what is still regarded as one of the cinema's most memorable kisses.


From Here to Eternity opened in movie theaters while Kerr was appearing on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy, and she later said that that year was the high point in her life. But the whole next decade proved a heady one, with Best Actress Oscar nominations arriving like clockwork.

One came when she donned a nun's habit in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, others when she played a spinster in Separate Tables, sheared sheep in The Sundowners, and taught a Siamese monarch to dance in the screen version of the musical The King and I. Kerr's voice was dubbed on the higher notes by Marni Nixon — but as she swirled around the floor in that enormous hoop skirt, audiences were swept away, and The King and I became her biggest popular success.

It was another picture from this period, though, that made Kerr freshly famous with a whole new generation in the 1990s. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan's character has a thing about the 1957 film An Affair to Remember — in which Kerr played a woman who suffers a terrible accident and misses a crucial rendezvous with Cary Grant atop the Empire State Building. When Sleepless became a hit in 1993, An Affair to Remember briefly became the nation's most-rented video — and one of Kerr's high-minded, long-suffering characters once again left audiences awash in tears.

Kerr continued making movies until l969's The Arrangement. Then she announced the end of her film career, saying she was either too young or too old for all the roles that came her way — and anyway, she didn't like the kind of movies Hollywood was making at that point.

She returned to the stage, where she continued performing for almost two decades, and made a few TV appearances too. Then, before she could become a figure of camp or just another aging star, she dropped out of sight.


Failing health contributed to that, but it also seemed appropriate that Deborah Kerr should leave her career as gracefully as she entered it — serene, self-possessed, ever the lady.

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