An actress to remember: 'Impeccable grace, beauty'

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Deborah Kerr, whose remarkable body of work brought her six Academy Award nominations for best actress but no Oscar wins, has died. She was 86.

Kerr, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died Tuesday in Suffolk in eastern England, her agent, Anne Hutton, said Thursday.

Kerr, whose embrace with Burt Lancaster on the beach in "From Here to Eternity" is one of the most indelible romantic movie scenes in history, holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations without winning. However, in 1994, she was presented with an honorary Oscar for being "an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance."

She received her Oscar nominations for "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 received another burst of fame when 1957's "An Affair to Remember" was celebrated as the ultimate "chick flick" in the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle." "Affair" was remade as "Love Affair" in 1994, with Annette Bening and Warren Beatty reprising the parts played by Kerr and Cary Grant.

The epitome of the cultured, proper lady, Kerr blossomed best when the fires of passions erupted from her restrained character's surfaces. Her most memorable roles were in steamy romances. Her best-remembered movie line also was in a romance: In 1956's "Tea and Sympathy," she played an older woman who had a disastrous affair with a younger man: "Years from now when you talk about this — and you will — be kind."

Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born Sept. 30, 1921, in Helensburgh, Scotland. As a child, she expressed interest in drama and played in many local productions. Her father died when she was 14, and she moved with her mother and brother to Sussex.

She also studied ballet in England's Phyllis Smale School, which was run by her aunt. Kerr went on to win a scholarship to the Wells Ballet School, and in 1938 she made her first London stage appearance in the chorus at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. Although she won praise as a dancer, at 5-foot-6, she felt she was too tall and turned her concentration to acting. Kerr soon landed bit parts in Shakespearean repertory during the last summer season before World War II in 1939.

In 1940, she joined the Oxford Playhouse repertory company and made her first appearance in "Dear Brutus." To supplement her income, she read children's stories over the BBC. Her big break came when she was cast as the Salvation Army lass in George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara," where she attracted considerable attention. Kerr soon entered films, playing in such fare as "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "Hatter's Castle" (1942) and "Vacation From Marriage" (1945) before embarking on a Forces entertainment tour, co-starring with Stewart Granger in "Gaslight" for the British troops stationed in Europe.

After World War II, Hollywood studios noticed Kerr, and with several offers on the table, she signed with MGM. When introduced to mogul Louis B. Mayer, her agent quipped that "her name rhymes with car." Mayer retorted, "It rhymes with star."

Her first film for MGM was opposite Clark Gable in "The Hucksters" (1947). In quick succession, she followed with "If Winter Comes" (1947), "Edward, My Son," "Please Believe Me" (1950), "King Solomon's Mines" (1950), "Quo Vadis" (1951), "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1952), "Julius Caesar" (1953) and "Young Bess" (1953). American audiences particularly warmed to her, admiring her beauty and classy demeanor.

Kerr, however, was dissatisfied with continually being assigned to the same type of role offered her by the studio — submissive, ladylike roles. She wanted to do earthier stuff and obtained her release from MGM to pursue that goal. It turned out to be a wise decision: Her choices became her greatest successes, including "Eternity," "The King and I," "Tea and Sympathy," "Heaven Knows," "Bonjour Tirstesse" (1958), "Sundowners," "Separate Tables" (1958), "The Grass Is Greener" (1960), "The Night of the Iguana" (1964), "13" (1966) and "Casino Royale" (1967).

During that heady time, Kerr also speared on the stage in "Tea and Sympathy," for which she won the Donaldson Award, the best stage actress of the year.

In 1960, she married writer Peter Viertel, her second husband, and put her career on the back burner. She did not appear in a film again until 1963 in "The Chalk Garden" and, years later, in "The Arrangement" (1969). While forsaking film, she focused on the stage and starred in "The Day After the Affair," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Candida." She also made sporadic forays into television, playing in such telefilms as "Witness for the Prosecution" (1982), "A Woman of Substance" (1984) and her last TV or film role, "Hold the Dream" (1986).

A voracious reader and talented pianist, Kerr, whose activities in recent years were limited owing to her Parkinson's disease, rarely left her home in Klosters, Switzerland, where she lived with Viertel.

Kerr is survived by Viertel, two daughters and three grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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