Deborah Jane Kerr CBE was born Deborah Jane Trimmer in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Trimmer, a World War I veteran who lost a leg at the Somme, and later became a naval architect andcivil engineer. Directly after her birth she spent the first three years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with Deborah's grandparents in a house on West King Street. Kerr had a younger brother, Edmund (a.k.a. Teddy), who became a journalist and died in a "road rage" incident in 2004.
Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School in the Henleaze area of Bristol in England (the school was demolished in 1937, when Kerr was only 16 years old), and at Rossholme School in 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 an actress. Her first acting teacher was her aunt, Phyllis Smale, who ran the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol.
She adopted the name Deborah Kerr on becoming a film actress - "Kerr" was a family name, supposedly that of the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr Trimmer.
Kerr's first film role was in the British film Contraband in 1940 but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. She followed that with a series of films, including Hatter's Castle (1942), in which she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason. She was an immediate hit with the public: British exhibitors voted her the most popular local female star at the box office.
In 1943 she played three women in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. During the filming, according to Powell's autobiography, she and Powell became lovers: "I realised 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 Winston Churchill thought it would ruin wartime morale, and the British Army refused to extend co-operation with the producers, the film confounded critics by proving to be an artistic and commercial success. Powell had hoped to reunite Kerr andRoger Livesey, who had played the title character, in his next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but her agent had sold her contract to MGM. According to Powell, his affair with Kerr ended when she made it clear to him that she would accept an offer to go to Hollywood if one were made.
Her role as a troubled nun in Black Narcissus in 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 Actress of the Year as well as saw British exhibitors vote her the 8th most popular local star at the box office. In Hollywood, her British accent and manners led to a succession of roles portraying a refined, reserved and proper English lady. Nevertheless, Kerr frequently used any opportunity to discard her cool exterior. She starred in the 1950 adventure film,King Solomon's Mines, shot on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Richard Carlson. This was immediately followed by her appearance in the religious epic Quo Vadis? (1951), shot at Cinecittà in Rome, in which she played the indomitable Lygia, a first-century Christian.
Kerr also departed from typecasting with a performance that brought out her sensuality, as Karen Holmes, the embittered military wife in From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which she and Burt Lancaster clinch amidst crashing waves on a Hawaii beach. The organisation ranked it twentieth in its list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.
From then on, Kerr's career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress. She portrayed a nun (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a mama's girl (Separate Tables), and a governess (The Chalk Garden and The Innocents), but she also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder's wife (The Sundowners) and lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses (Beloved Infidel, Bonjour Tristesse). She also starred in comedies (The Grass is Greener and Marriage on the Rocks).
Among her most famous roles were Anna Leonowens in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956), and opposite Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember (1958). In 1966, the producers of Carry On Screaming! offered her a fee comparable to that paid to the rest of the cast combined, but she turned it down in favour of appearing in an aborted stage version of Flowers for Algernon. In 1967, at the age of 46, she starred in Casino Royale, achieving the distinction of being the oldest 'Bond Girl' in any James Bond film.
In 1969, pressure of competition from younger, upcoming actresses made her agree to appear nude in John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths, the only nude scene in Kerr's career. Concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing amount of nudity in films in general, led her to abandon film work at the end of the 1960s in favour of television and theatre work.
As a stage actress, Deborah Kerr made her Broadway debut in 1953 in Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy, for which she received aTony Award nomination. Kerr repeated her role along with her stage partner John Kerr (no relation) in Vincente Minnelli's film adaptation of the drama. In 1955, Kerr won the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance in Chicago during a national tour of the play. In 1975, she returned to Broadway, creating the role of Nancy in Edward Albee's Pulitzer-winning play Seascape.
The theatre, despite her success in films, was always to remain 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.
Deborah Kerr experienced a career resurgence in the early 1980s on television, when she played the role of the nurse (played by Elsa Lanchester in the 1957 film version) in Witness for the Prosecution. Later, Kerr re-teamed with screen partner Robert Mitchum in Reunion at Fairborough. This period also saw Kerr take on the role as the older version of the female tycoon, Emma Harte, in the adaptation of Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance. For this performance, Kerr was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Kerr's first marriage was to Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born 27 December 1947) and Francesca Ann (born 20 December 1951), who married the actor John Shrapnel. The Kerr-Bartley marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley's jealousy of his wife's fame and financial success, and because her career often took her away from home. Kerr and Bartley divorced in 1959. Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on 23 July 1960. In marrying Viertel, she acquired a stepdaughter, Christine Viertel. Although she long resided in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain, she moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health began to deteriorate. Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella.
Some of Kerr's leading men have stated in their autobiographies that they had an affair or romantic fling with her. The actor Stewart Granger claimed that Kerr seduced him in the back of his chauffeur-driven car at the time he was making Caesar and Cleopatra(1945). Likewise Burt Lancaster claimed that he was romantically involved with her during the filming of From Here to Eternity(1953). There is no independent corroboration of either actor's claims.
Deborah Kerr died from the effects of Parkinson's disease on 16 October 2007 at the age of 86 in the English village of Botesdale, Suffolk. Peter Viertel died of cancer on 4 November 2007, less than three weeks later. At the time of Viertel's death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines, which Scheingraber says will include reminiscences about events concerning Kerr and the American Academy Awards. The film is as yet unreleased.