Deborah Kerr talks about her role in an Agatha Christie whodunit
Those who remember such fine films as ''Black Narcissus,'' ''The King And I, '' ''Tea and Sympathy,'' and ''From Here to Eternity'' may have wondered whatever happened to Deborah Kerr. Well, she is thriving . . . in Spain and Switzerland mostly.
Miss Kerr, who hasn't been on movie screens since the 1969 film ''The Arrangement,'' will make her first American made-for-TV appearance in the remake of Witness for the Prosecution (CBS, Saturday, 9-11 p.m.).mLike most Norman Rosemont productions, ''Witness'' is a slick, stylish, enthralling bit of entertainment, good enough to wipe out the memory of other long hours of TV disappointments.
One of Agatha Christie's most intricately plotted stories, ''Witness'' is best remembered for a triple-twist ending that will have most viewers gasping with surprise. Just as they will be gasping with admiration for the series of star acting ''turns'' which make the drama a showpiece for virtuoso performances. Rosemont's ''Witness'' features Sir Ralph Richardson, Diana Rigg, Dame Wendy Hiller, Donald Pleasance, and Beau Bridges, as well as Miss Kerr, who plays the part of nurse Plimsoll.
When Miss Kerr and I lunched here recently, the ladylike voice and dainty gestures reminded me that I was in the presence of what seems to be the essence of gentility. Miss Kerr, once a Dresden-doll-like movie queen, has now emerged as a Dresden-doll-like mature beauty. Why has she been absent from the screen for so long?
She shrugs her shoulders. ''I first did the movie version of 'Major Barbara' in 1940 - a long time ago - and I've been working ever since. But there comes a time in the life of an actress when you become too old to play a young woman and too young to play an elderly woman. It is a little gap that must be jumped over.
''The part of Miss Plimsoll in 'Witness for the Prosecution' is not the lead, but it struck me as a chance to play a character as opposed to a leading lady. I have nothing against being a glamorous leading lady, and I still can do it. But this was a good opportunity for me. . . .''
Miss Kerr makes it clear that for the most part of the past 13 years she has not been loafing at all. ''I've been doing nothing but theater. I played in ''Day After the Fair'' in London, then toured with it in America. Then I did Edward Albee's 'Seascape.' And I've done a revival of 'The Last of Mrs. Chaney.' And 'Candida' in London - you see, I've never stopped.''
Doesn't she have the urge to stop now and then?
''Well, I recently did it for the first time in almost 10 years. From the end of 1981 till I shot this picture I didn't do anything, sat like a cabbage and just stared. But it's not good to do that for too long, because it's that much harder to pull yourself up again.''
Which of her roles seems best remembered by her fans?
''First of all, I find people recognize me most by my voice. Women, in particular, remember me best for the film they wept over, ''Affair to Remember, '' with Cary Grant.
''I have fondest memories of 'The King and I.' What a lovely sort of timeless document it is. I feel it will be my 'Gone With the Wind.' It will always be shown.''
Miss Kerr seems to exude contentment. Is she content?
She smiles, then blushes a little as she seems to prepare to speak honestly about a private matter.
''I am content because I have had so much, been so lucky, had such wonderful chances to do marvelous things. I hope I have taken good advantage of the opportunities.
''I have a marvelous husband, two smashing daughters, and three wonderful grandsons. And now here I am with a chance again to, perhaps, enter into a whole other world of entertainment. Will television accept me, I wonder.''
Welcome to television, Deborah Kerr. It needs you. Forgotten Bataan
Forget ''60 Minutes'' this Sunday evening. NBC has come up with an inspiring documentary that makes it worthwhile for many people to drop their Sunday viewing habits this week.
Out of the mental archives of society's record of wartime atrocities, NBC has plucked an amazing tale of the triumph of man's will to survive: NBC Reports: Bataan, The Forgotten Hell (NBC, Sunday, 7-8 p.m.).m It is a documentary you will never forget.
Reporter Lloyd Dobyns tells the saga of the Bataan Death March of World War II, when 76,000 American soldiers surrendered to the Japanese in the Philippines and were forced to march to a prisoner-of-war camp without water and food or any kind of care. Most of the almost unbelievable story is recounted by a group of survivors whose will to live overcame the degradation they were forced to endure.
The cruelty of the Japanese captors on the march, in the camp, and later when the survivors served as slave laborers in Japanese coal mines, rivals the worst experiences of the European Holocaust. According to Mr. Dobyns, one explanation for this mistreatment is the fact that the Japanese culture regarded prisoners of war as worthless; to die in battle was the ultimate honor.
But ''Bataan'' is not a recriminatory documentary - rather it is an uplifting document about a time when the will to survive overcame destructive forces in our society. Rather than mere anger at the perpetrators (and it is challenging not to feel fury at the torture and mistreatment of US soldiers), one can only emerge from the viewing experience with admiration for the survivors. Flawed gems
Next week features two TV specials with much to recommend them, despite the fact that they are far from perfect. Both are so much better than the regular run of programs that, despite their defects, they constitute superior television fare. However, since both air at the same time, it will be necessary for viewers to make a choice.
The first, Remembrance of Love (NBC, Monday, 9-11 p.m.),m is obviously a labor of commitment for everybody involved. This original drama, made in Israel and starring Kirk Douglas, concerns the life-affirming experiences of several people during last year's World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. Despite the casual personal morality of some of the relationships, the drama is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. If it appears to be simplistic at moments, remember that it is searching for satisfying solutions to awesome experiences. A film worth watching for what it has to say about man's ability to revive himself.
The other flawed gem - Great Performances: A Tenth Anniversary Celebration (PBS, Monday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings)m - is a tribute, directed by Perry Miller Adato, to the PBS cultural show which has consistently brought more worthwhile programming to television than any other show in TV history, public or commercial.
The format uses a party celebration, noisy interviews, special performances, and program excerpts in a wide-ranging attempt to hold viewer interest (while fund-raising by local stations will also be going on). It is a grand hodgepodge of talent.
Perhaps just simple introductions to the excerpts from past classic shows might have accomplished the job better. But Ms. Adato stretched herself - and PBS - to the limit, and one must admire both at least for the try. In any event, there are superb bits and pieces by many stars. The excerpts from ''Verna - USO Girl'' and ''Feasting With Tigers'' reminded me that these were two of public television's finest productions ever. How about reruns of both?