Just by the bald dome, furrowed brow and unflinching gaze, you should by able to recognize him immediately. If that’s not the case, we’ll help out with this identification — Yul Brynner.
He was not the first choice of Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein for the leading role in their fifth musical collaboration. Hard to believe today, they envisioned Rex Harrison as ideal for the part of King Mongut of Siam (now Thailand).
Harrison was tied up in film work at the time, and turned down the lead in The King and I, after which Rodgers and Hammerstein “settled” on Brynner, then a little known stage actor and budding tv director.
He was ordered to shave his head for the role, and on went the show. The rest, of course, really is history. Rarely has an actor and a role been so intertwined over the course of a relatively abbreviated career and lifetime.
The King and I is a musical adaptation of a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon about a widowed British schoolteacher who travels to Siam to tutor the reigning king’s many children. Gertrude Lawrence played the teacher in the 1951 Broadway edition; Deborah Kerr did so in the 1956 film version.
Brynner made the role of the king his own, and won his Tony Award in 1952 and his Oscar five years later. Towards the end of his life he returned to the part, extensively touring the world until a few months before his death. By then he had compiled some sort of performance record for a single part — more than 4,600 turns as the king.
No question that Brynner carved out a prominent career in Hollywood, having starred in such prestige productions as 1973’s Westworld, 1956’s Anastasia (opposite Ingrid Bergman), director Richard Brooks’ 1958 adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov and 1956’s The Ten Commandments.
Frank particularly appreciates Brynner in his less heralded, non-musical appearances in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and in a little-known 1970 “spaghetti western” Adios, Sabata. The actor was given to telling tall tales about his ethnic heritage and birthplace; he was born, by all accounts, in 1920 in Vladivostok Russia.
But he was fully transparent about his death, heroically taping a anti-smoking public service announcement for broadcast after his death from lung cancer in the fall of 1985. The king was a relatively young 65.