Yesterday & Today
A King's Legacy
More than a quarter century after Yul Brynner's death from lung cancer, treatment advances offer some patients new options, but the cancer continues to claim more lives than any other. And the actor's haunting anti-smoking message lives on.
By Sue Rochman
By the mid-1950s, Yul Brynner had won both a Tony Award and an Oscar for his performances in The King and I. | Photo © Bettmann / Corbis
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951, expectations were high. The famed songwriting team had already created four hit shows, and the role of Anna was to be played by theater star Gertrude Lawrence, whose name blazed across the top of the marquee. Less attention was paid to the relatively unknown actor Yul Brynner, who had been cast as the King. But after opening night, no one would forget his name.
The King and I is about the relationship between the King of Siam and a widow, Anna, who teaches English to his children. The role wasn’t created for Brynner, but Brynner was made for the part. As New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote in January 1985, when Brynner returned to Broadway with The King and I for the third time: “Mr. Brynner is, quite simply, The King. Man and role have long since merged into a fixed image that is as much a part of our collective consciousness as the Statue of Liberty.”
Rich’s piece was equal parts review and tribute, as it was widely known that Brynner had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer 16 months earlier. The secret had gotten out when Brynner’s voice grew hoarse from his radiation therapy, forcing his touring production of The King and I to close. But as soon as he learned that the treatment had slowed his tumor’s growth, the 63-year-old actor, who had recently married for the fourth time and was a father of five, quickly returned to his role. Regrettably, metastatic lung cancer doesn’t take direction from anyone, not even a king as commanding as Brynner. His final curtain call—his 4,633rd performance as the King—was on June 30, 1985. He died on Oct. 10, less than four months later. To this day, no one has performed a part as many times.
An International Upbringing
Yul Brynner was born Juli Borisovitch Bryner, in Vladivostok, Russia, on July 11, 1920, the second child of Boris Bryner and Marousia Blagovidova. (He added the second “n” to his last name years later, so that English speakers would pronounce it properly.) Vladivostok is a port city located in the southeastern region of Russia, close to the Sea of Japan. As Yul Brynner’s son, Rock, explains in his book Empire & Odyssey: The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond, for three generations the family’s choices were closely intertwined with the city’s location and the wars that encompassed the region.
Yul Brynner’s grandfather Julius Bryner moved from Switzerland to Vladivostok in the 1870s, established a successful import-export company, and went on to become one of the city’s most respected businessmen. Boris Bryner followed in his father’s footsteps; when Vladivostok became part of the newly established (and short-lived) Far Eastern Republic in 1920, during the Russian Civil War, he was asked to serve as minister of industry.
Boris Bryner’s high-powered position required extensive travel, and when Yul was 3, his father left his mother for a woman he had met in Moscow. To escape ongoing regional conflict, Yul’s mother moved him and his older sister to Harbin, China. But as war loomed between China and Japan, she feared a Japanese invasion of Harbin, and in 1932 she moved the family to France. There, Yul’s dreams of becoming an actor blossomed as he played guitar in Russian nightclubs in Paris, trained as a trapeze acrobat and joined a theater company. But Paris was not home for long. In 1938, Yul’s mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and, fearing that the Germans would soon invade France, she and Yul moved back to Harbin. By 1940, it became clear that he could no longer care for his mother alone, and the two moved to New York City, where his sister lived.
The Lights of Broadway
When he arrived in New York, Brynner barely spoke English. But that didn’t stop him from heading off to Connecticut to study acting with the renowned Russian teacher Michael Chekhov. There, he learned how to use his voice and body and began to embrace what it meant to be an actor. “When you are a pianist,” Brynner later explained, “you have an outside instrument that you learn to master through finger work and arduous exercises. … As an actor, you the artist have to perform on the most difficult instrument to master, that is, your own self—your physical and your emotional being.”
Brynner’s first Broadway performance was a small part in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in December 1941. Over the next few years, his acting opportunities were few, and Brynner decided to follow his first wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, to Hollywood, where he found work as a director at the new television station CBS. His path seemed set. Then in 1950 a friend convinced him to return to New York City to audition for the King.
Virtually overnight, Brynner became a household name. In 1952, he won a Tony Award for his performance in The King and I, and when the play was made into a movie a few years later, there was no question the part was his. Brynner proved to be as good on film as he was onstage, winning the 1956 Academy Award for Best Actor. Over the next two decades, Brynner appeared in more than 40 other films, but it was the role of the King that he returned to time and time again.