Yul Brynner, with shaved head and regally haughty presence, played and replayed the starring role in "The King and I" for more than 30 years.
Though there were other Broadway and movie roles for Brynner, it is doubtful that any successful actor of his time had been so associated with a single character as was Brynner with the arrogant, bombastic King of Siam.
None of Brynner's other parts were nearly as memorable as the king. If he became typecast, it was something Brynner didn't seem to mind. For one thing, there were certain physical limitations that kept him from a wider variety of parts.
"I would have liked to play Henry Higgins in 'My Fair Lady,' " he told a Times interviewer, "but I couldn't because of my accent and looks. Unless I did it with an Outer Mongolian touring company."
For another, the money from the play, the movie and the seemingly countless touring companies of the play made him a millionaire.
He said he was born on an island off northern Japan, lived for his first eight years in China and then in Paris, where he dropped out of school to join a Gypsy troupe as a traveling minstrel and later worked as a circus acrobat on the high trapeze. [After his death, Brynner's son Rock wrote a biography that corrected several of his father's claims about his background, finding, among other things, that his father was born in mainland Russia.]
It was acting that brought Brynner to America, touring in a struggling Shakespearean troupe on college campuses. He added English and some Russian (learned from other actors) to his collection of languages that included French, Japanese and Hungarian while playing small parts and driving the troupe's bus—all for $25 a week.
In February 1946, he made his debut on Broadway, playing an Oriental prince opposite Mary Martin in "Lute Song." After 142 performances, Brynner took the show on tour.
Though Brynner tried to avoid being typecast—some of his favorite movie roles included lead parts in "Anastasia" (1956), "The Brothers Karamazov" (1958), "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and "Westworld" (1973)—he became famous in a superficial sort of way for his shaved head. "Brynner's Romantic Image Lifts Baldies," read one newspaper headline.
Despite that, Brynner always returned to "The King and I"—for the money, for the pleasure of a role he loved and, oftentimes, for lack of other work to do. "Until I find a better role, I'll keep doing this one," he said in 1980.
Points of interest
|1956||Best Actor||The King and I||Win|