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Today in history... the King is dead

12:00am | & News

Yul Brynner, the Russian-born actor who starred in the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical "The King and I" more than 4,600 times, died 31 years ago today, on October 10th, 1985.

Noted as the man who made baldness cool, Brynner also starred in a string of successful Hollywood films, including "The Magnificent Seven", "Taras Bulba" and "Westworld".

Born Yuily Borisovich Briner in 1920, he often elaborated his early life in press interviews, claiming to be part of the Mongol Khan dynasty. In truth he was born in Vladivostok, the son of a mining engineer and inventor of Swiss-German descent and a Russian mother who had studied to be an actress and singer.

When Brynner was just a child, his father abandoned the family after falling in love with an actress in Moscow. His mother then took Brynner and his sister, Vera, to China, where they studied at a school run by the YMCA. In1932, fearing a war between China and Japan, they moved again, this time to Paris.

Though only 12, Brynner was already an accomplished guitar player, performing traditional gypsy songs in Russian nightclubs in Paris, sometimes accompanying his sister, a talented singer. He also trained as a trapeze acrobat and worked in a French circus troupe for five years, but turned to acting after suffering a back injury. When his mother was diagnosed with leukaemia they moved briefly back to China in 1938, but emigrated to the USA in October 1940.

His sister was already living in New York City where she was a well-established singer, starring on Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera and on TV. Joining her in New York, Brynner worked through World War II as a French-speaking radio announcer and commentator for the US Office of War Information, broadcasting to occupied France.

At the same time he studied acting under Russian teacher Michael Chekhov, landing his first small part on Broadway in a 1941 production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. He also did a fair amount of modelling work, including posing nude for renowned photographer George Platt Lynes.

In 1944 he married actress Victoria Gilmore and soon after began working as a director at the new CBS television studios. Enjoying his new direction he was initially reluctant when asked in 1950 to audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein's new Broadway musical. But after reading the script he became fascinated with the role of King Mongkut in "The King and I", and eager to take part.

Landing the role, he starred in the original 1951 Broadway production, earning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Brynner also played the King in later touring productions, plus a 1977 Broadway revival, a 1979 London run and another Broadway revival in 1985, only months before his death.

It was the role which defined him, and one he would play on stage a staggering 4,625 times. He also took the role in the hugely successful 1956 film version which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor, becoming the only actor to win a Tony and an Oscar for the same role.

It was for the original 1951 Broadway production that Brynner first shaved his head – a look which became his trademark and which he maintained for the rest of his life. Several key film roles followed, including 1960's "The Magnificent Seven", in which he played gunslinger Chris Adams. His final two films were "Westworld" (1973) and its sequel "Futureworld" (1976) in which his character as a ruthless robotic Wild West gunslinger was clearly based on his earlier Magnificent Seven role.

Aside from acting, Brynner was an accomplished photographer, author and musician, publishing a number of books, including a cookbook, and releasing an album of gypsy songs with Aliosha Dimitrievitch, who he had played with in the Paris nightclubs in his teens.

Unfortunately it was in those same nightclubs that he had started smoking heavily. Despite quitting the habit in the early 1970s, in 1983 he found a lump on his throat and was later diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Aware he was dying, he gave a frank TV interview on Good Morning America discussing the dangers of smoking and expressing a desire to make an anti-smoking commercial, this at a time when the powerful tobacco industry lobby still denied health concerns.

A few days after his death on October 10th, portions of the TV interview were broadcast on all major US TV networks as a public service announcement for the American Cancer Society. Beginning with a voiceover announcing "the late Yul Brynner", it featured the actor looking directly into the camera and telling viewers: "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn't be talking about any cancer. I'm convinced of that."

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