t seemed Brynner was born for the part. “I doubt a more ideal King could have been found,” wrote theatre critic John Mason Brown after the debut performance.
Thirty-three years later the New York Times declared: “Yul Brynner’s performance in The King And I – the longest-running theatrical star-turn of our time – can no longer be regarded as a feat of acting or even endurance. 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.”
But perhaps most remarkably he nearly didn’t take the part.
In 1951 Brynner’s real interest was in TV directing, with credits behind the camera on popular shows including Starlight Theatre.
When he heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose previous works Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific had been huge hits, were auditioning, he decided against trying for the part.
It was only after his wife Virginia Gilmore and her friend Mary Martin – with whom he had acted in a 1946 play – all but forced him to read the script that he changed his mind.
Not only that: he became so taken with the character of the King of Siam that he shaved his head for the audition especially.
n his autobiography, Richard Rodgers recalled: “Brynner scowled in our direction, sat down on the stage… then plunked one whacking chord on his guitar and began to howl in a strange language that no one could understand. He looked savage, he sounded savage and there was no denying that he projected a feeling of controlled ferocity.
Oscar and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s it’.”
Five years later Brynner was the only choice for the film – it won five Oscars including his Best Actor.
His childhood was spent in China and Paris where at 13 he dropped out of school and trained as a circus acrobat, as well as playing guitar in nightclubs.
In 194 he arrived in New York. He later claimed he taught himself English from a dictionary to land his first Broadway role, a small part in Twelfth Night.
He was also fond of embellishing his own history. His circus career was cut short, he once claimed, after he sustained 47 fractures in one fall. He would claim to be of Mongolian or Romany stock.
The common thread behind all the tales was an intensity and physicality that were later to translate so well into his most famous role.n his New York Times obituary a friend recalled: “Who cares if all the stories he has told about himself are true or not? He colours everything he does.
I once horrified him by saying, ‘I’m bored’.
He said, ‘How can you be bored? There’s no time to be bored’.”
Brynner may still be the man who most symbolises the King And I but, perhaps mischievously, he insisted it was just another role.
“I am always asked, ‘Do you identify with the King?’” he said in a 1984 interview. “Life would not be livable and acting would not be feasible – if I came home from the theatre and approached my wife as the King of Siam. On stage I portray the King, he takes me over. I am only an adroit actor.” By DOMINIC UTTON