The feud on set between Magnificent Seven stars Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen is legendary and fantastically childish. Another famous co-star blamed McQueen’s behaviour on the fact he “couldn’t act” although Brynner was also notoriously difficult to work with.
Brynner was the main star and the driving force behind the movie being made in the first place. In a cast filled with alpha males like Charles Bronson, Brynner was also notoriously difficult and his pride was easily provoked. He liked it to be known that he prepared breakfast in a silk kimono, other stars commented how he was “never far from a mirror” and his on-set demands and dramas were legendary. He even kept his head shaved because he enjoyed the attention and demanded that he was never photographed with another bald man. He met his match on The Magnificent Seven in McQueen. The young actor actually owed his presence on set to Brynner – something The King and I star would quickly and bitterly regret. They only found a reconciliation, of sorts, decades later when McQueen was dying.
There was absolutely nothing Brynner hated more than being upstaged and McQueen’s behaviour on set was calculated absolutely on purpose to drive him crazy. And it did. Over and over and again. As well as infuriating the other cast members, it also drove them to start doing the same, leaving director John Sturges in despair that he had “lost control” of his actors.
Brynner liked everyone else to be still and silent when he was speaking his lines so McQueen would remove his hat to shade his eyes or fiddle with his gun, learning to do fancy flourishes. In group scenes, like when the Seven cross a river on horseback, the younger actor would lean down to scoop up water with his hat – pulling focus from everyone else.
Brynner eventually shouted: “If you don’t stop that I’m going to take off my hat, and then no one will look at you for the rest of the film.”
The Mongolian star was also notoriously sensitive about his height. When he made Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, she was over an inch taller in flat feet than his own 5ft 6½in.
The Swedish actress politely asked him if he would like to use any props to stand on and he hissed back: “I am not going to play this on a box, I’m going to show the world what a big horse you are.”
Making the Magnificent Seven, the height issue became a running battle with ridiculously hilarious results.
Shooting outside, Brynner would scuff the earth and dirt into low mounds for him to stand on so that he looked taller. McQueen, in return, would casually flatten them as he walked past.
He later said: “We didn’t get along. Brynner came up to me in front of a lot of people and grabbed me by the shoulder. He was mad about something. He doesn’t ride well and knows nothing about guns, so maybe he thought I represented a threat. I was in my element. He wasn’t.
“When you work in a scene with Yul, you’re supposed to stand perfectly still, 10 feet away. Well, I don’t work that way.”
And McQueen certainly wasn’t prepared to tolerate being manhandled by his co-star.
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