Yul Brynner: The King and Me
“When you are King, you are King.” – Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam, in “The King and I”
As a child, I devoured my favorite movie musicals over and over. Beginning when I was old enough to work a VCR, and continuing to today, you can often find me curled up on a rainy Sunday afternoon, watching something for “the hundredth time.” And there’s always a good chance that I’m watching Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, starring Yul Brynner, again.
“So let it be written; so let it be done.” – Yul Brynner as Ramses II in “The Ten Commandments”
Even as a 10-year-old, I knew “the guy” who played King Mongkut – it was “that same guy” who played Ramses in The Ten Commandments. My young mind concluded that, obviously, he was born to portray kings on screen. It was only natural – with his furrowed brow, piercing eyes, and physique that looked carved from granite. Yul Brynner became the walking shape of my childhood vision of “the king.”
I discovered later that Brynner was not only my embodiment of “the king,” but entrenched himself so thoroughly in the role of King Mongkut that any actor’s performance of the role now automatically becomes a tribute to Brynner. The only actor ever to win both an Academy Award and a Tony for the same role, Yul Brynner played King Mongkut of Siam onstage 4,625 times over 34 years, in addition to the 1956 film. He will, in many people’s minds, forever own that character.
In childhood, I remembered Yul’s name because of its uniqueness. As an adult, I learn that his story is richer than Hollywood: Born in Russia, Brynner played on Parisian street corners with Romani gypsies, was a trained circus performer, lived in China, was a reputed philanderer throughout his two marriages, and nearly went penniless despite films, photography books, and musical albums. Perhaps, Yul’s son, Rock Brynner, is indeed “both the best and worst person” to write his biography.
Yul Brynner passed away October 10, 1985. Learning that fact as a child, I was old enough to be stricken with gratitude – an inexplicable appreciation that his life didn’t end until after mine began. Although Brynner defined for me a strong, complicated man, the image I hold of him today has shifted.
I still cherish Brynner’s legacy; it is a legacy that includes his support for the Romani people, as the Honorary President of the International Romani Union from 1977 to 1985, but also a legacy that includes King Mongkut as a face for the Orientalist stereotype elaborated by Edward Said – the stereotype of people from certain places in the world as “exotic and barbaric.”
And with that distinction, I am torn. An exotic man who skillfully portrayed a barbaric character, Yul
rynner left lasting, rippling impressions on the psyches of generations. Not only did he entertain us, but he changed the way we think about people, simply because of the way he played his character. By becoming the face of “the king,” Brynner solidified his place in dramatic and film history, and his place in American history. And The King and I will continue to hold its place on my movie shelf.
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