What is it about Yul Brynner?
The bald, half-Mongolian, half-Gypsy actor (born, he doesn't remember when) has returned for one last run as the arrogant King of Siam in "The King and I." Despite lukewarm reviews, the lines outside the Broadway Theatre won't stop.
During the first week the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical broke records for attendance of any Broadway musical and toppled theater records as well. Last Wednesday, even in near zero-degree weather, a line of matineegoers wrapped around the block on 53rd Street.
"To see him is to die," gushed a fiftyish woman bundled in a full-length down coat. Sipping hot black tea served by the theater to ward off the sleazy cold of Times Square, scores of other women echoed her sentiments, as though Brynner were Prince rolled into John Travolta rolled into . . .
Madame Tussaud? "Brynner's performance . . . has become a waxwork," wrote critic John Simon, never one to spare a barbed remark, in New York magazine, ". . . and I cannot imagine from what fleamarket the rest of the personnel was assembled . . ."
"You cannot explain it," a fan with otherwise advanced tastes apologized. She first saw him in one of the early productions of the 34-year-old musical. She was seven years old -- then 11, 15, 24. She saw him again last week. "Can you explain magic?"
Even Brynner does not understand his appeal.
After more than 4,400 performances, he rebuffed a persistent reporter. "I am always asked, 'Do you identify with the king?' " he said. "It is silly. It shows total ignorance on the part of the questioner. Life would not be livable -- and acting would not be feasible -- if I came home from the theater and approached my wife as the King of Siam."
He does, however, approach his wife -- Kathy Lee Brynner, one of the show's principals -- almost every night as king.
"Once I told a journalist," Brynner said, " 'If I thought my success was because of my shaving my hair, I'd cut my head off.' "