Although he appeared in more than 30 movies and at least five Broadway productions, as far as the public was concerned, Yul Brynner had only one role in him.
But it was a beaut: He was The King.
In 1951, he leapt to fame as the autocratic ruler of 19th-century Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I." He repeated his triumphant performance in the 1956 screen version. Thereafter, whenever, his star threatened to dim, he knew that all he had to do was kick off his shoes and don the loose-fitting royal pajamas that revealed a broad expanse of chest and the public would come running. And run, it did.
Brynner played the role 4,625 times -- rarely to an empty seat. For his final appearance in New York on June 30, tickets were priced at $75, which seemed a modest fee to behold what was by then a legendary performance. At the curtain call, the orchestra played Auld Lang Syne and the cheering audience wouldn't let him off the stage.
Only once did The King fail him, and that was for a misguided 1972 TV series, "Anna and the King." If you wanted to see Brynner, you wanted to see him in the flesh. His presence sliced through the atmosphere and demanded, rather like the King himself, undivided attention. His elegantly bald head was his trademark, but his magnetism came from his burning eyes, the sharply arched eyebrows, the high cheekbones, the curiously pointed ears and an implicit sense of superiority that approached haughtiness, both onstage and off.
In other contexts, his arrogance could appear hokey. But it galvanized "The King and I." Each time the unyielding monarch turned to Anna, the prim English tutor of his 82 children, swept her up in his arms and then waltzed her about the floor to the lilting strains of "Shall We Dance?," ripples of excitement invariably coursed through the theater.
If Brynner chaffed under the type-casting, he never admitted it publicly. The only way he was ever going to play Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," he joked, was with "an outer-Mongolian touring company." Right up until his death yesterday at 65, he remained loyal to the King, claiming that as he himself aged, he kept finding new aspects of the character to explore. Asked once how he could do the same show night after night, he replied, "The only way it can be done is to start everything anew. I believe our lives are like that. It applies to us as civilians and as artists. No two days are ever really alike if we are intensely aware and searching as we ought to be."
A small, compact man, he even took on the stature of the King, nurturing an offstage image that was as exotic as it was forbidding. Deborah Kerr, his costar from the movie version of "The King and I," believed his imperial manner was "really a sort of shyness." Maybe it was, but it was also in a time-honored tradition of good old-fashioned self-promotion. He dressed only in black -- and then, he once boasted, only in black by Balenciaga. In the days when he was still smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, he came wreathed in hypnotic clouds of smoke.
As temperamental as any diva, he insisted that his dressing rooms be painted, carpeted and curtained in dark brown. Before he played the Palladium Theatre in London, the management spent $70,000 refurbishing the backstage quarters to his specifications, which included a Jacuzzi and an electronically operated massage chair. For Brynner, such concessions were only natural. "Besides," he told a reporter, "it wasn't a Jacuzzi. It was a whirlpool."
The grand mystery extended to his past. Where did Brynner really come from? His mother may have been a Russian gypsy, and his father a Swiss mining engineer. He may have been born in Japan and raised in Mongolia. "Just call me a nice clean-cut Mongolian boy," he said on one occasion, overlooking the fact that in his heydey millions of women found him irresistibly sexy. His adolescence was spent crisscrossing Europe with gypsy minstrels, and then later swinging from a trapeze with a French circus. Left Bank nightclubs figured in there, too. Or so went his stories.
To some, he presented himself as an orphan, to others as a child of privilege. He was either self-taught or a PhD. None of the published accounts ever jibed. And his accent provided no clue. It was unplaceable -- too thick to be French, too liquid to be Chinese. Not that it mattered.
His persona -- aloof and intense -- was purposefully streaked with enigma. He was a puzzlement, as the King sang, and reveled in it.
That, ultimately, is what made him so difficult to cast. When he was still calling himself Youl Brynner, he tried his hand at Shakespeare. But it wasn't until l946, when he was hired to play a young oriental prince in "Lute Song" opposite Mary Martin, that he registered with the public. Hollywood employed him primarily as a variety of gunslingers and adventurers in such films as "Taras Bulba," "The Magnificent Seven" and "Invitation to a Gunfighter" or else put him into such epics as "The Ten Commandments" and "Solomon and Sheba," where his forceful features suggested biblical grandeur, at least as the studios conceived it. In recent years, his most popular films were "Westworld" and "Futureworld," its sequel, in which he played a robot in an amusement park of the future who runs amok. It was not his finest hour.
Nor was "The Odyssey," a lavish musical by Erich Segal, no less, based on Homer and produced by the Kennedy Center in 1975. Brynner appeared as the wandering Greek warrior Odysseus and in one scene, emerged from the seas naked except for the protection offered by a hastily plucked branch. The show was a disaster, but Brynner's name on the marquee attracted audiences during the yearlong pre-Broadway tour. Rewritten and redubbed "Home, Sweet Homer," it hit New York and collapsed.
But there was always "The King and I" as a safety net. It made him a fortune and it even sustained him through the last months of his life when he was dying. "You will never be anything but the King after this play," Richard Rodgers once told him.
Rodgers was right.
The King is dead. Long live the King.