(Also submitted to Magpie 99 and ABC Wednesday)
"Z" is for "Zenith"
A few decades ago, in Times Square, you could have seen a huge sign publicizing a musical starring one Yuliy Borisovich Bryner, known to film-goers around the world as Yul Brynner.
Then, glancing to the left, you could have viewed a true Broadway legend: an eight-foot bronze statue of George M. Cohan, the only statue, by the way, of an actor on Broadway.
They both reached the zenith, as far as their profession was concerned. But even though they belonged to the same show business tribe, they were a couple of very different guys. For years they and their diverse styles of production sort of summed up what the Great White Way was all about.
George M wasn’t just an actor-producer-director, he was also a singer, lyricist, dancer and playwright; he turned out some 500 songs in his career and he wrote, produced and starred in many musicals.
Way back there, before World War I, he was known as “the man who owned Broadway.”
George M’s songs, like George M himself, often tended toward a kind of super-heated patriotism: “You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag…”
He’d been on the stage since he could first walk: for years he was one-fourth of the vaudeville act known as “The Four Cohans.” (The other three were his parents and his sister.) Cohan, by the way, was pronounced Co-han.
Then, glancing over to the right in Times Square you would have come upon the huge sign for Yul Brynner’s “The King and I.” Yuliy’s life story wasn’t much like George M’s. It was a life of almost incredible adventures, forced travel and the occasionally brutal necessity of doing whatever he could to make a living.
Born in Russia, in Vladivostok, the boy was taken to China and then, years later, to Paris. He got work as a trapeze artist with the local circus.
He was a Romani – a Gypsy -- on his mother’s side; when he became a star he was named President of the International Romani Union and he proudly kept that office till his death.
For a few years he had small parts in the Broadway theatre. It was Mary Martin who recommended him for the part he would forever be known for: the King in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I". It was a hit; he performed it almost 5,000 times on stage -- he must have gotten a bit sick of it. However, Brynner became an immediate sensation in the role, repeating it for film and winning the Oscar for Best Actor.
Yuliy was noted for his distinctive voice and for his shaven head, which he maintained as a personal trademark long after adopting it for his initial role in “The King and I”. Right, Brynner with a cigarette (which is what would kill him).
For several decades Yuliy maintained a starring film career despite his exotic nature. As an actor, he could be trusted to perform with solid professionalism in a wide range of roles from sullen Egyptian pharaohs to Western gunfighters, almost all with the same shaved head and that indefinable accent.
By the way, here’s his naturalization form when he applied for U S citizenship. Note: he had hair. :-)
1 year ago