Remembering ‘The King and I’ Oscar Winner Yul Brynner Who Died from Lung Cancer; A Look Back on His Impactful Posthumous Anti-Smoking Campaign

Published Oct 10, 2021

Marisa Sullivan

Leaving an Epic Legacy

  • Legendary actor Yul Brynner died 36 years ago from a two-year battle with lung cancer at 65 years old.
  • Following Brynnner’s death, his son Rock released a book about his father and how much he had been affected by his cancer battle.
  • Even if you’ve already been diagnosed with lung cancer, top experts urge smokers to stop smoking, as it can greatly impact your surgery.

Legendary actor Yul Brynner died 36 years ago at age 65 following a two-year battle with lung cancer.

The Oscar and Tony-winner, who performed over 4,000 musicals of The King and I on Broadway from 1951 to 1985 (and a 1956 film version), was married four times and left behind five children. His last performance was just three months before he passed away.

It is certainly always tragic when someone loses their battle to this disease, famous or not, but the plan the Oscar-winner had put in place before his death was and is one of the most memorable and remarkable gifts that an actor has left behind post cancer-battle.

The Russian star, born Yuliy Borisovich Briner, appeared in an “eerie” anti-smoking commercial for the American Cancer Society three months after he lost his fight.

“Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do. Just don’t smoke,” Brynner said hoarsely on screen. He reportedly smoked up to five packs a day at times throughout his life, according to the L.A. Times, and had picked up the habit at the age of 12.

“If I could take back that smoking we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that,” he had said in the GMA interview from which the footage was pulled for the commercial. Brynner’s fourth wife, Kathy Lee, a former ballerina, gave permission, as she recognized the power that it would have. At the time, her husband was one of the most “recognizable names in the world,” according to The New York Times.

The PSA first aired on a Wednesday morning on ABC, and subsequently ran on all three major U.S. networks, and in some markets overseas.

“This is the most powerful indictment of smoking that we’ve ever produced,” Susan Islam of the American Cancer Society said. “This one is stronger by virtue of Yul Brynner’s international reputation.”

The concept, created by ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, “deliberately toyed with viewers’ minds, giving the appearance that the actor was, indeed, speaking from beyond the grave,” The New York Times reported.

Thriving Through Cancer

Following Brynner’s 1983 diagnosis, he had gone against doctor’s orders and continued to perform across the country, despite undergoing chemotherapy treatment and radiation causing him much fatigue.

Related: How to Fight Chemotherapy Fatigue

″I think that the discipline I acquired through 53 years of working in show business has helped me enormously with my own physical problems —whether it was a crash in the circus when I was 17 or the serious illness which I had more recently,″ Brynner, who had grown up doing trapeze in France, said in one of his last interviews.

In addition to the circus and a long-lasting career on Broadway, Brynner played guitar in Russian nightclubs in his earlier life and also served as a French-speaking radio announcer during World War II for the U.S. Office of War information. He came to the states in 1941.

The Perils of Fame

Brynner’s only son, Rock, published a book in 1991 titled Yul: The Man Who Would Be King : A Memoir of Father and Son, detailing the man behind the crown.

Rock—who co-founded the Hard Rock restaurant chain—said that his father was a different man the last two years of his life as he battled cancer, and had disinherited his five kids, leaving his estate to his fourth wife.

Rock, whose mother was late actress Virginia Gilmore, realized he would come off as the “ungrateful offspring,” but insisted that the book was written with love. “Yul was an extraordinary, magical and amazing figure.”

He referred to his book as a “parable of power … how he acquired it and the nature of it and the effect on his life. And finally: Did it bring him happiness? The answer to that is a resounding `no.'”

“He was simply not a clean-cut all-American boy,” he said. “He had an exotic look that limited him in the eyes of studio executives, whom he hated. Also, he was such a pain, people wouldn’t work with him twice.”

Lung Cancer in Smokers vs. Non-Smokers

Stop Smoking Even If You’ve Already Been Diagnosed with Lung Cancer

In addition to smoking being the main cause of lung cancer, not quitting can also complicate lung cancer surgery.

Tiny, hair-like cells called cilia line our windpipes, and their main job is to sweep mucus out of the lungs. Smoking paralyzes these cells, and the inability to clear this mucus effectively is why smokers often develop that telltale hacking cough. During lung cancer surgery, these secretions can get caught in your lung and increase your risk for developing pneumonia, a potentially fatal complication.

Related: Remembering Actor Paul Newman Who Died From Lung Cancer 13 Years Ago; The Late Legend Donated Millions to Charity

“Just stopping smoking even for a couple weeks before surgery will increase your safety,”  Dr. Joseph Friedberg, head of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells SurvivorNet. “They’re like, ‘well, I’m having surgery. I already have lung cancer.'”

And for the people who just started smoking or are tempted to, stop.

“Smoking causes lung cancer. There’s no gray area. That’s it. If you’re smoking, stop,” Dr. Friedberg says. “And that decreases your chance of getting a lung cancer. You never return down all the way to the person who never smoked, as far as your risk of lung cancer. But it goes down.”

Quitting Smoking Can Help the Success of Your Lung Cancer Surgery

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