The eerie voice-over says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the late Yul Brynner.” Sure enough, the TV screen shows a close-up of that unmistakable face, bald pated, steely eyed. Yul Brynner, who died of lung cancer at 65 last October, looks directly at the camera and says boldly, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke.” The 30-second message, courtesy of the American Cancer Society, has been running periodically on TV since Feb. 18.
Brynner, who’d begun smoking at 12, did not make his “commercial” at the behest of the Cancer Society; in fact, he had turned down such a request, preferring to take his campaign to talk shows. Since 1983, when doctors diagnosed cancer, Brynner had spoken candidly about his failing health. That did not deter him last year from re-creating for the last time his role in The King and I. It was at the end of an interview on Good Morning America, in January 1985, that Brynner, as if seizing the opportunity to leave a message from beyond the grave, made his statement. Says Irving Rimer, a Cancer Society spokesman, “It was right for the times, and right for the subject because it contains the truth. This man was a smoker, this man got lung cancer and died from it; and this man is telling others, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ ”
When ABC rebroadcast the statements the day Brynner died, his plea seemed even more compelling. Viewers called the Cancer Society and the network to urge using the message in an antismoking ad. The actor’s widow, Kathy Lee, 28, agreed. “She had the strength and courage to say, ‘Go ahead and use my husband this way,’ ” Rimer says, adding, “You can’t do this too often. It gets too emotional.”