Brynner was the main star and the driving force behind the movie being made in the first place. In a cast full of alpha males like Charles Bronson, Brynner was also notoriously difficult, and her pride was easily provoked. She liked it to be known that he cooked breakfast in a silk kimono, other stars commented that she was “never far from a mirror” and that her demands and dramas on set were legendary. He even kept his head shaved because he relished the attention and demanded that he never be photographed with another bald man. He met his partner in The Magnificent Seven at McQueen. The young actor actually owed his presence on the set to Brynner, something The King and I quickly and bitterly regretted. They only found a reconciliation of sorts, decades later, when McQueen was dying.
There was absolutely nothing Brynner hated more than being upstaged and McQueen’s behavior on set was absolutely calculated on purpose to drive him crazy. And he did. Over and over again. In addition to infuriating the other cast members, he also led them to start doing the same, leaving director John Sturges in despair that he had “lost control” of his actors.
Brynner liked everyone else to be still and quiet when he was saying his lines so that McQueen would remove his hat to shield his eyes or fiddle with his gun, learning to do fancy flourishes. In group scenes, such as when the Seven cross a river on horseback, the youngest actor would bend down to scoop up water with his hat, drawing everyone else’s attention.
Brynner finally yelled, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’ll take my hat off and no one will look at you for the rest of the movie.”
The Mongolian star was also notoriously sensitive to its height. When she did Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman, she was over an inch taller on flat feet than her own 5-foot-6.
The Swedish actress politely asked him if he’d like to wear any props to stand on and he muttered, “I’m not going to play this in a box, I’m going to show the world what a great horse you are.”
In making the Magnificent Seven, the height issue became a constant battle with ridiculously funny results.
Added McQueen: “I don’t like people touching me. ‘Get your hands off me,’ I said. What did I have to lose in a little fight? I have a broken nose, missing teeth and stitches on my lips.” and I am deaf in my right ear.
Brynner even hired an assistant with the sole job of monitoring McQueen’s petty crimes and counting how many times he fidgeted during scenes.
In response, McQueen complained that Brynner’s horse was bigger than his own and ridiculed his fancy ivory-handled weapon as a desperate attempt for attention.
When things got so done that it was reported in the press, Brynner issued a bombastic press release: “I never quarreled with the actors. I quarreled with the studios.”
The movie made McQueen a star, but the bad blood with Brynner continued until his final days, when he was stricken with cancer in 1980.
He called Brynner to thank him, saying, “You could have gotten me kicked out of the movie when I rocked you, but you let me stay and that picture made me, so thank you.”
Brynner apparently told him, “I am the king and you are the wayward prince: just as royal and dangerous to cross.”
He forgave McQueen, as did James Cogburn. Another co-star, The Great Escape’s James Garner, was publicly scathing about the actor’s behavior and the reasons for it.
Garner said: “Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set. Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star, a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man. Steve was not A bad guy. I think he was just insecure.
“You could always see him acting. That’s the kiss of death as far as I’m concerned.”
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