Asian Role: King Mongkut
Non-Asian Performer: Yul Brynner
Release Date: 1956
Yul Brynner made a career out of playing people of color, despite his Swiss background. He played Rameses in The Ten Commandments, and most famously, King Mongkut, the King of Siam (now modern day Thailand), in The King and I. Brynner originated the role on Broadway, where he won a Tony for his stage performance. He later won an Academy Award for his acting performance.
I remember watching this movie with my parents, and my dad told me, in excited tones, about seeing Brynner perform the role on Broadway. For Asian Americans from an older generation, Brynner got a pass. That’s how good of an actor he was, and that’s also how much Asian Americans wanted to see themselves on screen. If they could not have an actual Asian, an excellent facsimile would have to do.