Last week we lost the great Leonard Nimoy. He tweeted warnings to smokers about the cancer that killed him:
Don’t smoke. I did. Wish I never had. LLAP
— Leonard Nimoy (@TheRealNimoy) January 11, 2015
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the late Yul Brynner and the warning he spoke from the grave:
Thirty years ago, the actor Yul Brynner, dying from lung cancer, told a television audience that what he really wanted to do was to film a commercial that said, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke.”
Brynner was very much alive when he made this statement in January 1985, on “Good Morning America” on ABC News. But after he died, in October of that year, he got his wish. The resulting public service announcement remains one of the most memorable antismoking statements ever made.
When his lung cancer was diagnosed in June 1983, Brynner, then 63, was one of the world’s most recognizable actors. With his distinctive bald head, he had appeared in 4,625 performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “King and I,” winning a Tony in 1952 for playing the haughty, strutting king of Siam. In 1956, he won an Oscar for the film.
Brynner’s stamina was all the more remarkable given his history of smoking. He started at age 12 and had smoked as many as five packs a day before quitting in the late 1960’s.
Defying his doctors’ orders, Brynner continued to perform across the country after the cancer was diagnosed, despite extreme fatigue from radiation treatments and chemotherapy. On June 30, 1985, he finally retired from the stage, giving one final performance in “The King and I” on Broadway.
Brynner never made the commercial he proposed. But shortly after his death, officials at the American Cancer Society had an idea: What about using the footage from “Good Morning America” to make a public service announcement? Brynner’s widow, Kathy, gave her permission. What had made her husband become so passionately opposed to smoking, she recently recalled, was his realization that cigarettes could even cause cancer 15 years after someone had stopped.
The announcement, completed in 1985 and first aired in early 1986, could not have begun more boldly. It opened with an image of Brynner’s tombstone, with the inscription “Yul Brynner, 1920-1985.” An announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, the late Yul Brynner.”
Next, Brynner appeared on the “Good Morning America” video clip. His antismoking advice was followed by another statement he had made on the program: “If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.” With that, the 30-second spot ended.
The announcement, made for the cancer society by the New York agency McCaffrey & McCall, deliberately toyed with viewers’ minds, giving the appearance that the actor was, indeed, speaking from beyond the grave.
Although this was obviously not the case, the announcement still retained its intensity among the public. Kathy Brynner recalls being approached by strangers, who told her that what her husband had done was “unbelievable” and “courageous.”
The cancer society received a deluge of letters from former smokers who said the announcement had finally gotten them to quit. “The commercial with Yul Brynner,” a woman from Texas wrote, “is what really told me to stop smoking.”
“I guess you could say I’m addicted; at least I was, until I saw your new commercial with Yul Brynner in it,” a college student from California wrote in May 1986. “After seeing the commercial, I vowed to never smoke again. I haven’t smoked since late March.”
Another woman told The Washington Post how her twin 5-year-old nieces, after seeing the announcement, had rushed over to their father, who was a smoker.
“Daddy, don’t smoke,” one twin urged.
“Daddy, don’t,” her sister said. “We saw the man on TV.”
Within months of its debut, the announcement had been shown repeatedly on all three American television networks and in other countries, including Australia, China, Japan and Israel. The International Film and Television Festival of New York gave it a silver medal.
Despite the ubiquity of Brynner’s spot, it is hard to know how much effect it had on smoking rates in the United States, which had been declining for 20 years. It was one of many public service announcements against smoking that appeared in the 1980’s. And the dangers of smoking were being publicized through other means, including the increasingly detailed warnings that appeared on cigarette packages.
Over the last two decades, antismoking campaigns have shied away from the “scared straight” message of Brynner, using humor and other strategies to persuade teenagers that smoking is uncool.
Still, Brynner’s announcement ranks among the most original efforts made by a public health organization to spread the gospel. As a cancer society spokesman said, “There’s nothing more forceful than when someone dead looks into the camera and says: ‘Don’t smoke. I did.’