Rock Brynner

Rock BrynnerIt isn’t easy being the child of a world-famous actor, but Rock Brynner, the son and namesake of Yul Brynner – who nicknamed him Rock to toughen him up – managed to chart his own path in life.

Rock, who died on October 23 of complications of multiple myeloma, was a farmer, pilot, street performer, novelist, professor of constitutional history, bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, road manager for The Band, and co-founder of the Hard Rock Café. Jean Cocteau was his godfather, Liza Minnelli was his lifelong friend, and Elizabeth Taylor came to all his parties.

When Robbie Robertson wanted to make a rock documentary, Rock introduced him to another of his friends, Martin Scorsese, and the result was “The Last Waltz,” one of the best concert documentaries ever made.

Rock was at Yale only for our freshman year before transferring to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland – he was a huge James Joyce fan – but that was long enough to make a lasting impression on everyone who knew him and many of us who didn’t.

“Long before arriving at Yale, I knew Rock in New York City,” says Mike Orlansky. “We both went to the New Lincoln School on West 110th Street. This was in second or third grade, a very long time ago. Rocky (as everyone called him then) was a smart, good-looking boy. Both of us were new at the school and on the quiet side.

“I remember sitting with Rocky at small tables, doing what young children do everywhere: arithmetic, reading, handwriting and so on. Rocky had friends and got along well with teachers. None of us knew that he was from a famous family, and if we did, it wouldn’t have mattered. Rocky soon moved on to other schools in other places, but people at New Lincoln remembered him well.

“A decade or so later, I was aware that Rock was in our incoming Class of ’67, but we rarely met up. Once in a while we’d run into each other on campus and say a quick hello or just wave. I didn’t know him well enough to get a sense of how he felt about Yale.”

Tom Chase does know. “I recall that being asked why he had left Yale, he said that it lacked ‘an intellectual atmosphere.’ At the time, I took this as an insult, but as I reflect back on some of our – and my – antics, I can’t say that he was wrong.”

Bill Howze adds, “I arrived in New Haven from a small-town Texas high school, pronouncing Yale with two long syllables, fortunate to share that ground floor McClellan suite with WmB Hoyt and Mark Princi. Both of them were on hand when Rock arrived. He was aloof, perhaps, but considering the variety of milieus through which he moved he must have been able to fit in if he wished to. When I read about his academic career, I recalled all he managed to enlighten me about music, literature, art, and life. When my brother sent me his obit, I replied, “He had the soul of a great high school teacher.”

Mike Orlansky continues the story: “While I was in the Foreign Service, Mark Princi, who was his close friend, contacted me with some questions about educational and cultural programs. Mark shared a few memories of knowing and working with Rock, always with affection and admiration. I wasn’t involved with Rock’s State Department-supported programs as a visiting U.S. Speaker to Russia, but by all accounts, they were impactful and well-attended, particularly in Vladivostok, where his ancestors had lived. It was a noteworthy and highly personal public diplomacy outreach to foreign audiences. I wish I’d known Rock better, and am sorry that he has left us.”

Rock wrote a warts-and-all biography of his father titled “Yul: The Man Who Would Be King,” but he never indulged in self-pity. “Yes, it’s difficult for the children of iconic figures to establish an independent identity,” he told the New York Times, “But with all the suffering in this world, I wouldn’t shed too many tears for those who had privileged youths.”