Ken Watanabe Returns to 'King and I' With New Energy -- and Less Pressure -- After Cancer Scare

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In March, Ken Watanabe officially stepped back into the role the King of Siam, a part he originated in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2015 revival of The King and I. It’s a showy production with grand costumes and even grander set pieces that earned Watanabe a Tony nomination last year.

Watanabe’s return to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center comes after first leaving to fulfill a prior movie commitment and was succeeded by Jose Llana and later Hoon Lee. He was originally set to reprise his role on March 1. However, his return was ultimately delayed after the 56-year-old actor received a stomach cancer diagnosis and had endoscopic surgery.

Detected early, Watanabe tells ETonline that the cancer was not life threatening. However, there was the possibility he could have missed his return if the surgery wasn’t successful. Luckily for the actor and fans alike, the procedure was, leaving only some guilt with the actor.

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“I felt horrible about missing it,” Watanabe says, adding that it was reminder of how precious life is. “It has very likely affected my outlook.”

Yet, no hesitation is seen on stage. “I wanted to play a different King, so in preparing for my return, I tried not to think about the role until the old King was cleared from my head,” the actor reveals.

With his Broadway debut behind him and time away from the production, Watanabe is full of vigor and excitement. At times, he appears to be having more fun than worrying about acting.

“Last year, there was a lot of pressure: here’s this A-list movie star taking a huge chance to be on Broadway and not performing in his native tongue,” co-star Conrad Ricamora says. Watanabe’s thick Japanese accent was often mentioned in reviews.

“Ken is just having a lot of fun with it and living in the moment a lot more,” Ricamora continues. “He’s come back with this amazing energy. He was great before, but now he’s got this really newfound spontaneity and aggression about him that is really thrilling.”

“I felt like I was able to go on with less pressure,” Watanabe concurs.

While Watanabe certainly has new energy for an extended run, his reprisal comes to an end on April 17 -- the same day Kelli O’Hara will be leaving the production after spending a year playing Anna Leonowens and earning a Tony award for the role.

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In fact, it was O’Hara’s own planned departure that pushed Watanabe to make his return. “I wanted to play opposite her again,” he says.

While there are no plans to return to Broadway any time soon, the actor will leave fulfilled -- and hopes fans will do the same. 

“In every show, I am living the life of a King,” Watanabe says. “Even if I come up with a solution or answer during any given performance, like sand on the beach, the waves wipe away the footprints. I hope, however, that my performance lives on for years in the memories of those who saw the show.”