The Russian-born actor Yul Brynner (1920–1985) was an iconic figure in American theater and film in the second half of the 20th century, most prominently in his role as the king of Siam during the long run of the musical The King and I. Brynner also gained lasting fame for his role in the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges's adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's highly acclaimed Seven Samurai set in the American West.
With his bald head, athletic physique, and slightly exotic appearance (his mother was part Mongolian), Yul Brynner was instantly recognizable, making him a matinee idol and even something of a sex symbol to film and stage audiences. “Brynner's romantic impact lifts baldies,” according to the New York Times, quoting a then-current newspaper headline. He added to his mystique by obscuring the story of his own origins, providing interviewers with multiple versions. In addition to his stage roles, Brynner turned to film and starred in several big-budget films of the 1950s, including The Ten Commandments and The Brothers Karamazov.
The mystery began with Brynner's birth, for which he gave dates between 1915 and 1922 according to the needs of the moment. He often said that he had been born on Sakhalin Island, off the coast of Siberia, and that his mother—who in some tellings died while giving birth to him—was of Gypsy background. Public records and research by Brynner's son Rock shown that he was born on July 11, 1920, in Vladivostok, then part of a small state of the nascent Soviet Union then called the Far Eastern Republic and now part of Russia. His Russian name appeared as Youl Borisovitch Bryner when it was spelled in Western lettering; he later simplified it to Yul Brynner. Brynner's father, Boris, was the operator of a prominent family-owned import-export house in Vladivostok; he was of Swiss ancestry and nationality. His mother, Marousia, raised Yul after Boris abandoned the family for a young Russian dancer in 1924. Brynner's Eastern appearance probably came from her partly Mongolian background.
After Brynner's father's departure, the family headed for Harbin, China, which had a large Russian population. As a child, Brynner knew and watched the stagecraft of a well-known cross-dressing Chinese opera star named Mai Long Thang. With tensions rising between Japan and China in the early 1930s, Marousia Brynner moved the family to Paris, where Yul attended the competitive Lycée Moncelle. Energetic and given to dissembling, he learned French in addition to Russian and some Chinese but preferred sports to his classes. Brynner also began playing the guitar after hearing a touring Russian Gypsy troupe with his family in Paris's Montmartre neighborhood. His show-business debut came at age 15, in 1935, as a guitarist with a Gypsy orchestra.
By now, Brynner's sister Vera had married and begun a musical career in the United States. Moscow Art Theatre director Michael Chekhov had established a new workshop in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Brynner decided to make the move to America. He and his mother sailed from Kobe in 1941, arriving in North America just a month before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. After disembarking in New York City, Brynner immediately traveled north to Ridgefield and enrolled in Chekhov's workshop. Despite his minimal command of English, Brynner impressed Chekhov and was cast in a small part in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Although the production was panned critically, Brynner's choice of career was set. He supported himself and paid for his mother's mounting medical expenses by performing as a guitarist and singer, and also worked as a nude model. “I have done everything to earn a buck and I hated every minute of it,” he later recalled, according to Michelangelo Capua in Yul Brynner: A Biography.
During World War II, Brynner became a U.S. citizen and attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army. Rejected because of symptoms of tuberculosis (he later cured himself with a sojourn in upstate New York), he worked as a French-language broadcaster for the Office of War Information—his French was unaccented—and continued to study with Chekhov, who had relocated to New York City. He married actress Virginia Gilmore in 1944 and continued to work as a musician, starring in the 1946 musical Lute Song and becoming active as a director during the early days of the new television medium. Brynner correctly guessed that television was a growing industry and planned to give up his modest theatrical career. However, his Lute Song costar, Mary Martin, convinced him to take on one last stage performance: a role in a new musical planned by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II and based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam, a true story set in Thailand. Brynner liked the script and took Martin's advice.
Cast in the musical's original 1951 production, Brynner was a hit from the beginning. With his shaved head (he had only a light covering of hair by that time regardless), Eastern looks, and charismatic, regal yet sensitive bearing, he was an inspired choice for the role of the Siamese (Thai) king, Mongkut. Actress Gertrude Lawrence played Anna, the governess hired to educate Mongkut's children. Anna and the King of Siam ran for several years on Broadway and embarked on a 30-city tour, starring Brynner. The Russian emigré's transformation into an American household name and image was completed when the play was adapted for film in 1956, as The King and I, with Brynner again in the title role. He won an Academy Award as best actor for his performance, having earned a Tony Award in 1952 as best featured actor in a musical.
Wary of being typecast, Brynner tried to broaden his repertory of film roles in the late 1950s and 1960s. He continued to maintain his shaved-head image, however, and some young people even began to imitate him. Over his motion-picture career, Brynner appeared in more than 40 films, taking leading roles in the highly regarded Anastasia (1956), The Brothers Karamazov (1958), and Solomon and Sheba (1959). In the cult Western The Magnificent Seven (1960) he played the leader of an outlaw gang, and he was cast in the science-fiction adventure Westworld (1973) as a murderous robot. Brynner's first film was Port of New York (1949); his last in English was Futureworld (1976).
Along with his film work, Brynner continued to make return appearances in the stage production of The King and I (now renamed due to the popularity of the film version), in part because the show was financially lucrative and the role relatively impervious to age-related changes in his appearance. In addition, Brynner viewed the role of the king of Siam as one in which he could completely immerse himself. “I like to sit on stage left, where the stage manager sits, during the overture. I get the audience's pulse from their reaction to the music, from their sound. It doesn't even consciously enter my mind,” he was quoted as saying by Michael Seiler in the Los Angeles Times.
When The King and I returned to Broadway for a major revival in 1977, Brynner was again the star, and he appeared in subsequent productions in London in 1979 and on Broadway again in 1984. He also appeared in a short-lived 1972 television series, Anna and the King. Over 30 years, he gave 4,625 performances on stage as the king of Siam.
Brynner's high-flying career took a toll on his personal life. He was married four times: his marriage to Gilmore ended in 1960, after producing a son, Rock, and subsequent marriages to Doris Kleiner and Jacqueline de Croisset also ended in divorce. Brynner's marriage to Kleiner produced a daughter, Victoria, and he and de Croisset adopted two Vietnamese orphans, naming them Mia and Melody. His final marriage, in 1983 to Kathy Lee, lasted until his death. Rock Brynner became a novelist and historian and wrote a book about the history of the Brynner family in eastern Russia.
An avid photographer, Brynner also continued to perform on the guitar, sometimes on film, and in 1967 he released an album, The Gypsy and I: Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs. He also wrote two books: Bring for the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East (1960) and The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You. Although he quit in 1971, Brynner smoked up to five packs of cigarettes a day for much of his life, and in 1983 he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He starred in his last performance of The King and I on June 30, 1985, and died in New York City on October 10 of that year. His name is enshrined in a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Brynner, Rock, Yul: The Man Who Would Be King, Berkeley Books, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1985, Michael Seiler, “Yul Brynner Dies at 65: 30 Years in ‘The King and I.’”
New York Times, October 11, 1985, Samuel G. Freedman, “Yul Brynner, Theater's ‘King,’ Dies.”
Allmovie, http://www.allmovie.com/ (July 17, 2017), Hal Erickson, “Yul Brynner.”□