Yul Brynner

Active - 1949 - 2016  |   Born - Jul 11, 1920 in Vladivostok, Russia  |   Died - Oct 10, 1985   |   Genres - Drama, Action, Adventure, Western, War

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Biography by Hal Erickson

During his lifetime, it was hard to determine when and where actor Yul Brynner was born, simply because he changed the story in every interview; confronted with these discrepancies late in life, he replied, "Ordinary mortals need but one birthday." At any rate, it appears that Brynner's mother was part Russian, his father part Swiss, and that he lived in Russia until his mother moved the family to Manchuria and then Paris in the early '30s. He worked as a trapeze artist with the touring Cirque D'Hiver, then joined a repertory theater company in Paris in 1934. Brynner's fluency in Russian and French enabled him to build up a following with the Czarist expatriates in Paris, and his talents as a singer/guitarist increased his popularity. And when Michael Chekhov hired Brynner for his American theater company, he added a third language -- English -- to his repertoire.

After several years of regional acting, Brynner was hired by the Office of War Information as an announcer for their French radio service. In 1945, Brynner was cast as Tsai-Yong in the musical play Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin; the production opened on Broadway in 1946, and, though its run was short, Brynner won the Most Promising Actor Donaldson award. He went on to do theater in London and direct early live television programs in the States, including a children's puppet show, Life With Snarky Parker. In 1949, the actor made his movie debut as a two-bit smuggler in a Manhattan-filmed quickie Port of New York, which has taken on a video-store life of its own since lapsing into the public domain. On the strength of his Lute Song work of several years earlier, Brynner was cast as the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 musical The King and I. The play was supposed to be a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, with the king an important but secondary role; but so powerful was Brynner's work that the role was beefed up in rehearsal, causing supporting actor Murvyn Vye to quit the show when Vye's only song was cut to give more stage time to Brynner. The King and I was an enormous hit, supplying Brynner with the role of a lifetime, one in which he would repeat brilliantly in the 1956 film version -- and win an Oscar in the process. Cecil B. DeMille, impressed by Brynner's King performance, cast the actor as the Egyptian Pharoah Rameses I in DeMille's multimillion-dollar blockbuster The Ten Commandments (1956). It became difficult for Brynner to play a "normal" character after this, so he seldom tried, although he came close to subtle believability in Anastasia (1956) and The Journey (1959). The first baldheaded movie idol, Brynner occasionally donned a wig or, as in Taras Bulba (1962), a Russian pigtail, but his fans (particularly the ladies) preferred him "scalped," as it were. Outside of his film work, Brynner was also an accomplished photographer, and many of his pictures appeared in major magazine spreads or were used as official studio production stills.

Hollywood changed radically in the '70s, and the sort of larger-than-life fare in which Brynner thrived thinned out; so, in 1972, the actor agreed to re-create his King and I role in an expensive weekly TV series, Anna and the King. But it lasted all of eight weeks. Brynner's last major film role was in the sci-fi thriller Westworld (1973) as a murderously malfunctioning robot, dressed in Western garb reminiscent of the actor's wardrobe in 1960's The Magnificent Seven. What could have been campy or ludicrous became a chilling characterization in Brynner's hands; his steady, steely-eyed automaton glare as he approached his human victims was one of the more enjoyably frightening filmgoing benefits of the decade. In 1977, Brynner embarked upon a stage revival of The King and I, and though he was dogged by tales of his outrageous temperament and seemingly petty demands during the tour, audiences in New York and all over the country loved the show. The actor inaugurated a second King tour in 1985; this time, however, he knew he was dying of lung cancer, but kept the news from both his fans and co-workers. Unable to perform the "Shall We Dance" waltz or get all the words out for the song "A Puzzlement," Brynner nonetheless played to packed audiences willing to shell out 75 dollars per ticket. Two months after the play closed in 1985, Brynner died in a New York hospital -- still insisting that his public not know the severity of his condition until after his death, although he had recorded a dramatic public-service announcement to be broadcast afterward that blamed the illness on smoking.

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  • When interviewed, gave differing information about his life, including that he was born Taidje Khan on Sakhalin Island to a Mongol father and a Gypsy mother.
  • His grandfather Julius Bryner was a Swiss immigrant who was a "founder" of the city of Vladivostok.
  • Was once a trapeze artist with the French circus Cirque d'Hiver.
  • Played his most famous role, the King of Siam in The King and I, in over 4,000 stage performances.
  • One of few people to win an Oscar and a Tony for the same role.
  • Was a talented photographer whose work was used in major magazines and as official studio production stills.
  • Died the same day as Orson Welles.
  • Appeared in a posthumously released public-service announcement in which he linked his fatal lung cancer to his smoking habit.