Yul Brynner (1920-85)

Yul Brynner
Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner was a Russian-born film and stage actor well known for his distinctive shaved head and for his roles as the King of Siam in the musical 'The King and I' in 1956 for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award, and as Chris Adams, the leader of the pack in 'The Magnificent Seven' in 1960.

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Yul Brynner was born in Vladivostok, Russia on 11 July 1920, and named Yuli Borisovitch Bryner after his grandfather Jules Bryner. During his life Brynner would often conceal or falsify details of his early life, including the year he was born which he revealed to be anything between 1915 and 1922. The year 1920 is given by his son Yul "Rock" Brynner in his biographies of his father. Brynner had a sister, Vera, six years his senior. His father, Boris, was a mining engineer and the family were comfortably off.

When Brynner was three, his father abandoned the family after falling in love with an actress from the Moscow Art Theatre, and he and his sister were taken by their mother to Manchuria in north eastern China, where they attended a YMCA school. In 1932 the family moved to Paris and Brynner briefly and reluctantly attended the exclusive and expensive Lyceé Moncelle before leaving to lead the free and easy artist's life, earning a living as a guitar player in nightclubs, particularly those frequented by Russian Romany gypsies.

Acting Career

He developed a love for performing whilst working for three years as a trapeze artist with the Cirque d'Hiver but in 1934, after an accident limited his acrobatic career, he turned to acting with a Parisian repertory theater company, the Theatre des Mathurins . For several years he toured France with the company gaining solid acting experience.

In 1940 he left France and travelled with his mother to America to join his sister, Vera, in New York where she was training to be an opera singer. He continued his acting education, studying with Michael Chekhov and, after making his American stage debut in 1942 as Fabian in "Twelfth Night" in New York, he toured with Chekhov's theatrical troupe.

World War II

As an actor and fluent French speaker, he was hired by the United States Office of War Information to work as a radio announcer for their French radio service, broadcasting to occupied France.

Rise to Stardom

Towards the end of the war he resumed his acting career, appearing on the new medium of television in the 1944 series 'Mr Jones and his Neighbors'. The following year he appeared on Broadway in 'Lute Song', with Mary Martin. The play was not a resounding success but Brynner won the Most Promising Actor Donaldson award and it marked the beginning of his rise to stardom. In 1948 he appeared with his wife, Virginia Gilmore, on the first TV talk show, 'Mr. and Mrs.' and the following year he made his movie debut in 'Port of New York'. He continued to work in television, directing a children's puppet Western, 'Life with Snarky Parker' in 1950 which was cancelled after eight months.

The King and I

In 1951 Brynner's star began to rise in earnest when he was recommended by his 'Lute Song' 'co-star, Mary Martin, to apply for the part of the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, 'The King and I'. His role was at first intended to be secondary to that of his co-star, Gertrude Lawrence, but his acting was so powerful that the part was extended, and the script changed, to give him more stage time.

The play was an enormous success, running for 1,246 performances and it turned Brynner into a major star. He was the natural choice to recreate his role in the movie version which came out in 1956. (Marlon Brando was briefly considered.) The movie, which co-starred Deborah Kerr, was another triumph for Brynner who won a Best Actor Academy Award.

Hollywood Star

Also in 1956 Brynner was cast by Cecil B DeMille in the important role of Rameses I, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in the epic 'The Ten Commandments'. Later in the same year he appeared in a third top class movie, using his exotic looks to good effect in a starring role in 'Anastasia', with Ingrid Bergman.

For the next 15 years he continued to star in good quality movies in a variety of genres. In 1959 he gave a compelling performance as a Russian officer in Cold War Europe, again opposite Deborah Kerr, in 'The Journey' . After another epic in 1959, 'Solomon and Sheba', he gave an acting masterclass in 1960 in an all star cast in the evergreen Western 'The Magnificent Seven'. Other films of note during this period were 'Taras Bulba' in 1962, the war film 'Cast a Giant Shadow' in 1966, starring Kirk Douglas, 'Return of the Seven', also in 1966, and 'The Madwoman of Chaillot', co-starring Katharine Hepburn, in 1969.

Later Career

Brynner made a number of movies during the 1970's and 1980's but they were generally inferior to his earlier work. The exception was the science-fiction thriller, 'Westworld' in 1973, in which he played a robot. He spent more time on stage, touring the world's capitals playing the role which had initially defined him in 'The King and I'. He also appeared in a weekly spin-off TV series called 'Anna and the King' which was disappointing and which was called off after 13 episodes.


Brynner was married four times. His first wife was actress Virginia Gilmore. The couple had one son, Yul "Rock" Brynner, and divorced in 1960. His second marriage, in 1960, was to Chilean model Doris Kleiner, with whom he had one child, Victoria Brynner. The couple divorced in 1967.

His third marriage, in 1971 was to French socialite, Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume. They adopted two Vietnamese children, Mia and Melody before divorcing in 1981 Brynner's fourth and last marriage was to 25 year old Malaysian ballerina, Kathyyam Lee whom he married in 1983. The couple remained married until Brynner's death two years later. Brynner was a known womaniser and had numerous affairs, both with actresses, such as Marlene Dietrich and Claire Bloom and with female fans. In 1959, as his first marriage was breaking up, he fathered a daughter, Lark Brynner, with actress Frankie Tilden.

Brynner, who had been a heavy smoker since the age of 12, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. He underwent radiation therapy and then, after a few months off, resumed his touring with 'The King and I'. His last performance was at the end of June, 1985 and was the 4,625th time he had played the role of the King.

Yul Brynner died from lung cancer on October 10, 1985. His remains are interred near Poitiers in west central France on the grounds of the Saint-Michel-de-Bois-Aubry Russian Orthodox monastery.

Yul Brynner Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... The King and I (1956)
No Unsuccessful Nominations:

Yul Brynner Filmography

Port of New York
he Brothers Karamazov
The Buccaneer
The Journey
The Sound and the Fury
Solomon and Sheba
The Children of Lindos (Short)
Once More, with Feeling!
Testament of Orpheus (uncredited)
Surprise Package
The Magnificent Seven
Goodbye Again (uncredited)
Escape from Zahrain
Taras Bulba
Kings of the Sun
Flight from Ashiya
Invitation to a Gunfighter
Cast a Giant Shadow
Danger Grows Wild
Return of the Seven
Triple Cross
The Double Man
The Long Duel
Villa Rides
The File of the Golden Goose
The Battle on the River Neretva
The Madwoman of Chaillot
The Magic Christian (uncredited)