07 May, 2009

Yul Brynner


Yul Brynner was a Russian-born actor of stage and film, best known for his portrayal of the King of Siam in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I on both stage and screen, as well as Rameses II in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments and as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven.

He was noted for his deep, rich voice and for his shaven head, which he kept as a personal trademark after adopting it in his role in The King and I.

He was born Yuliy Borisovich Brynner in Vladivostok, Far Eastern Republic. His father, Boris Brynner, was a mining engineer of Swiss and Mongolian ancestry and his mother Marusya was a housewife.

Brynner exaggerated his background and early life for the press, claiming that he was born Taidje Khan of part-Mongol parentage, on the Russian island of Sakhalin. A biography published by his son Rock Brynner in 1989 clarified these issues.

He claimed to be a quarter Romany and in 1983 was elected to the position of Honorary President of the Roma, an office that he kept until he died. He also infrequently referred to himself as Julius Briner. In addition to his work as a performer, Brynner was an active photographer, and wrote two books.

After Boris Brynner abandoned his family, his mother took Yul and his sister, Vera Bryner, to Harbin, China, where they attended a school run by the YMCA, and in 1934 she took them to Paris.

During World War II, Brynner worked as a French speaking radio announcer and commentator for the U.S. Office of War Information, broadcasting propaganda to occupied France.

Brynner's best-known role was that of King Mongkut of Siam in the Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I which he played 4,626 times on stage over the span of his career. He appeared in the original production and subsequent touring productions, as well as a 1977 Broadway revival, and another Broadway revival in 1985. He also appeared in the film version for which he won an Academy Award as Best Actor, and in a short-lived TV version (Anna and the King) on CBS in 1972. Brynner is one of only nine people who have won both a Tony Award and an Academy Award for the same role.

He made an immediate impact upon launching his film career in 1956, appearing not only in The King and I that year, but also in major roles in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman. Brynner, at 5'10", was reportedly concerned about being overshadowed by Charlton Heston's physical presence in the film The Ten Commandments and prepared with an intensive weight-lifting program.

He later starred in such films as the Biblical epic Solomon and Sheba (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Kings of the Sun (1963). He co-starred with Marlon Brando in Morituri; Katharine Hepburn in The Madwoman of Chaillot and William Shatner in a film version of The Brothers Karamazov (1958). He starred with Barbara Bouchet in Death Rage, 1976. Among his final feature film appearances were in Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976). Brynner also appeared in drag in an unbilled role in the Peter Sellers comedy The Magic Christian (1969).

In addition to his work as a performer, Brynner was an active photographer, and wrote two books. His daughter Victoria put together Yul Brynner: Photographer a collection of his photographs of family, friends, and fellow actors, as well as those he took while serving as a UN special consultant on refugees. Brynner wrote Bring Forth 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.

A student of music from childhood, Brynner was an accomplished guitarist and singer. In his early period in Europe he often played and sang gypsy songs in Parisian nightclubs with Aliosha Dimitrievitch. He sang some of those same songs in the film The Brothers Karamazov. In 1967, he and Dimitrievitch released a record album, The Gypsy and I: Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs.


Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985 in New York City.

Knowing he was dying of cancer, Brynner starred in a run of farewell performances of his most famous role, The King and I, on Broadway from January 7 to June 30, 1985, opposite Mary Beth Peil. He received the 1985 Special Tony award honoring his 4,525 performances in The King and I.

Throughout his life, Brynner was often seen with a cigarette in his hand. In January 1985, nine months before his death, he gave an interview on Good Morning America, expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial. A clip from that interview was made into just such a public service announcement by the American Cancer Society, and released after his death; it includes the warning "Now that I'm gone, I tell you, don't smoke." This advertisement is now featured in the Body Worlds exhibition.

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