The Life of Yul Brynner (1920 – 1985)
Yul Brynner was an actor most famous for his portrayal of King Mongkut in Rodger and Hammerstein’s musical, ‘The King and I’. Writing this article brought back many fond memories of my childhood. When I was a child, my parents let me watch the old 1956 version of ‘The King And I’ and I was held spellbound by Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr’s performance, especially when they sang ‘Shall We Dance’.http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/ShallWeDance1.flv
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After researching Yul Brynner’s life, I had mixed feelings about him. I knew he was talented and successful but I also discovered that he had a hidden past which he kept secret for quite a while. However in spite of all that, he was passionate in helping others. He used his fame to champion the plight of refugees and took up the position as Special Consultant for Refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Even when he was dying of lung cancer, he made it a point to bring awareness to the very cause of his cancer – smoking.
I deeply rejoice that he used his fame to lessen other people’s suffering. At the end of the day, no matter how successful we are, nobody can escape death. Therefore, we should use our time wisely.
I hope you enjoy reading this short article about this multi-talented actor, author, singer, activist and photographer who played the role of King Mongkut an incredible 4,625 times!
Born on 11 July 1920 in Vladivostok, Russia, Yul Brynner was given the name Yuli Borisovich Briner. His father was a mining engineer named Boris Yuliyevich Briner of mixed Swiss-German and Russian descent. His mother was Marousia Dimitrievna of Russian descent. Yul Brynner was named after his paternal grandfather, Jules Briner. He also inherited the Buryat-Mongolian ancestry through his paternal grandmother, Natalya Yosifovna Kurkutova.
During his lifetime, very few people knew about Yul Brynner’s background. He liked to tease people by keeping his real ancestry a secret. At one time, he claimed to be a half-Swiss and half-Japanese man by the name of Taidje Khan and born on the island of Sakhalin. Yul Brynner remained a private person as he declared:
“People don’t know my real self, and they’re not about to find out.”
The closest he came to revealing his background was when he briefly mentioned his Mongolian ancestry,
“I am just a nice clean cut Mongolian boy.”
According to his friend J. Lee Thompson, Yul Brynner did not reveal much about his childhood or his parents, but
“…we [his friends] knew that somewhere there was something that had hurt him in days gone by. Here was this man who was the king, who overpowered everybody that he came in contact with, and yet you would see him sometimes sitting down and a glimpse of tears would come to his eyes and he would be thinking deeply about something. I knew that Yul with all his bombast was also a very human person who had been hurt and had largely succeeded in covering up those wounds.”
It was not until the publication of the biographies, ‘Yul: The Man Who Would Be King’ and ‘Empire and Odyssey’ by his son, Yul “Rock” Brynner II (“Rock Brynner”), that the public got a glimpse of the earlier part of his life.
In 1923, when Yul Brynner was just three, his father had an affair with another woman, Katya Kornukova, an actress at Moscow Art Theatre, and soon abandoned his family. Perhaps, the emotional scars remained with him and made him into this brooding and intensely private person. After her husband left her, Marousia took her children Yul and Vera Brynner to Harbin, China where they attended a YMCA school.
In 1932 (some sources state 1934), sensing the rising tensions between Japan and China, Marousia moved her family to Paris, France in order to avoid the impending war. Although he was enrolled at an exclusive school in France, Lycée Moncelle, Yul Brynner was not interested in school. He instead wanted to be in the performing arts. He dropped out of school and subsequently worked as a trapeze artist in a famous circus, Cirque d’Hiver. It was during this time that Yul Brynner developed an appreciation for Gypsy folk songs and culture. In the documentary ‘Yul Brynner: The Man Who Was King’, his agent Guy McElwayne said:
His Gypsy background, which he was very proud of, gave him incredible sense of belonging wherever he was. When he was in America, he was an American. When he was in France, he was French…
During his 5th year in the circus, Yul Brynner suffered a back injury and his career as a trapeze artist came to an abrupt end. Subsequently, he played the guitar, primarily Gypsy songs, at various Russian nightclubs in Paris. In 1938, Marousia was diagnosed with leukaemia and the family briefly moved back to Harbin, China.
The Successful Career of Yul Brynner
In 1940, Yul Brynner and his mother decided to emigrate to the United States. They arrived in New York City on 25 October 1940 and were greeted by his sister, Vera, who had emigrated before them and worked as a singer on Broadway.
Yul Brynner worked as a French-speaking radio commentator for the US Office of War Information during World War II where he broadcasted into German-occupied France. Around the same time, he studied under the tutelage of multi-talented Russian-American actor, Michael Chekhov. In December 1941, Yul Brynner performed his first Broadway show as Fabian in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. Subsequently, he worked in the television series ‘Mr. Jones and His Neighbors’ and another Broadway play, ‘Lute Song’ with actress Mary Martin. Although Yul Brynner only won mild acclaim for his work in ‘Lute Song’, his friendship with Mary Martin would later bring him the biggest acting role in his career.
In 1944, Yul Brynner married his first wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, and began his career as a film and television director at CBS. His directing debut was ‘Life with Snarky Parker’ (1950), a children’s puppet show. The show aired for eight months before it was cancelled. He eventually established himself as a successful director after directing the films ‘Studio One in Hollywood’ (1948), ‘Danger’ (1950) and ‘Omnibus’ (1952).
In 1950, Mary Martin encouraged Yul Brynner to audition for the role of King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new musical, ‘The King and I’. Although he was initially reluctant to return to the stage, he became fascinated with the character of King Mongkut and eventually agreed to join the cast for the original Broadway production in 1951. Yul Brynner was asked to shave his head for the role and he agreed. Since then, he kept his head shaved and his bald head became his most notable trademark.
Yul Brynner was sensational as King Mongkut and he won two Tony Awards. Throughout his career, he reprised the role 4,625 times. He also played the role of King Mongkut in the 1956 film version of ‘The King and I’ and won an Academy Award for Best Actor. In his acceptance speech, he famously said:
I hope this is not a mistake, because I won’t give it back for anything in the world. Thank you very much.
The film version of ‘The King and I’ was launched in the same year as Yul Brynner’s two other blockbuster films, ‘The Ten Commandments’ in which he played the role of Ramesses II and ‘Anastasia’ in which he played the role of General Bounine. ‘The Ten Commandments’ is considered one of the most commercially successful films of all time. After the success of these three films in which he played the leading roles, Yul Brynner achieved worldwide fame and became one of Hollywood’s A-list leading men. One year later on 8 February 1960, he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in California.
Yul Brynner in ‘The Ten Commandments’http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/TenCommandment.flv
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Yul Brynner in ‘Anastasia’http://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/Anastasia.flv
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For the next two decades of his career, Yul Brynner continued to be highly successful in Hollywood and starred in over 40 other films including ‘Solomon and Sheba’ (1959), ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), ‘Taras Bulba’ (1962) and ‘Kings of the Sun’ (1963). Due to his exotic good looks and macho appearance, he was typically cast in strong leading roles such as kings, an Egyptian Pharaoh and a Western gunslinger.
The Other Talents of Yul Brynner
In addition to being an actor and director, Yul Brynner was also an accomplished photographer, author and guitarist. He actively took many photographs of friends, family members and refugees whom he met while serving as the Special Consultant on Refugees for the UNHCR.
Yul Brynner wrote two books, ‘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’ (1983). Victoria Brynner, his daughter, compiled the photographs he took during his lifetime and published a book entitled ‘Yul Brynner: Photographer’.
The Philanthropic Work of Yul Brynner
Yul Brynner was passionate about refugee issues which arose from his interest in collecting United Nations Refugee stamps. This led to him taking up the post as Special Consultant on Refugees for the UNHCR. He took the job seriously and used his fame to bring awareness to the sufferings of refugees around the world from Asia to the Middle East. Although there were times when entering a refugee campsite was risky business with patrolling local armies, Yul Brynner remained fearless. His friends believe that it was his Gypsy background that made him so. He also made two documentaries to highlight refugee issues.
The Personal Life of Yul Brynner
Yul Brynner’s personal life was not ordinary. He had numerous love affairs with many women and was married a total of four times, to:
- Virginia Gilmore (1944 – 1960; divorced; 1 child – Rock Brynner)
- Doris Kleiner (1960 – 1967; divorced; 1 child – Victoria Brynner)
- Jaqueline de Croisset (1971-1981; divorced; 2 adopted children – Mia and Melody Brynner)
- Kathy Lee (1983 – 1985; his death)
He had an interesting opinion of women in general. One of his famous quotes about women was:
Girls have an unfair advantage over men: if they can’t get what they want by being smart, they can get it by being dumb.
Yul Brynner also had a daughter, Lark Brynner, with German actress Frances Martin and was godfather to French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. One of his daughters, Victoria Brynner is a successful businesswoman in her own right. She founded her company, Stardust Visions and Stardust Celebrities, a photo-production company in Los Angeles, California in 1992. Actress Audrey Hepburn was her godmother.
The Death of Yul Brynner
Yul Brynner began smoking at the age of 12 and chain smoked until he kicked the habit in 1971. In 1983, he found a lump in his throat and decided to go for a medical checkup. He received his test results several hours before his 4,000th performance in ‘The King and I’. The test results revealed that although his throat was fine, he was suffering from inoperable lung cancer and given three months to live.
Yul Brynner took several months off to undergo therapy which made it difficult for him to sing or speak. Therefore, during some performances, his son Rock Brynner would dub his voice from the seat beside the conductor. During one of these performances, Rock Brynner came to see him during the intermission. Yul Brynner embraced him and whispered:
You must play the king older now Rock. I am older. You are playing it like a 30-year-old. You are now, and I was then. But now it is an older king.
Although he was sick, Yul Brynner decided to continue to work and therefore ‘The King and I’ tour resumed. He ended the 4,625th show and his last performance as King Mongkut on 30 June 1985.
Acting gave him something to look forward to and Yul Brynner ended up living for two years after his initial cancer diagnosis. Aware that he was dying from a disease caused by smoking, he accepted an interview on Good Morning America in which he spoke of the dangers of smoking.
Yul Brynner passed away from lung cancer on 10 October 1985. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the Abbey of Saint-Michel de Bois Aubry, France. Several days after his passing, the anti-smoking public service announcement that he recorded prior to his death was aired on all major television networks in the United States and other countries. In the commercial, he poignantly said:
Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.
Or view the video on the server at:
More Pictures of Yul Brynner
|1949||Port of New York||Paul Vicola|
|1956||The King and I||King Mongkut of Siam|
|1956||The Ten Commandments||Ramesses|
|1956||Anastasia||General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine|
|1958||The Brothers Karamazov||Dmitri Karamazov|
|1958||The Buccaneer||Jean Lafitte|
|1959||The Journey||Major Surov|
|1959||The Sound and the Fury||Jason Compson|
|1960||Once More, With Feeling!||Victor Fabian|
|1960||Testament of Orpheus||L’huissier / Court usher|
|1960||Surprise Package||Nico March|
|1960||The Magnificent Seven||Chris Larabee Adams|
|1961||Goodbye Again||Extra in nightclub scene|
|1962||Escape from Zahrain||Sharif|
|1962||Taras Bulba||Taras Bulba|
|1963||Kings of the Sun||Chief Black Eagle|
|1964||Flight from Ashiya||Sgt. Mike Takashima|
|1964||Invitation to a Gunfighter||Jules Gaspard d’Estaing|
|1966||Cast a Giant Shadow||Asher Gonen|
|1966||The Poppy is Also a Flower||Colonel Salem|
|1966||Return of the Seven||Chris|
|1966||Triple Cross||The Double Man|
|1967||The Double Man||Dan Slater/ Kalmer|
|1967||The Long Duel||Sultan|
|1968||Villa Rides||Pancho Villa|
|1969||The File of the Golden Goose||Peter Novak|
|1969||Battle of Neretva||Vlado (Vladimir Smirnov)|
|1969||The Madwoman of Chaillot||The Chairman|
|1969||The Magic Christian||Transvestite cabaret singer|
|1970||Adiós, Sabata||Sabata/ Indio Black|
|1971||The Light at the Edge of the World||Jonathan Kongre|
|1971||Romance of a Horsethief||Captain Stoloff|
|1972||Fuzz||The Deaf Man|
|1972||Anna and the King||King Mongkut of Siam|
|1973||Night Flight from Moscow||Col. Alexei Vlassov|
|1975||The Ultimate Warrior||Carson|
|1976||Future World||The Gunslinger|
|1976||Death Rage||Peter Marciani|
Selected Directing Roles
|1953||15 Million Men Without a Country|
|1953||Omnibus (TV Series) (2 episodes)|
|1950-1953||Danger (TV series) (5 episodes)|
|1950-1951||Sure As Fate (TV series) (4 episodes)|
|1950||Starlight Theatre (TV Series) (3 Episodes)|
|1950-1951||We Take Your Word (TV Series)|
|1950||Actor’s Studio (TV Series) (2 Episodes)|
Selected Stage Work
|1941||Twelfth Night (Broadway)|
|1946||Lute Song (Broadway and US national tour)|
|1951||The King and I (Broadway and US national tour)|
|1976||Home Sweet Homer (Broadway)|
|1977||The King and I (Broadway, London and US national tour)|
|1985||The King and I (Broadway)|
For more interesting information:
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- America’s Next Top Buddhist Model
- Katy Perry A Buddhist?
- Hollywood Legend Anna May Wong
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