Exotic leading man of American films, famed as much for his completely bald head as for his performances, Yul Brynner masked much of his life in mystery and outright lies designed to tease people he considered gullible. It was not until the publication of the books “Yul: The Man Who Would Be King” and “Empire and Odyssey” by his son, Yul “Rock” Brynner, that many of the details of Brynner’s early life became clear.
Yul sometimes claimed to be a half-Swiss, half-Japanese named Taidje Khan, born on the island of Sakhalin; in reality, he was the son of Marousia Dimitrievna (Blagovidova), the Russian daughter of a doctor, and Boris Yuliyevich Bryner, an engineer and inventor of Swiss-German and Russian descent. He was born in their home town of Vladivostok on 11 July 1920 and named Yuli after his grandfather, Jules Bryner. When Yuli’s father abandoned the family, his mother took him and his sister Vera to Harbin, Manchuria, where they attended a YMCA school. In 1934 Yuli’s mother took her children to Paris. Her son was sent to the exclusive Lycée Moncelle, but his attendance was spotty. He dropped out and became a musician, playing guitar in the nightclubs among the Russian gypsies who gave him his first real sense of family. He met luminaries such as Jean Cocteau and became an apprentice at the Theatre des Mathurins. He worked as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque d’Hiver company.
He traveled to the U.S. in 1941 to study with acting teacher Michael Chekhov and toured the country with Chekhov’s theatrical troupe. That same year, he debuted in New York as Fabian in “Twelfth Night” (billed as Youl Bryner). After working in a very early TV series, Mr. Jones and His Neighbors (1944), he played on Broadway in “Lute Song” with Mary Martin, winning awards and mild acclaim. He and his wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, starred in the first TV talk show, Mr. and Mrs. (1948). Brynner then joined CBS as a television director. He made his film debut in Port of New York (1949). Two years later Mary Martin recommended him for the part he would forever be known for: the King in Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical “The King and I”. Brynner became an immediate sensation in the role, repeating it for film (The King and I (1956)) and winning the Oscar for Best Actor.
For the next two decades, he maintained a starring film career despite the exotic nature of his persona, performing in a wide range of roles from Egyptian pharaohs to Western gunfighters, almost all with the same shaved head and indefinable accent. In the 1970s he returned to the role that had made him a star, and spent most of the rest of his life touring the world in “The King and I”. When he developed lung cancer in the mid 1980s, he left a powerful public service announcement denouncing smoking as the cause, for broadcast after his death. The cancer and its complications, after a long illness, ended his life. Brynner was cremated and his ashes buried in a remote part of France, on the grounds of the Abbey of Saint-Michel de Bois Aubry, a short distance outside the village of Luzé. He remains one of the most fascinating, unusual and beloved stars of his time.
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