There is only one Yul Brynner. No other actor had his looks, his range of talents, his energy – and his capacity to draw others into the spell of his charm. A true sophisticate of deliberately mysterious origins, Brynner was at home in a wide variety of languages and social environments.
Born Yuliy Borisovich Brynner on 11 July 1910 in Russia, his mother Marusya Blagоvidova was the daughter of a Russian doctor and his father, Boris Brynner, was an engineer and inventor. Yul was named after his paternal grandfather, Jules Brynner.
After his father abandoned the family, his mother took Yul and his sister, Vera Bryner to China, where they attended a school run by the YMCA. They relocated again in 1934, this time to Paris.
During World War II, Brynner worked as a French-speaking radio announcer and commentator for the United States Government, broadcasting propaganda throughout occupied France.
He made an immediate impact upon launching his film career in 1956, appearing not only in the film version of ‘The King and I’ that year, but also in major roles in ‘The Ten Commandments’ opposite Charlton Heston and ‘Anastasia’ opposite Ingrid Bergman.
However, he found his perfect role in ‘The King And I’. The Academy Award-winning success that might have become a trap for a lesser star became the ongoing glory of his career, from the peak of his stardom to his untimely death. For his role as the King of Siam, Brynner shaved his head and following the success of the film, he continued to shave his head throughout his life but wore wigs for certain roles. This was an unusual and striking look for the time and became known as the ‘Yul Brynner Look’.
He later appeared in such films as the Biblical epic ‘Solomon and Sheba’ (1959), as ‘Solomon’, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), and ‘Westworld’ (1973).
He also 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’.
He starred with Barbara Bouchet in ‘Death Rage’ (1976). His final feature film appearance was in the sequel to Westworld, titled ‘Futureworld’ with Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner, in 1976.
Brynner also appeared in drag in an unbilled role in the Peter Sellers comedy ‘The Magic Christian’.
As well as acting, Brynner was an active photographer and wrote two books on the subject. He published ‘Bring Forth The Children: A Journey To The Forgotten Children of Europe and the Middle East’ in 1960, which featured his own images. In 1983, he released ‘The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit For The King And You’.
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 loved the show.
He inaugurated a second 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 some parts of the show, Brynner nonetheless played to packed audiences.
Two months after the play closed in 1985, Brynner sadly 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 afterwards that blamed the illness on smoking. It included Brynner giving the warning: “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.”
Brynner was married four times, the first three ending in divorce. He had three children and adopted two others. He married actress Virginia Gilmore in 1944 and they had a son called Yul Brynner II on 23 December 1946. His father gave him the nickname Rock when he was six-years-old. His parents divorced in 1960.
In 2006, Rock wrote a book about his father and his family history entitled ‘Empire and Odyssey: The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond’.
Brynner’s daughter Lark was born out of wedlock in 1959 and was raised by her mother Frankie Tilden, who was 20 when her child was born. Brynner financially supported them. He wed his second wife Chilean model Doris Kleiner in 1960. They had daughter Victoria in 1962 before divorcing in 1967.
In 1971, he married French socialite Jacqueline Thion De La Chaume and they adopted two Vietnamese children – Mia in 1974 and Melody in 1975. They divorced in 1981.
His fourth wife, Kathy Lee, was a dancer in The King and I shows. They married in 1983, when she was 24 and he was 62.