Nationality: Swiss. Born: Taidje Kahn on Sakhalin Island, 12 July 1915; became citizen of Switzerland, late 1960s. Family: Married 1) the actress Virginia Gilmore, 1944 (divorced 1960), son: Yul Brynner II; 2) Doris Kleiner, 1960 (divorced), daughter: Victoria; 3) Jacqueline de Croisset, 1972, two daughters. Career: 1940—came to U.S. with actor Michael Chekhov's Shakespeare company; 1942—recruited by U.S. Office of War information as radio commentator in French; 1946—Broadway debut in Lute Song ; late 1940s—began directing for CBS-TV on series Danger and Studio One ; 1949—film acting debut in Port of New York ; 1950—director, Life with Snarky Parker , children's television puppet show; 1951—critical and popular attention for role of King of Siam in The King and I on Broadway, and in film version, 1956; 1956—formed Alciona Productions; 1958—formed Alby Productions with Anatole Litvak; 1959–62—narrated documentaries for United Nations on refugee children; late 1960s—moved to Switzerland; 1972—in U.S. TV series The King and I ; 1972—returned to acting in Hollywood films; 1975—returned to Broadway in unsuccessful Home Sweet Homer 1977—in successful revival of The King and I on Broadway; 1981–85—on tour in
revival of The King and I . Awards: Best Actor Academy Award for The King and I , 1956. Died: 10 October 1985.
Films as Actor:
Port of New York (Benedek)
The King and I (Walter Lang); The Ten Commandments (DeMille); Anastasia (Litvak)
The Brothers Karamazov (Brooks); The Buccaneer (Quinn)
The Journey (Litvak); The Sound and the Fury (Ritt); Solomon and Sheba (King Vidor); Le Testament d'Orphée ( The Testament of Orpheus ) (Cocteau); Mission to No Man's Land (Pessis) (as narrator)
Once More, with Feeling! (Donen); Profile of a Miracle (as narrator); Surprise Package (Donen); The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges)
Goodbye Again ( Aimez-vous Brahms? ) (Litvak); My Friend Nicholas (Raymond) (as narrator)
Escape from Zahrain (Neame); Taras Balba (Thompson); Man Is to Man . . . (Wright) (as narrator)
Kings of the Sun (Thompson)
Flight from Ashiya (Anderson); Invitation to a Gunfighter (Wilson)
Morituri ( The Saboteur Code Name "Morituri" ) (Wicki)
Paris brûle-t-il? ( Is Paris Burning? ) (Clément); Cast a Giant Shadow (Shavelson); Return of the Seven (Kennedy); Danger Grows Wild ( The Poppy Is Also a Flower ) (Young); Triple Cross (Young)
The Long Duel (Annakin); The Double Man (Schaffner)
Villa Rides (Kulik)
Bitka na Neretvi ( The Battle of Neretva ) (Bulajic); The File of the Golden Goose (Wanamaker); The Magic Christian (McGrath); The Madwoman of Chaillot (Forbes)
Indio Black, sai che ti dico: sei un gran figlio di . . . ( Adios Sabata ; The Bounty Hunters ) (Frank Kramer, i.e. Gianfranco Parolini)
Romance of a Horsethief (Polonsky); Catlow (Wanamaker); La Luz del fin del mundo ( The Light at the Edge of the World ) (Billington)
The Picasso Summer (Salin); Fuzz (Colla)
Le Serpent ( Night Flight from Moscow ) (Verneuil); Westworld (Crichton)
The Ultimate Warrior (Clouse)
Futureworld (Heffron); Con la rabbia agli occhi ( Death Rage ; Anger in His Eyes ) (Anthony Dawson, i.e. Antonio Margheriti)
By BRYNNER: book—
Bring Forth the Children , New York, 1960.
Yul Brynner, Photographer , edited by Victoria Brynner, New York, 1996.
By BRYNNER: articles—
Interview in Ciné Revue (Paris), 4 September 1980.
Interview by Rocky Brynner in Inter/View (New York), March 1981.
On BRYNNER: books—
Robbins, Jhan, Yul Brynner: The Inscrutable King , New York, 1987.
Brynner, Rock, Yul: The Man Who Would Be King , New York, 1989.
On BRYNNER: articles—
"Head of Hair for a Head of Skin," in Life (New York), 18 March 1957.
"Yul Brynner—Golden Egghead," in Newsweek (New York), 19 May 1958.
Shipman, David, "Yul Brynner" in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years , New York, 1972.
Homage to Brynner, with filmography, in 1980 Deauville Film Festival Programme Booklet.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 16 October 1985.
"Yul Brynner," in Stars (Mariombourg, Belgium), no. 23, Summer 1995.
Brynner, Victoria, "The King and Eye," Vanity Fair (New York), no. 434, October 1996.
* * *
Yul Brynner's trademark—his baldness—was obviously the actor's most identifiable feature. On a deeper level, his bald pate signified the type he has played in films and on stage through most of his career. His image—exotic, often sinister, and foreign, yet virile, masculine, and authoritative—was undeniably linked to his physique, his Eurasian facial features, but most especially his bald head.
Early in his career, most of the publicity surrounding Brynner centered on his baldness. During the production of his early films such as The Ten Commandments and The King and I , articles in popular magazines were quick to equate his baldness with sexual attractiveness. A career article in Newsweek , for example, quoted several female fans at length on the subject of Brynner's appearance. One declared him to be "ugly magnetic" while another thought him "the most attractive man alive even if he grew grass on his head." Interestingly, in publicity for later films in which Brynner often donned hairpieces, attention was still directed to his baldness, as photography sessions were arranged by the studios to record the fitting of various wigs.
Brynner had originally shaved his head for his part as the King of Siam in the stage production of The King and I , a role which both made him a star and first presented him as exotic and erotic. Screen roles such as the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments , the King in the filmed version of The King and I , and Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer , reinforced this image—an image in stark contrast to that of other box office stars of the 1950s, including John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Jimmy Stewart, and Alan Ladd, who were masculine, yet distinctly American, and were rarely presented in such a sinister or seemingly negative manner.
Brynner himself added to the exotic aspects of his image by inventing several versions of his childhood for various publications. He declared himself to be either a gypsy or the illegitimate son of a gypsy and a wealthy Russian. Often he stated that he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, alternating this story with those about working as a gypsy singer in Parisian night spots or as a trapeze artist in a circus.
The peak of his film career was perhaps his role as the black-clad leader of a gang of cutthroats and outlaws in John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven . The film emphasized his authoritarian air, while playing down his more exotic side, depicting him as "the gunfighter," an outsider who by the nature of his profession can never be civilized. Brynner would reprise this character type again in later Westerns including Invitation to a Gunfighter , Return of the Seven (a sequel to The Magnificent Seven ), Indio Black , and Westworld .
Unfortunately, by the late 1960s too many roles with too little variation had him hopelessly stereotyped as foreign heads of state or doomed gunfighters. In 1968 Variety actually listed him as a liability to producers because his films were consistent financial and critical flops. A move to Switzerland and roles in several European films did little to change his box office status. His most outrageous role, and one that purposely played against his image, was a cameo as a transvestite in The Magic Christian .
Brynner died of lung cancer in 1985. His last "performance" was by far his most dramatic and perhaps his most courageous. Shortly before his death, Brynner filmed a public service announcement for the American Cancer Society in which he warned viewers about the dangers of cigarette smoking. Brynner makes clear to the audience in his monologue that by the time they see the commercial, he will already have died from the result of smoking. It was a truly memorable exit from a dynamic film star who had always shrouded himself in drama and mystery.
—Susan M. Doll