Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner

born on 11/7/1920 in Wladiwostok, Primorsky Krai, Russian Federation

died on 10/10/1985 in New York City, NY, United States

Yul Brynner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Yul Brynner

Yul Brynner in Sarajevo (1969)
Born Yuliy Borisovich Briner
July 11 1920
Vladivostok, Far Eastern Republic (present-day Vladivostok, Russia)
Died October 10 1985 (aged 65)
New York City, United States
Occupation Actor
Years active 1941-1985
Spouse(s) Virginia Gilmore (m. 1944–1960) «start: (1944)–end+1: (1961)»"Marriage: Virginia Gilmore to Yul Brynner" Location: (linkback: (divorced)
Doris Kleiner (m. 1960–1967) «start: (1960)–end+1: (1968)»"Marriage: Doris Kleiner to Yul Brynner" Location: (linkback: (divorced)
Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume (m. 1971–1981) «start: (1971)–end+1: (1982)»"Marriage: Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume to Yul Brynner" Location: (linkback: (divorced)
Kathy Lee (m. 1983–1985) «start: (1983)–end+1: (1986)»"Marriage: Kathy Lee to Yul Brynner" Location: (linkback: (his death)

Yul Brynner (Russian: , Yuliy Borisovich Briner; July 11, 1920 October 10, 1985)[1] was a Russian-born United States-based film and stage actor of Eurasian ancestry.[2] He was best known for his portrayal of the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, for which he won two Tony Awards and an Academy Award for the film version; he played the role 4,625 times on stage. He is also remembered as Rameses II in the 1955 Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster The Ten Commandments, General Bounine in the 1956 film Anastasia and Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven. Brynner was noted for his distinctive voice and for his shaved head, which he maintained as a personal trademark long after adopting it in 1951 for his role in The King and I. Earlier, he was a model and television director, and later a photographer and the author of two books.

Early life

Yul Brynner was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner in 1920.[3][4] He 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.[5] In reality, he was born at home in a four-story residence at 15 Aleutskaya Street, Vladivostok, in the Far Eastern Republic (present-day Primorsky Krai, Russia).[6] He occasionally referred to himself as Julius Briner,[1] Jules Bryner, or Youl Bryner.[3] The 1989 biography by his son, Rock Brynner, clarified some of these issues.[5]

His father, Boris Yuliyevich Briner, was a mining engineer whose father, Jules Briner, was a Swiss citizen who moved to Vladivostok in the 1870s and established a successful import/export company.[7] Brynner's paternal grandmother, Natalya Yosifovna Kurkutova, was a native of Irkutsk and a Eurasian of part Buryat ancestry. His mother, Marousia Dimitrievna (née Blagovidova), came from the intelligentsia and studied to be an actress and singer. He felt a strong personal connection to the Romani people; in 1977, Yul Brynner was named Honorary President of the International Romani Union, an office that he kept until his death.[8][9]

Boris Briner's work required extensive travel, and in 1923 he fell in love with an actress, Katya Kornukova, at the Moscow Art Theatre, and soon after abandoned his family. Yul's mother took him and his sister, Vera (born 1916), to Harbin, Manchuria (present day China), where they attended a school run by the YMCA. In 1932, fearing a war between China and Japan, she took them to Paris.[7] Brynner played his guitar in Russian nightclubs in Paris, sometimes accompanying his sister, playing Russian and gypsy songs. He trained as a trapeze acrobat and worked in a French circus troupe for three years, but after sustaining a back injury, he turned to acting.[7][10] In 1938, his mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and they briefly moved back to Harbin.[7]

In 1940, speaking very little English, Brynner and his mother emigrated to the US aboard the SS President Cleveland, arriving in New York City on October 25, 1940, where his sister already lived.[3][7] Vera, a singer, starred in The Consul on Broadway in 1950[11] and appeared at The Metropolitan Opera as Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus and on television in the title role of Carmen. She later taught voice in New York.[12]


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.[13] At the same time, he studied acting in Connecticut with the Russian teacher Michael Chekhov. Brynners first Broadway performance was a small part in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in December 1941. Brynner found little acting work during the next few years,[7] but among other acting stints, he co-starred in a 1946 production of Lute Song with Mary Martin. He also did some modeling work and was photographed nude by George Platt Lynes.[14]

Brynner's first marriage was to actress Virginia Gilmore in 1944, and soon after he began working as a director at the new CBS television studios, directing Studio One, among other shows. In 1949, he made his film debut in Port of New York, his only film with his natural head of hair. The next year, at the urging of Martin, he auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein's new musical in New York. He recalled that, as he was finding success as a director on television, he was reluctant to go back on the stage. Once he read the script, however, he was fascinated by the character of the King and was eager to do the project.[15]

His best-known role remains that of King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I, which he played 4,625 times on stage over the span of his career. He appeared in the original 1951 production and later touring productions as well as a 1977 Broadway revival, a London Production in 1979 and another Broadway revival in 1985. He won Tony Awards for both the first and the last of these Broadway productions. He also appeared in the 1956 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.[16] His connection to the story and the role of King Mongkut is so deep that he was mentioned in the song "One Night in Bangkok" from the 1984 musical Chess whose second act is set in Bangkok.

In 1951 Brynner shaved his head for his role in The King and I.[17][18] Following the huge success of the Broadway production and subsequent film, Brynner continued to shave his head for the rest of his life, though he would sometimes wear a wig for certain roles. Brynner's shaved head was unusual at the time, and his striking appearance helped to give him an iconic appeal.[19] Some fans shaved off their hair to imitate him,[20] and a shaved head was often referred to as the "Yul Brynner look".[21][22][23] Brynner reprised his "Shall We Dance?" segment with Patricia Morison on the TV special General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, broadcast March 28, 1954 on all four American TV networks of the time.

Brynner made an immediate impact upon launching his mainstream film career in 1956 and quickly gained superstar status after appearing not only in The King and I that year but also in starring roles in The Ten Commandments, and Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman. Brynner, at 5'8" was reportedly concerned about being overshadowed by co-star Charlton Heston's height and physical presence in The Ten Commandments and prepared his impressive physique seen in the film with an intensive weight-lifting program.

He appeared in more than 40 other films over the next two decades,[7] including the epic Solomon and Sheba (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Taras Bulba (1962) and Kings of the Sun (1963). He co-starred with Marlon Brando in Morituri (1965), Katharine Hepburn in The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) and Lee J. Cobb in a film version of The Brothers Karamazov (1958). He played the titular role of The Ultimate Warrior (1975) and 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 (as a torch singer) in an unbilled role in the Peter Sellers comedy The Magic Christian (1969).[24]

Photographer, author, and musician

In addition to his work as a director and performer, Brynner was an active photographer and wrote two books. His daughter Victoria put together Yul Brynner: Photographer (ISBN 0-8109-3144-3) 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), with photographs by himself and Magnum photographer Inge Morath, and The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You (1983 ISBN 0-8128-2882-8).

Brynner was an accomplished guitarist. 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 (Vanguard VSD 79265).

Personal life

Brynner married four times. The first three ended in divorce. He fathered three children and adopted two. He and his first wife, actress Virginia Gilmore (1944-1960), had one child, Rock Yul Brynner (born December 23, 1946). His father nicknamed him "Rock" when he was six years old in honor of boxer Rocky Graziano. Rock is a historian, novelist, and university history lecturer at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York and Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2006, Rock wrote a book about his father and his family history titled Empire and Odyssey: The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond. He regularly returns to Vladivostok, the city of his father's birth, for the "Pacific Meridian" Film Festival.

Brynner's daughter, Lark Brynner, was born out of wedlock in 1959 and raised by her mother, Frankie Tilden, who was 20 years old when Lark was born. Brynner supported her financially. His second wife, from 1960 to 1967, Doris Kleiner, was a Chilean model whom he married on the set during shooting of The Magnificent Seven in 1960. They had one child, Victoria Brynner (born November 1962), whose godmother was Audrey Hepburn.[25]

His third wife, Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume (1971-1981), a French socialite, was the widow of Philippe de Croisset (son of French playwright Francis de Croisset and a publishing executive). Brynner and Jacqueline adopted two Vietnamese children: Mia (1974) and Melody (1975). The first house Brynner owned was the Manoir de Criqueboeuf, a sixteenth-century manor house that he and Jacqueline purchased.[26] His 1980 announcement that he would continue in the role of the King for another long tour and Broadway run, together with his affairs with female fans and his neglect of his wife and children, purportedly broke up this marriage.[27]

On April 4, 1983, aged 62, Brynner married his fourth and last wife, Kathyyam Lee (born 1957/1958), a 24-year-old ballerina from Malaysia, whom he had met in a production of The King and I in which she had a small dancing role. They remained married for the last 2 years (198385) of Brynner's life.[28]


Brynner, a Swiss citizen, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, but in June 1965, he renounced his US citizenship at the US Embassy in Berne, Switzerland for tax reasons. He had lost his tax exemption as an American resident abroad by working too long in the United States and would have been bankrupted by his tax and penalty debts.[26]

Illness and death

Brynner began smoking heavily at age 12 and, although his promotional photos often showed him with a cigarette in hand, he quit the habit in 1971. In September 1983, Brynner found a lump on his vocal cords. In Los Angeles, only hours before his 4,000th performance in The King and I, he received the test results. His throat was fine, but he had inoperable lung cancer. Brynner and the national tour of the musical were forced to take a few months off while he underwent radiation therapy, which hurt his throat and made it impossible for him to sing or speak easily.[7] The tour then resumed.[29][30]

In January 1985, nine months before his death, the tour reached New York for a farewell Broadway run. Aware he was dying, Brynner gave an interview on Good Morning America discussing the dangers of smoking and expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial. The Broadway production of The King and I ran from January 7 to June 30 of that year, with Mary Beth Peil as Anna. His last performance marked the 4,625th time he had played the role of the King. Meanwhile, Brynner and the American Cancer Society created a public service announcement using a clip from the Good Morning America interview.

Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985 in New York City on the same day as his Battle of Neretva co-star Orson Welles.[31][32] Only a few days after his death, the public service announcement was showing on all the major US television networks and was shown in many other countries. The PSA showed him expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial after discovering how sick he was, and that his death was imminent. He then looked directly into the camera for 30 seconds and said, "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Dont smoke. Whatever you do, just dont smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn't be talking about any cancer. I'm convinced of that."

His remains are interred in France on the grounds of the Saint-Michel-de-Bois-Aubry Russian Orthodox monastery near Luzé between Tours and Poitiers.


  • In 1952, he received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of The King in The King and I. In 1985, he received a Special Tony Award honoring his 4,625 performances in The King and I.[33]
  • He won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the King of Siam in the film version of The King and I and made the "Top 10 Stars of the Year" list in both 1957 and 1958.
  • He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6162 Hollywood Blvd.


On September 28, 2012, an 2.4 metres (8 ft) tall statue was inaugurated at Yul Brynner Park, in front of the home where he was born at Aleutskaya St. No. 15 in Vladivostok, Russia. Created by local sculptor Alexei Bokiy, the monument was carved in granite from China. The grounds for the park were donated by the city of Vladivostok, which also paid additional costs. Vladivostok Mayor Igor Pushkariov, US Consul General Sylvia Curran, and Yul's son, Rock Brynner, participated in the ceremony, along with hundreds of local residents.


  • The cottage at his childhood country home, at Sidimi, near Vladivostok, is a family museum.
  • In a label-initiated publicity stunt, the 1960s surf group "The De-Fenders" shaved their heads and re-cast themselves as "The Brymers", inspired by Brynner.[34]


Year Film Role Notes
1949 Port of New York Paul Vicola
1956 The King and I King Mongkut of Siam Academy Award for Best Actor
National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (also for Anastasia and The Ten Commandments)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
NominatedGolden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Anastasia General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (also for The King and I and The Ten Commandments)
The Ten Commandments Rameses National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (also for The King and I and Anastasia)
1958 The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri Karamazov
The Buccaneer Jean Lafitte
1959 The Journey Major Surov
The Sound and the Fury Jason Compson
Solomon and Sheba Solomon
1960 Once More, with Feeling! Victor Fabian
Surprise Package Nico March
The Magnificent Seven Chris Larabee Adams Nominated Laurel Award for Top Action Performance
1962 Escape from Zahrain Sharif
Taras Bulba Taras Bulba
1963 Kings of the Sun Chief Black Eagle
1964 Flight from Ashiya Sgt. Mike Takashima
Invitation to a Gunfighter Jules Gaspard d'Estaing
1965 Morituri Captain Mueller
1966 Cast a Giant Shadow Asher Gonen
The Poppy Is Also a Flower Colonel Salem (also titled Danger Grows Wild)
Return of the Seven Chris
Triple Cross Baron Von Grunen
1967 The Double Man Dan Slater/ Kalmer
The Long Duel Sultan
1968 Villa Rides Pancho Villa
1969 The File of the Golden Goose Peter Novak
Battle of Neretva Vlado
The Madwoman of Chaillot The Chairman
1970 Adiós, Sabata Sabata/ Indio Black
1971 The Light at the Edge of the World Jonathan Kongre
Romance of a Horsethief Captain Stoloff
Catlow Catlow
1972 Fuzz The Deaf Man
1973 Night Flight from Moscow Col. Alexei Vlassov
Westworld The Gunslinger
1975 The Ultimate Warrior Carson
1976 Futureworld The Gunslinger
Death Rage Peter Marciani

Short subjects

  • On Location with Westworld (1973)
  • Lost to the Revolution (1980) (narrator)

Select stage work

  • Twelfth Night (1941) (Broadway)
  • Lute Song (1946) (Broadway and US national tour)
  • The King and I (1951) (Broadway and US national tour)
  • Home Sweet Homer (1976) (Broadway)
  • The King and I (1977) (Broadway, London and US national tour)
  • The King and I (1985) (Broadway)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Record of Yul Brynner, #108-18-2984. Social Security Administration. Born in 1920 according to the Social Security Death Index (although some sources indicate the year was 1915) Provo, Utah: MyFamily.com, Inc., 2006.
    In his biography of his father, Rock Yul Brynner, asserts that Yul Brynner was born in the later year (1920).
  2. Obituary Variety, October 16, 1985.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 United States Declaration of Intent (Document No. 541593), Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2004, filed June 4, 1943
  4. Some sources cite July 7, 1915 as his date of birth, though Brynner himself always gave the 1920 date in immigration and naturalization documents.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brynner, Rock. Yul: The Man Who Would Be King Berkeley Books: 1991. ISBN 0-425-12547-5
  6. Briner Residence
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 Rochman, Sue. "A King's Legacy", Cancer Today magazine, Winter 2011 (December 5, 2011), accessed January 20, 2013
  8. Gypsies Appeal to U.N. for Aid And Protection of Civil Rights, The New York Times, June 4, 1978. URL accessed on September 19, 2008.
  9. Yul Brynner biography. filmreference.com. Retrieved on 2009-10-13.
  10. Seiler, Michael. "Yul Brynner Dies at 65; 30 Years in King and I", Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1985, accessed January 5, 2013.
  11. Vera Brynner, at the Internet Broadway Database, accessed January 20, 2013
  12. "EBONY 10/1966"
  13. Brynner, Rock. Yul: The Man Who Would Be King (p. 30) Berkeley Books: 1991. ISBN 0-425-12547-5
  14. Leddick, David. George Platt Lynes. New York: Taschen, 2000.
  15. Capua, pp. 26, 28
  16. tonyawards.com
  17. Yul Brynner, 65, dies of cancer in N.Y. hospital, 10 October 1985. URL accessed on 11 April 2011.
  18. 'Lost' actor stars in West End's 'King'.
  19. Brynner, Rock (2006). Empire & odyssey: the Brynners in Far East Russia and beyond, Steerforth Press.
  20. Crouse, Richard (2005). Reel Winners: Movie Award Trivia.
  21. Doyle, Hubert (2008). Ventures with the World of Celebrities, Movies & TV.
  22. Douty, Linda (2011). How Did I Get to Be 70 When I'm 35 Inside?: Spiritual Surprises of Later Life.
  23. Yacowar, Maurice (1999). The Bold Testament.
  24. Krafsur, Richard P., ed. American Film Institute Catalog, Feature Films 1961-1970 (p. 662), R.R. Bowker Company, 1976; ISBN 0-8352-0453-7
  25. Yul Brynner profile at elsur.cl
  26. 26.0 26.1 Capua, Michelangelo (2006). Yul Brynner, A Biography, McFarland.
  27. Capua, p 151.
  28. tv.com, Yul Brynner biography.
  29. Capua, pp. 15157
  30. Rosenfeld, Megan."Classic King and I". The Washington Post, December 6, 1984, p. B13. Retrieved December 28, 2012. (subscription required)
  31. "A King's Legacy", Cancer Today magazine, Winter 2011
  32. Anti-smoking PSA at YouTube
  33. IBDb profile
  34. Dick Lee interview on Outsight Radio Hours. Archive.org (October 20, 2013). Retrieved on November 10, 2013.

Further reading

  • Capua, Michelangelo (2006). Yul Brynner: A Biography, McFarland.

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Yul Brynner

  • Yul Brynner at the Internet Broadway Database
  • Yul Brynner at the Internet Movie Database
  • Yul Brynner at the TCM Movie Database
  • Yul Brynner at All Movie Guide
  • Yul Brynner: The Magnificent King
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