By Fred Muenz
While he appeared in many different roles, Yul Brynner is best remembered for his role as the King of Siam in THE KING AND I (1956). Winning an Academy Award for his performance in the film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Brynner also received two Tony Awards for playing the King. During his lifetime, Yul Brynner appeared, on stage, as King Mongkut of Siam a total of 4,625 times.
Born in Vladivostok, Russia in July, 1920, Yuliy Borisovich Briner (aka Yul Brynner) was the son of a mining engineer father and a mother who hailed from the Russian intelligentsia and had studied to be an actress and singer. His father, Boris, traveled extensively for his work and, in 1923, abandoned his family after meeting an actress at the Moscow Art Theater. Yul’s mother, Marousia Dimitrievna then took him and his older sister, Vera, to Manchuria, where they attended a school run by the YMCA. In 1932, fearing a war between China and Japan, his mother moved the family again, this time to Paris. Once in Paris, Yul spent his time playing guitar and accompanying Vera singing gypsy songs in Russian nightclubs, as well as training as a trapeze acrobat. He next spent three years performing in a French circus, before suffering a career ending injury to his back. In 1940, with Europe erupting in war, Yul and his mother emigrated to New York, joining Vera, who had come several years earlier, and was singing with the Metropolitan Opera. When America entered the war, Yul took a job as a French speaking radio commentator for the U.S. Office of War Information, broadcasting to occupied France. At the same time, he was studying acting with the legendary teacher, Michael Chekhov. In 1944, he was hired as a director at the new CBS television studio. In 1950, although he was doing well as a television director, he auditioned for a part in Rogers and Hammerstein’s new musical, The King and I, at the urging of his friend, Mary Martin. The producers originally wanted Rex Harrison for the role of the King but, when he wasn’t available, hired Yul Brynner for the role for which he would be forever associated. At the time, he flatly refused to shave off his curly black hair, until he was ordered to do so, or lose the role. His shaved head soon became his trademark. Unusual at the time, the shaved head look became popular among his fans and some even shaved their heads to imitate him. Following the huge success of the Broadway production and the subsequent 1956 film version, Brynner quickly gained superstar status. He appeared 40 films over the next two decades, including such classics as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), ANASTASIA (1956) and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). He played every role from King to Pharaoh to Cowboy to Cossack, with his signature shaved head and indefinable accent. When he was cast for the role of Rameses II in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and learned that he was going to be shirtless for most of the film, he was afraid that he would be overshadowed by the physically larger Charlton Heston, so he began a weightlifting program which he would follow for the rest of his life. While touring with stage productions, Brynner had developed a reputation for being difficult. He insisted that his hotel suites be painted in a particular shade of tan and that the hotel kitchen be stocked in advance with “one dozen brown eggs, under no circumstances white ones”. In fairness to Brynner, he always paid for these requests. A dual U.S./Swiss citizen, Brynner renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1956 to avoid being bankrupted, after having lost his tax deduction as an American working abroad. A smoker since the age of 12, he quit in 1971, but was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983. He died in October, 1985, at age 65, after recording several anti-smoking public service announcements. In 2012, an 8-foot-tall statue of him, in his familiar hand’s on hip pose as the King of Siam, was dedicated in the Yul Brynner park in Vladivostok, Russia.
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