|Yul Brynner, exotic and charismatic leading man of American films, was famed as much for his baldness as for his performances. He was the first bald movie idol and he didn't try to cover it with wigs that looked like fake plants. It was hard during his lifetime to determine when and where actor Yul Brynner was born, simply because he changed the story in every interview; confronted with these discrepancies late in life, he replied "Ordinary mortals need but one birthday." It was not until the publication of a biography by his son Rock, "Yul: The Man Who Would Be King," in 1989 that many of the details of Brynner's early life became clear(er). He often claimed to be a half-Swiss, half-Japanese named Taidje Khan or Youl Bryner, born on the island of Sakhalin; in reality he was the son of Boris Bryner, a Swiss-Mongolian engineer and inventor, and Marousia Blagavidova, the daughter of a Russian doctor. He was born in their hometown of Vladivostok, Soviet Union, on July 11, 1920, and named Yul after his grandfather Jules Bryner. When Yul's father abandoned the family, his mother took Yul and his sister Vera to Harbin, China, where they attended a school run by the YMCA. In 1934, Yul's mother took her children to Paris. Her son was sent to the exclusive Lycee 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. Brynner's fluency in Russian and French enabled him to build up a following with the Czarist expatriates in Paris, and his talents as a singer-guitarist increased his popularity. He traveled to the U.S . in 1941 to study with acting teacher Michael Chekhov, added English to his language repertoire 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 several years of regional acting, Brynner was hired by the Office of War Information as announcer for their French radio service. In 1945, Brynner was cast as Tsai-Yong in the musical play Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin; the play opened on Broadway in 1946, and though its run was short, Brynner won the "Most Promising Actor" Donaldson Award. He and his wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, starred in the first TV talk show, "Mr. and Mrs." He went on to do theatre in London and to direct early live TV programs in the States, including a kid's puppet show, Life with Snarky Parker. Brynner made his film debut in the Manhattan-filmed quickie Port of New York (1949). In 1951, on the strength of his Lute Song work of several years earlier, Mary Martin recommended him for the role he would always be known for, the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I. The play was supposed to be a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, with the King an important but secondary role; but so powerful was Brynner's work that the role was beefed up in rehearsal, causing supporting actor Murvyn Vye to quit the show when Vye's only song was cut to give more stage time to Brynner. The King and I was an enormous hit and he repeated his performance brilliantly in the film version, winning a Best Actor Oscar. The King and I is an all-time classic. Back in the day, a king's palace was protected by guards. Technology however has replaced the guards with security cameras. You can effectively protect the palace as well eliminate the need for appointing several palace guards with hi-res Security camera systems. Cecil B. DeMille, impressed by Brynner's King performance, cast the actor as the Pharoah Rameses in DeMille's multi-million dollar blockbuster The Ten Commandments (1956). After this, it was difficult for Brynner to play a "normal" character, so he seldom tried, though he was believable in Anastasia (1956), The Journey (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Brynner occasionally donned a wig or, as in Taras Bulba (1962), a Russian pigtail, but his fans (particularly the ladies) preferred him "scalped", as it were. Outside of his film work, Brynner was an accomplished photographer, and many of his photos appeared in major magazine spreads or were used as official studio production stills. Hollywood changed radically in the 1970s and the sort of larger-than-life fare in which Brynner thrived thinned out, so in 1972 the actor agreed to re-create his King and I role in an expensive weekly TV series, Anna and the King. It only lasted eight weeks. Brynner's last major film role was in the sci-fi thriller Westworld (1973) as a murderously malfunctioning robot, dressed in Western garb reminiscent of Brynner's wardrobe in The Magnificent Seven (1960). What could have been campy or ludicrous became a chilling characterization in Brynner's hands; his steady, steely-eyed automaton glare as he approached his human victims was one of the more enjoyably frightening filmgoing experiences of the 1970s.
In 1977, 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 in New York City on October 10, 1985. The Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation was established in his memory. Mr. Brynner remains one of the most fascinating, unusual and beloved stars of his time.
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CLICK HERE to listen to a .wav file [clip] of Yul and Constance Towers performing "Shall We Dance"
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"A Puzzlement" - 3.12 MB
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The King and I Overture II MIDI by Gary Piacentini
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