This is an update of a controversial post from 2012. Be sure to read the shit storm of four dozen reader comments at the end.
Bisexual Russian-born actor Yul Brynner (1920-1985) began his career playing guitar and singing gypsy songs among Russian immigrants in Parisian nightclubs. His fluency in Russian and French enabled him to build up a following with the Czarist expatriates in Paris. After a brief stint as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque D'Hiver company in France, he started acting with a touring company in the early 1940s. He was soon on his way to becoming the first ever bald stage and movie idol.
In 1941 Yul Brynner traveled to the U.S., where he began an affair with American actor Hurd Hatfield (1918-1998), best known for playing the title role in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both men were enrolled at the Michael Chekhov Theatre Studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and many of their classmates have since confirmed the affair. Michael Chekhov (1891-1955, nephew of Anton), mentored performers such as Marilyn Monroe, Jack Palance, Patricia Neal, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leslie Caron, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn and many others.
Two decades later, at age 43, Brynner appeared wearing only slightly more in the campy film Kings of the Sun (1963, below), his youthful body betraying not a single passing year.
After several years of regional acting, Brynner was hired by the Office of War Information as announcer for their French radio service. He made his Broadway debut with Mary Martin in Lute Song in 1946, but he began playing his most famous role, the King of Siam, in The King and I in the Broadway production of the Oscar and Hammerstein musical in 1951 (photo at top of post). Mary Martin had recommended him for this role. At his first meeting with Irene Sharaff, The King and I’s costume designer, Brynner asked what he was to do about his mere “fringe” of hair. When told he was to shave it, he was horror-struck and refused, convinced he would look terrible. He finally gave in during tryouts and put dark makeup on his shaved head. The effect was so well-received that it became Brynner's trademark.
After more than three years and 1,246 performances, he starred in the screen version in 1956, winning an Oscar for Best Actor. He then returned to the stage for an additional 3,379 stage performances that stretched all the way to 1985. Brynner, 35 years old and married, was virtually unknown when he was cast in The King and I, and 52- year-old Gertrude Lawrence’s name appeared above his. Yul and Gertrude were having an affair at the time. Rodgers and Hammerstein often told the story that when Lawrence died during the run of the show, Brynner finally got top billing, and he burst into tears at the news (of his getting top billing – not the news of Lawrence’s death).
Cecil B. DeMille, impressed by Brynner's performance in The King and I, cast the actor as the Pharoah Rameses in the multi-million dollar blockbuster The Ten Commandments (1956, dressing room photo above). Along the way, Brynner also starred in such classic films as Anastasia (1956), The Brothers Karamazov (1958), and The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Brynner was also a talented published photographer and author of two books, Bring Forth the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East and The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You. I’m not making this up.
Brynner's romantic life included throngs of women, as well as men. He had four wives – actress Viriginia Gilmor, Chilean model Doris Kleiner, Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume, ballerina Kathy Lee – in addition to numerous affairs with such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Ingrid Bergman.
Brynner was possessed of a massive, nearly uncontrollable ego. In the mid-1960s, while filming Morituri aboard a freighter with co-star Marlon Brando, Brynner demanded in his contract that a landing pad be built on the ship so he could get a private helicopter to take him ashore after each day's shoot. He got his way, as usual.
According to Frank Langella’s recent memoir, no actor ever talked about himself so much as Brynner, whom Langella described as “never far from a full-length mirror.” Brynner explained how he’d had a special lift – big enough to fit a car – installed in the Broadway theater where he was starring in The King And I. His chauffeur could thus drive straight in and spare the star from having to “deal with the public.”
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. 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 film-going experiences of the 1970s.
Yul Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985, in New York City at age sixty-five – on the same day as Orson Welles. 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. The Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation was established in his memory.
Update July 14, 2023: His final performance (his 4,625th) of "The King and I" came on June 30, 1985, less than four months before he died of cancer. His lungs were so damaged that he had to use an oxygen tank to soldier through his last performances.