Yul Brynner

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Yul Brynner Pencil Portrait
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Separating fact from fiction is a near Herculean task with some people. I’ve spent quality time with certain individuals only to realise that, even after a year, what I could write about them would not even fill the back of a postage stamp.

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. 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.

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I saw the “King & I” on stage in the early 70’s, with Peter Wyngarde and Sally Ann Howes. It was a perfectly competent production, but as I sat there in the stalls, I just couldn’t distance myself from the indelible image of Brynner in the 1956 movie of the same name. As well as his Academy Award winning performance in 20th Century Fox’s celluloid epic, the actor would rack up an unprecedented number of stage appearances in the role on Broadway – 1,246 in the early 50’s, 695 in the late 70’s and 191 in 1985, the year of his death.

His daughter Victoria would later recall her father’s commitment to his best loved role, as part of her promtional duties for ‘Yul Brynner: A Photographic Journey,’ a 2010 book and exhibition.

“In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s my father revived The King And I on Broadway. During this time, I spent many hours backstage with him. His process was like a ritual—arriving at the theatre early, having dinner, watching sports while doing his make up—slowly and methodically preparing to embody The King. I loved going from his dressing room to the audience to watch my favorite scenes. I could not resist the last scene of the play: He lay there channeling this dying man surrounded by women who were finally done fighting with him and whose hearts were broken by his looming death. The curtains closed and I, like all the members of the audience, sat there with a lump in my throat. My father did not want the audience leaving with such a sad feeling so he orchestrated a curtain call of gradual, joyful clapping. After the whole cast had bowed, he came out looking rather serious…then smiled…and then, borrowing an old toreador trick, flung his arms up in the air and roared with laughter. The audience joined in with cheers and howls of delight, releasing all their sadness. I beamed with pride and joy. He was still there—he was vibrant and I was lucky enough to go backstage and end the evening with him.”

“Many people said he was always the King, and yes, he was regal and grand and authoritative. But he was also kind and generous and attentive. He was not a character. He was a real man. His pictures are the true testament to the private side of his personality; his subjects either oblivious of his presence or so comfortable knowing that nothing of their being would ever be betrayed, knowing that his interpretation of them would be one of beauty.”

Recommended viewing

The King & I (1956)

Was there ever an actor more indelibly associated with a character than Brynner as The King of Sian? – and yet a role that would sustain him intermittently on Broadway for more than thirty years had an inauspicious start. The actor had fallen in love with the script of “The King and I” when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein offered him the role. Hammerstein had seen Brynner in “Lute Song,” thought well of him and was influenced by the actress Mary Martin’s recommendation.

The musical story of the imperious Thai king and the proper British teacher, Anna Leonowens, who went to Siam in the 1860s to instruct the king’s huge flock of offspring, and then had to acclimate herself to his court habits of polygamy and bowing at ground-level, had a rocky start when it opened out of town in New Haven, Conn., in February, 1951.

“It was a disaster,” Brynner said in 1981. “It was almost five hours long. There was nothing but conflict between Anna and the King. . . . Rogers and Hammerstein understood immediately that unless there was an underlying fascination (between the two characters), then there really couldn’t be a fascinating show.”

With the book cut and sweetened, as well as a couple of new songs added – “Shall We Dance” and “Getting to Know You,” the show, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Brynner, opened in New York at the St. James Theater on March 29, 1951. It was a first-night hit.

“Richard Rodgers told me, ‘You opened. You have a hit. Now freeze it,’ “ he said in late 1984, just before opening in yet another Broadway revival of the show.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

There must be someone who hasn’t seen this film, but I guarantee you they’ll be under the age of twenty five. “The Magnificent Seven,” the American western film, released in 1960, whilst not as acclaimed as Kurosawa Akira’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), on which it was based, yet nonetheless proved to be a popular and influential entry in the genre.

In this evergreen classic, a Mexican village is being terrorized by the bandit Calvera (played by Eli Wallach) and his gang. In desperation, several of the villagers travel to a Texas border town in hopes of hiring gunslingers to rid them of their oppressor. Unable to offer much money, they hire a motley team of men: Chris (Yul Brynner), a fast gun who dresses in black and is the group’s leader; Vin (Steve McQueen), a humorous man who is skilled at gunplay; Bernardo (Charles Bronson), who is financially desperate; Chico (Horst Buchholz), a brash young man eager to earn a reputation for courage; Lee (Robert Vaughn), a once-feared gunslinger who has lost his nerve; Britt (James Coburn), who is as adept with a knife as he is with a pistol; and Harry (Brad Dexter), an opportunistic fortune hunter who mistakenly believes that Chris will lead them to hidden Mexican treasure. The seven men train the villagers in the art of gunplay and successfully repulse attacks from Calvera and his gang. In the final confrontation, the village is freed but at a high cost. Among the seven, only Chris, Vin, and Chico survive the fierce battle.

“The Magnificent Seven” featured a legendary cast of up-and-coming actors, each of whom imbued his character with memorable traits. A patchwork production, the movie was being rewritten as shooting was under way, but what emerged was a highly entertaining film. Elmer Bernstein’s score is among cinema’s most memorable; the main theme was later featured in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. The success of The Magnificent Seven inspired several follow-up films. While Brynner starred in “Return of the Seven” (1966), none of the original cast members appeared in the other sequels, “Guns of the Magnificent Seven” (1969) and “The Magnificent Seven Ride!” (1972).

Brynner’s cool exterior and steely focus makes him a pivotal point throughout the movie, despite McQueen’s juvenile attempts at scene stealing “one-upmanship” on set.

The Double Man (1967)

Brynner came to England to film this espionage thriller at Associated British Studios in the summer of ’66, catching the coattails of the immensely successful spy genre so prevalent at the time. In this Warner Brothers release, he plays the dual role of a career CIA op who travels to Austria upon learning of the death of his son in a presumed skiing accident… and the enemy agent sculpted by plastic surgery into his doppelgänger. Credibility is somewhat stretched as Brynner defies anonymity with his immaculately shaved head, yet no more so than Connery’s globetrotting with a universally known name. Filming of the fifth 007 blockbuster ‘You Only Live Twice,’ had in fact commenced around the same time, and Brynner would be amongst a host of stars at Pinewood for a meet and greet session with the England soccer team during the World Cup tournament. The following link contains a photo of the actor with Sean Connery, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves. Broad shouldered and powerfully built, Brynner was 5’ 8” tall*, a perfectly respectable height for a man fifty years ago, but rather dwarfish in comparison to Connery’s unusually tall 6’ 3” frame.


*Study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The average height for men increased from just over 5-foot-8 in 1960 to 5-9 in 2002, while the average height for women increased from slightly over 5-3 in 1960 to 5-4 in 2002.

In ‘The Double Man,’ Brynner is an object lesson in studied concentration, deploying a natural reticence and grace befitting a character who has survived for years on instinct and cat-like cunning. Unfortunately, there’s a look of laundry soap flakes and liquid starch to some of the studio snow scenes – in marked contrast to the pick up shots filmed at the Austrian Tyrol – and the back projection close ups of Brynner and co-star Britt Ekland skiing, are unconvincing.

Nevertheless, the taut plot unfolds pleasingly enough, and Ekland- all blond hair and youthful pout – provides some diverting love interest. Brynner enjoys a welcome break from playing pharaohs, potentates, pirate kings and other larger-than-life roles, and there’s sterling support from a host of ITC and Hollywood stalwarts including Ronald Radd, David Bauer and Kenneth Warren (who would all die tragically early in their careers) and George Mikell (‘The Guns of Navarone’/‘The Great Escape’). Best of all, there’s Anton Diffring as a KGB agent, frustrated by his incompetent chain of command, essentially playing himself with de rigueur icy disaffection. Ernie Freeman’s punchy jazz score borders on Cold War kitsch, but the last half hour finally revs up, delivering some appropraite cat’n‘mouse tension.

Franklin J. Schaffner would stamp his authority on Hollywood with his subsequent directorial efforts – ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968) and the superb ‘Patton’ (1970), but here, he’s content enough to coast along in B movie mode with a solid programmer. In the days of twice weekly cinematic programme changes, you’d have blinked and missed ‘The Double Man,’ and after a handful of UK terrestrial screenings in the early 70’s, the movie would disappear from radar screens for more than three decades.

Westworld (1973)

Before “Blade Runner”, there was “Westworld,” Michael Crichton’s cinematic paean to self-contained adult theme parks: Roman World, where travellers can experience “the sensual, relaxed morality…of the Imperial Roman Empire”; Medieval World, populated by Black Knights and large-chested robot chambermaids; and Westworld, where protagonists James Brolin, Richard Benjamin and others can “relive the excitement and stresses of pioneer life to the fullest” in a “life of lawless violence; a society of guns and action.” It’s in the latter area where we meet the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner, in an homage/parody of his character in ‘The Magnificent Seven’), a surly, trigger-happy robot programmed to play the victim in guests’ macho shoot-out fantasies. Predictably, matters go awry with tragic results.

The subject of an HBO series in 2015, the film was a regular entry on 70’s domestic programme schedules, yet disappeared from television screens in the 90’s. Ripe for revival, the widely anticipated superior CGI laden series boasts a heavyweight cast including Sir Anthony Hopkins, but there’s still nonetheless, much to savour in the original movie.


Yul Brynner Photographer


In 2010, Brynner’s photography was the subject of a new, four-volume box set and a stunning exhibition at New York’s Lehmann Maupin Gallery.

The actor was taking pictures of his family, celebrity friends, and his fellow actors even before he won both a Tony and Oscar for his role as the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I.’ Handsome with his distinctive shaved head and charismatic with his mix of European and Gypsy savoir-faire, Brynner was adored by fans and a prized pal to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Charlie Chaplin.

Further examples of his ‘fly on the wall’ approach to his subject matter can be located at: