July 11, 1920– Yul Brynner
”On my tombstone I would like to have it written, ‘I have arrived’. Because when you feel that you have arrived, you are dead.”
Preparing this #BornThisDay post, I got lost in looking at photographs of him. So exotic; so alluring; so animalistic; he was born Yuli Borisovich Bryner in the turbulent and revolutionary far eastern Vladivostok, Russia, near the border of what is now North Korea. His father was a mining engineer and his mother was a member of intelligentsia, and a performer.
Brynner grew up speaking and hearing many different languages including Russian, English, French, Chinese, Korean, Czech and Japanese. At 6-years-old, his family moved to Harbin, China, where he attended a school run by the YMCA. His parents divorced in 1934, plus with an increasingly chaotic political environment, Brynner’s mother moved the family to Paris.
By the late 19th century, Paris was the planet’s center for all things artistic, and Brynner and his sister were enrolled at Lycée Moncelle, one of the city’s best schools for art, design and music. Brynner focused on his studies on the guitar.
When he was 16-years-old, he dropped out of school to become a musician. He played guitar in decedent Russian nightclubs in Paris. He hung out with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. After this period, he worked as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque d’Hiver and became an apprentice at the Théâtre des Mathurins.
When he turned 20-years-old, Brynner traveled to NYC to study acting with Russian-American theatre practitioner, Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov. He was an adherent of the Konstantin Stanislavski technique used by actors such as Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and Marilyn Monroe. Brynner kept an apartment in the city and toured with Chekhov’s acting company. Chekhov cast him in a series of Shakespeare plays. Soon, Brynner was cast in his first Broadway role in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1941); barely fluent in English, he learned his lines phonetically. Then came the role of Tsai-Yong in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Lute Song (1945), opposite Mary Martin. He received rave reviews, but he was rejected after a screen test at Universal in 1947 for looking ”too Oriental.”
An auspicious start, but Brynner struggled to find stage work and paid his rent by taking roles in the new world of television. In 1950, Brynner was hired as a staff producer and director at CBS, working with director Sidney Lumet and his assistant, John Frankenheimer. It was at this era that Brynner developed his lifelong passion for photography.
Brynner was an exceptional photographer, but he did everything with a certain nimble artistry: acting, directing, writing, yet he will always be identified with his role as King Mongkut of Siam in the classic musical The King And I in a way that few performers have been linked with a character.
For over 30 years, Brynner gave 4,625 performances as the King of Siam, taking his final curtain call on Broadway in 1984 as the orchestra and audience sang Auld Lang Syne.
In 1951, Brynner was virtually unknown when he was cast in The King And I, opposite 52-year-old Gertrude Lawrence whose name was above the title with his listed below it and in much smaller lettering.
Throughout rehearsals, there were many complaints from songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein about her singing off-key. She became increasingly temperamental and the director, the very gay John Van Druten, was not strong enough to handle her.
As you well know, Brynner exuded real masculine authority and tremendous sexual heat. When Brynner spoke, Lawrence listened. The director would give notes to Lawrence via Brynner. Partly because of his influence, The King And I received rave reviews and became a huge hit. But, the complaints about Lawrence’s singing never stopped. Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted her out of the show, even though she had won the Tony Award for her performance.
Lawrence was head-over-heels for Brynner. She had no intention of quitting the show, but 18 months into the run, during the heat of a NYC summer, she collapsed after a performance. She was diagnosed with that damn cancer. She told her lawyer from her hospital bed:
”I don’t think I’m going to get out of this place. See that Yul gets star billing. He has earned it.”
And she wasn’t just talking about his acting.
When Lawrence took that final curtain call in early autumn 1952. She was the first person for whom lights were dimmed on Broadway theatres.
When Hammerstein told Brynner he would at last receive the top billing, he began to cry. Hammerstein:
”He told me, and I believed him, that losing Lawrence was a too tremendous a price to pay for advancement. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.”
He appeared in the original 1951 Broadway production and later touring productions, plus 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 Broadway productions. He also appeared in the 1956 film version, for which he won an Academy Award. Brynner is one of only eight people who have won both a Tony and an Academy Award for the same role. His connection to the role of King Mongkut is so deep that he was mentioned in the song One Night in Bangkok from the musical Chess (1984).
Brynner shaved his head for The King And I, and he continued to shave his head for the rest of his life, wearing wigs for some roles. Not like today, a shaved head was unusual at the time, and it became known as the “Yul Brynner look”. A Confidential Magazine article headline read: ”Brynner’s Romantic Impact Lifts Baldies!”. Brynner told the press:
”I don’t care a hoot what I look like. I’m not a dame.”
Yet, he continued to shave his head and maintain his image.
In 1954, Brynner performed Shall We Dance? from The King And I with Patricia Morison on the television special General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute To Rodgers And Hammerstein, broadcast on all four American networks of the time. Most if the country tuned in.
From his first performance to the last, fans and critics recognized a rare fusion of actor and assignment.
23 years after opening night, Brynner’s farewell engagement on Broadway in 1984, had Frank Rich of the failing NY Times, saying:
”Yul Brynner’s performance in The King And I – the longest-running theatrical star-turn of our time – can no longer be regarded as a feat of acting or even endurance. After 30-odd years of on-and-off barnstorming, Brynner is, quite simply, The King. Man and role have long since merged into a fixed image that is as much a part of our collective consciousness as the Statue of Liberty.”
Yet, the role tended to obscure both his wide-ranging career as an actor and director and the other dramatic moments of his life.
”I am always asked, ‘Do you identify with the King?’ It is silly. It shows total ignorance on the part of the questioner. Life would not be livable – and acting would not be feasible – if I came home from the theater and approached my wife as the King of Siam. I never identified with the King – except on stage. On stage I portray the King; he takes me over. I am only an adroit actor.”
His life was a drama, sometime too amazing to seem real. In fact, Brynner often embellished his story with tall tales. He claimed to have fought with Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War and to have supported himself as a jai-alai player at one point, but he really did work as a circus acrobat. Brynner:
”I am just a nice clean-cut Mongolian boy.”
Brynner went on to make many films: Ramesses II in the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments (1956); General Bounine in Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman, the gunman in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Madwoman Of Chaillot (1969) with Katharine Hepburn, and the android “The Gunslinger” in Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976). He also appeared in drag, as a torch singer, opposite Roman Polanski in The Magic Christian (1969).
As a photographer he specialized in shooting pictures of backstage and worked on assignment for LIFE magazine.
In 1960, he worked as an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and made a television documentary of his visits to refugee camps in Europe and the Middle East. Brynner served as president of a 1977 conference of Roma people from 22 nations, which called for an end to prejudice against them.
A longtime smoker, Brynner was taken after a long battle with lung cancer. Prior to his death, he gave an interview on Good Morning America expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial. A few days after his death, the American Cancer Society turned a clip of this interview into an anti-smoking public service announcement, which was one of the most highly recognized and acclaimed PSAs ever made, with millions around the world giving up smoking. In the spot, Brynner looks directly into the camera for 30 seconds and says:
“Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.”