Before Yul Brynner came around the old saying ‘bald is beautiful’ never even existed. He helped kick off a trend that would transcend generations. Even Michael Jordan might have borrowed his signature ‘chrome dome’ look from Brynner. But even so, Yul was the first brave traveler to trek on down the lonely road of the follicularly challenged.
Surprisingly, Brynner isn’t a part of that special club of men who reach middle-age. And start losing their luscious manes due to alopecia. Nope, he could grow a full head of hair if he wanted to but he first shaved his hair for his iconic role in The King and I. And ended up liking the way he looked so much that he decided to keep it. What only ever intended to be a temporary grooming choice for a film role became an aesthetic that he would rock for the rest of his life.
While repping the cue-ball look, Brynner won two Tony Awards and eventually an Academy Award for the film adaptation of The King and I. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the shocking truth behind Yul Brynner’s baldness.
Yul Brynner Was Tremendously Proud Of His Heritage
A lot of celebs hail from pretty diverse backgrounds but Bynner was especially proud of his lineage. His family was from Russia but they also claimed Swiss, Mongol, and Romani ancestry. The Roma people are sometimes referred to as ‘Gypsies’. But it should noted that that term is considered to be relatively offensive these days.
Brynner was so intensely proud of his heritage that later on in life. He even held the honorary title of being the President of the Intentional Romani Union. He would hold that prestigious title until his death.
Yul’s father was a mining engineer who eventually left his home to go run off with a Russian actress. His mom was also an actress, but when her husband abandoned his family. She scooped up the kids and traveled to China. Several years later, the Brynner family moved once again to Paris, France fearing a war between China and Japan.
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And don’t you dare think about sneaking off just yet. Stick around to see why Yul Brynner gladly welcomed being typecast as King Mongkut in The King and I.
He Was A Trained Circus Performer
While living in Paris, Yul and his little sister landed small gigs playing guitar and singing at Parisian nightclubs while training during the day to become a trapeze artist. Brynner toured with Cirque d’Hiver for five years before unfortunately sustaining a debilitating back injury. Luckily, that roadblock just pushed him in the direction of acting.
Interestingly, it’s taken historians decades to piece together an accurate retelling of his origin story as he would often tell a different version of his backstory whenever asked about it. He once even joked about this by quipping that ‘ordinary mortals need but one birthday’.
Journeying To America
Brynner briefly returned to China to pay his ailing mother a visit but then he and his family made the life-changing move to the United States. His sister Vera ended up finding work as a singer and ended up starring in the Broadway production of The Consul. That was probably the moment that Brynner got his first taste for the spotlight. And gained the desire to take his talents to the stage as well.
But, stardom was something that was still years off for Yul as he worked as a French-speaking radio announcer for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. It was around this time that he also posed in the nude for world-renowned gay photographer George Platt Lynes to make a little extra cash on the side. Keep in mind, they didn’t have OnlyFans back then.
Destined For Broadway
In time, Brynner landed the role of Chinese Student, Tsai-Yong for the Broadway production of Lute Song alongside actress Mary Marlin. His next big role was that of King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s career-defining musical, The King And I. He only even ever considered for the part per the recommendation of Mary Martin.
The musical originally intended to serve as a coming-out party so-to-speak for Gertrude Lawrence’s character Anna who tutored Mongkut’s kids. But Brynner straight-up stole the spotlight and mesmerized the critics and audience alike with his powerful performance. Brynner went on to play King Mongkut for more than 4,625 performances over the next 30 years.
Happy To Be Typecast
Typically when actors get labeled and stuck playing the same old roles over and over they end up revolting in some kind of way. Maybe he could have attributed it to his diverse upbringing. But Brynner never seemed to bothered by the fact that he was type-cast into a singular role.
He once amusingly told the New York Times that he would have enjoyed playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady if it weren’t for his accent and looks. The only way that he would have been able to pull that one off is if he did it with a Mongolian touring company. Brynner played King Mongkut not only on stage but also on the big screen. And for a time, he reprised his role for a short-lived TV series.
But even though the smooth-topped actor displayed an eager willingness to play the same role time and time again, that didn’t mean he was without an ego. Frank Langella, one of Yul’s castmates, once said that Brynner possessed the unparalleled ability to shower himself with praise. And added that he always just a stones-throw away at any given moment from a full-length mirror. And when Lawrence died and Brynner given top billing. Rodgers and Hammerstein said that he burst into tears of joy.
He Was Amusingly Arrogant
Even though he very clearly was in love with himself, Brynner’s hubris didn’t seem to put off his co-stars too much. Notoriously, he and Steve McQueen used to duke it out over top-dog status while on the set of The Magnificent Seven. As the story goes, Brynner would climb high atop a pile of dirt so that he could loom over McQueen and hurl taunts and insults in his direction. Steve in turn would react by attempting to kick that pile of dirt hoping that it would crumble under Brynner’s pompous feet.
Yul was also infamous for some of his more outlandish requests. While shooting the World War II drama film Morituri, Brynner once demanded that a helipad be built on the ship so that he could flown in and out on the daily during the film’s production. On another occasion, he commissioned a huge lift to built that would hoist his limo into The King and I’s theater. So that he could avoid having to deal with his legion of adoring fans.
Even though Brynner could be needlessly difficult to work with at times, many in his orbit still adored him. Those that were under his spell could have cared less about whether the tales he told about himself were true. He had this air of grace about him that colored everything that he did. Brynner saw the world through his own unique lens and found beauty in the most unexpected of places.
He Was A Bisexual Icon
Brynner’s love life included rendezvous and liaisons with dozens of women as well as men. He was married four times. His first marriage was to actress Virginia Gilmor from 1944 to 1960. His next was to Chilean Model Doris Kleiner. They married in 1960 and filed for divorce in 1967. His third marriage was to Jacquline Thion de la Chaume in 1971. Although they ended up calling it quits in 1981. Brynner’s fourth and final marriage was to ballerina Kathy Lee in 1983. And they remained together until his death in 1985. Additionally, he carried on countless affairs with stars like Marlene, Dietrich, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Ingrid Bergman.
Brynner also had relationships with male stars like Paul Newman, Hurd Hatfield, Jean Cocteau, and Manuel Puig – the screenwriter of Kiss of the Spider Woman. In the 1969 anti-establishment film The Magic Christian, Brynner played a drag queen who cruises Roman Polanksi. And rumor has it, that wasn’t his first time in drag either.
It’s also said that Brynner enjoyed a brief fling with actor Marlon Brando back in the day.
He Was An Anti-Smoking Advocate
In 1983, Brynner discovered a lump on his vocal cords. Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985, at the age of 65 in New York City. Before his passing, Brynner teamed up with the American Cancer Society to put out a public service announcement making use of a clip from his Good Morning America interview. One of his dying wishes was to produce an anti-smoking ad. He knew that he wanted to express himself in this regard shortly after discovering that he had inoperable lung cancer. He knew that death was not far off on the horizon. And in fact, that commercial premiered on all the major US television networks just a few days after his death.
In the ad, he looks directly into the camera for 30 seconds while admonishing the audience to not pick up smoking. He expressed his deepest regrets for picking the habit up in the first place. And added that if he could take back smoking, then he wouldn’t be sitting there talking about cancer.
A Man Of Many Interests
Not only was Brynner an actor and director but he was also an avid photographer and author who penned several books. His daughter Victoria compiled a book of his work titled Yul Brynner: Photographer. The volume is a collection of his photos of family, friends, and several of his fellow actors. The book also featured photos that he took while serving as a UN special consultant on refugees.
Brynner also authored the book Bring Forth The Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East in 1960 which featured photos of himself and Magnum photographer Inge Morath. He also published The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit For The King And You in 1983.
A lot of folks never got the chance to hear him play. But Brynner was in fact an excellent guitarist in addition to being a gifted singer. We already mentioned how he used to play in nightclubs with his sister when he was young. But he later sang some of those same songs in the film The Brothers Karamazov. In 1967 Brynner and Aliosha Dimitrievitch released the album The Gypsy and I: Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs on Vanguard records.
Well, that’s about all the time we’ve got to talk about Yul Brynner, but hopefully, you’ve enjoyed learning all about this talented and highly-celebrated actor with us. He may have passed away some 35 years ago, but his legacy remains intact to this day.
He may not have been the most humble performer of his day. But he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. There will likely never be another actor that will ever fill the gap he left behind. Those are some awfully big shoes to fill after all.
Anyway, now’s your turn to have your voice be heard. In the comments section, share with us your favorite memory of Yul Brynner. Granted, most of you probably just know him from The King and I, but some of you likely have other fond memories of his storied career.
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