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Yul Brynner

stage and screen star best known for his starring role in The King and I

Yul Brynner

Yuli Borisovich Bryner was born in Vladivostok, Russia, on July 11, 1920, the son of Marousia Dimitrievna (Blagovidova), the Russian daughter of a doctor, and Boris Yuliyevich Bryner, an engineer and inventor of Swiss-German and Russian descent. After his father abandoned the family, his mother moved him and his sister Vera to Manchuria, where they attended a YMCA school. In 1934 his mother moved the family to Paris, where he was enrolled at the exclusive Lycée Moncelle. Yul's school attendance was spotty, however, and he ended up dropping out and becoming a guitarist with a troupe of Russian gypsies that performed in various Paris nightclubs. He subsequently became an apprentice at the Theatre des Mathurins and working as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque d'Hiver before emigrating to the United States in 1941.

Brynner made his acting debut in New York in 1941, as Fabian in Twelfth Night. His next major role did not come until 1943, when he appeared in The Moon Vine. In 1944 Brynner moved to television, in the short-lived series "Mr. Jones and His Neighbors." He returned to the stage in 1946 with an appearance opposite Mary Martin in Lute Song, for which he won several awards and mild acclaim. In 1948 he and his wife, actress Virginia Gilmore, starred in the first television talk show, "Mr. and Mrs.," after which he joined CBS as a television director. He made his film debut in Port of New York (1949).

In 1951 Mary Martin suggested that Brynner try out for the lead role in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I. Initially reluctant to leave television, Brynner decided to take Martin's suggestion, and a life-long career was launched. The play, starring Brynner and Gerrude Lawrence, debuted on Broadway on May 29, 1951, and ran through March 20, 1954. His portrayal of King Mongkut earned him a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. He also starred in the 1956 movie version of the play, and was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Actor, making him one of only eight actors to win both a Tony and an Oscar for the same role. He also played the King in the 1972 television series "Anna and the King." Brynner ultimately played King Mongkut in a total of 4,625 stage performances, on stages around the world. His last Broadway appearance in the role came on June 30, 1985.

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in the 1951 Broadway production of The King and I
Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence

Yul Brynner in the film version of The King and I
The King and I

Although most often recognized for his portrayal of King Mongkut, Brynner also appeared in over 30 movies, in addition to Port of New York and The King and I. The most notable of these were The Ten Commandants, Solomon and Sheba, The Magnificent Seven, and Westworld.

In addition to acting, Brynner was also an accomplished photographer, and wrote two books on the subject. In 1960 he published Bring Forth The Children: A Journey To The Forgotten Children of Europe and the Middle East, which included photographs he took during a tour of refugee camps on behalf of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees during World Refugee Year. In 1967 he returned to his gypsy guitarist roots and released the album The Gypsy and I: Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs, with Aliosha Dimitrievitch, with whom he had appeared while performing in Paris. In 1983 he ventured into cooking with The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit For The King And You.

Yul Brynner died of lung cancer in New York City on October 10, 1985. He was cremated and his ashes were buried on the grounds of the Abbey of Saint-Michel de Bois Aubry, a short distance outside the village of Luzé, France.


Brynner rarely provided accurate information concerning his early life, often telling people that he was born on the Russian island of Sakhalin and was part Mongolian. He was also prone to exaggerating some details, and to leaving others out entirely. The true facts of his ancestry, birth, etc. were not revealed until the publication of Yul: The Man Who Would Be King and Empire and Odyssey by his son Yul "Rock" Brynner in 1991 and 2006, respectively.

Brynner first shaved his head for the original Broadway production of The King and I. He shaved it again for the movie version, and he never again appeared on stage or screen with hair (unless a specific role required him to wear a hairpiece of some kind).

Wives and Children

Virginia Gilmore -- September 6, 1944 - March 26, 1960 (divorced) -- Yul "Rock"
Doris Kleiner -- March 31, 1960 - 1967 (divorced) -- Victoria
Jacqueline de Croisset -- September 23, 1971 - 1981 (divorced) -- Mia and Melody (both adopted in Vietnam)
Kathy Lee -- April 4, 1983 - his death
also had a daughter, Lark, with Frances Martin


Twelfth Night
December 2, 1941 - December 13, 1941

The Moon Vine
February 11, 1943 - February 27, 1943

Lute Song
February 6, 1946 - June 8, 1946

The King and I
May 29, 1951 - March 20, 1954
May 2, 1977 - December 30, 1978
January 7, 1985 - June 30, 1985

Home Sweet Homer
January 4, 1976

Yul Brynner as the Pharoah in The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments


Port of New York (1949)
The King and I (1956)

Anastasia (1956)
The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Brothers Karamazov (1958)
The Buccaneer (1958)
The Journey (1959)
The Sound and the Fury (1959)
Solomon and Sheba (1959)
Once More, with Feeling (1960)
Surprise Package (1960)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Escape from Zahrain (1962)
Taras Bulba (1962)
Kings of the Sun (1963)
Flight from Ashiya (1964)
Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964)
Morituri (1965)
Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966)
Return of the Seven (1966)
Triple Cross (1966)
The Double Man (1967)
The Long Duel (1967)
Villa Rules (1968)
The File of the Golden Goose (1969)
Battle of Neretva (1969)
The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)
Adiós, Sabata (1970)
The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)
Romance of a Horsethief (1971)
Catlow (1971)
Fuzz (1972)
Night Flight from Moscow (1973)
Westworld (1973)

The Ultimate Warrior (1975)
Futureworld (1976)
Death Rage (1976)

Yul Brynner as the Gunfighter in Westworld


Academy Award, Best Actor in a Leading Role (1957) -- The King and I

National Board of Review, Best Actor (1956) -- The King and I, Anastasia, The Ten Commandments

Tony, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (1952) -- The King and I
Tony, Special Award (1985) -- for his 4,525 performances in The King and I

Hollywood Walk of Fame, Motion Picture (1960) -- at 6162 Hollywood Boulevard


Internet Broadway Database
Internet Movie Database

See Also

World Refugee Year

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The Robinson Library >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 09/12/2018.