Forever linked in the popular imagination with his portrayal of King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I, Yul Brynner was born in Russia in 1920. In his youth, after being abandoned by his father, he traveled to China with his mother and sister and was schooled there at a YMCA until 1934, when the family moved to Paris, where Brynner gained fluency in French, later serving as a radio announcer in that language. Neglecting his school studies, Brynner preferred to play the guitar in Parisian nightclubs.
Trying his hand at modeling in his twenties, he moved to the United States in 1941 and pursued an acting career, appearing on stage in Twelfth Night (1941), The Moon Vine (1943), and – opposite Mary Martin – Lute Song (1946). He also worked in some early television programs and became a television director at CBS. In 1949 he had a leading part as a drug smuggler in the noir film Port of New York, the first of some forty-five movies in which he would appear.
But it was in 1951, at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, that he landed the role he would effectively own for his entire career, that of the king in The King and I, which he performed over 4,500 times on stage – appearing in the original production, later touring productions, and Broadway revivals in 1977 and 1985, as well as in the 1956 film version, in which he starred opposite Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno. For his stage performance he won a Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor, and for his film performance, he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. When playing the part of the king, Brynner shaved his head, and he generally kept his head bare in his later career.
Brynner’s film career skyrocketed in the blockbuster movie The Ten Commandments (1956), in which he starred as Rameses alongside Charlton Heston’s Moses. In the same year he starred opposite Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia, playing a Russian refugee making a rouguish living in Paris. Taking the part of Solomon, Brynner starred in another Old Testament epic, Solomon and Sheba, playing alongside Gina Lollabrigida (Sheba) and George Sanders (Adonijah).
One of Brynner’s best-known film roles is that of Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven (1960), a western based, surprisingly enough, on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954); among Brynner’s costars were Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. The science-fiction thriller Westworld (1973) – a very different kind of western – featured Brynner as a robot gunslinger with a striking resemblance to Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven. Other film credits include The Brothers Karamazov (1958), in which Brynner starred as Dmitri Karamazov, playing opposite Claire Bloom, Maria Schell, Lee J. Cobb, William Shatner, and Richard Basehart; Morituri (1965), set during World War II, starring Brynner and Marlon Brando; and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), a satirical drama starring Katharine Hepburn.
Brynner died in 1985 in New York City.