Yul Brynner, Hollywood's Original Sexy Bald Man: Facts And Stories
Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, 1956 (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)
Before Yul Brynner, the saying, “bald is beautiful” never existed. Michael Jordan may have taken the chrome dome mainstream but Brynner was the first to walk the lonely road of the follically challenged. Oddly enough, Brynner actually didn’t fall in the 50% of middle-aged men losing their luscious locks. Rather, Brynner shaved his hair for his unforgettable role in The King and I and liked the look so much he stayed with the cue ball aesthetic for the rest of his life. Going with the smooth scalp won Brynner two Tony Awards and later on an Academy Award for the film adaptation of his King Mongkut portrayal. However, there’s much more to the Magnificent Seven, Westworld, and Ten Commandments star.
Yul Brynner Was Proud Of His Romani Heritage
Many stars come from diverse backgrounds but Brynner's takes the cake. First, his family hailed from Russia but also possessed Swiss, Mongol, and Romani ancestry. (The Roma or Romani people are perhaps better known as "Gypsies," although that term is often considered derogatory.) Brynner was so fiercely proud of his Romani ancestry later in life he became the honorary president of the International Romani Union, a title he held onto until his death. After his father, a mining engineer, ran off with a Russian actress, Brynner’s mother, also an actress, took her two kids to China. A decade later, fearing a war between China and Japan, they moved again, this time to Paris.
Yul Brynner Was A Trained Circus Acrobat
In Paris, Yul and his sister would play guitar and sing for Russian nightclubs at night while during the day he trained as a trapeze acrobat. For five years he performed in the touring Cirque d'Hiver before sustaining a serious back injury, which pushed him to turn to acting. Weirdly, it has taken years to figure out all of the details of Brynner's life, as he was fond of telling a different origin story every time he was asked. He once famously said, “Ordinary mortals need but one birthday.”
Coming To America
After briefly returning to China due to his mother’s failing health, the Brynners immigrated to the United States. His sister Vera got work as a singer and starred in The Consul on Broadway. Perhaps that was where Yul Brynner first got his taste of the bright lights and big stage. Still, stardom remained years off as Brynner worked as a French-speaking radio announcer for the US Office of War Information during World War II. He also posed nude for renowned photographer George Platt Lynes as a side hustle.
Eventually, Brynner was cast as a Chinese student named Tsai-Yong for the Broadway musical Lute Song next to Mary Martin. His big break and the role he became inextricably linked to came via Martin’s recommendation for King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's new Broadway musical, The King and I.
The show was originally slated as Gertrude Lawrence’s coming out party as Anna, tutor to Mongkut’s children. However, Brynner stole the show and then some. After his tour de force performance, showrunners expanded his role and never stopped playing the hits. Brynner went on to play King Mongkut over 4,625 times over 30 years.
Normally when actors are pigeonholed into a singular role they revolt. Perhaps due to his eclectic upbringing, Brynner never seemed to mind. "I would have liked to play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady," he once said to a Times interviewer, "but I couldn't because of my accent and looks. Unless I did it with an Outer Mongolian touring company." He not only portrayed King Mongkut on stage and the silver screen but also in the short-lived television series.
Still, despite the iconically bald actor’s willingness to play the same role over and over, it did not mean he lacked an ego. Frank Langella, one of Brynner’s costars, said Yul held an unrivaled ability to wax lyrical about himself and that he was "never far from a full-length mirror." When Lawrence passed away and Brynner received top billing, Rodgers and Hammerstein said he burst into tears.
Even though Brynner dearly loved himself, it didn’t put off his peers too badly. Famously, he and Steve McQueen would battle over top dog status on the set of The Magnificent Seven. Apparently, Brynner would stand on a pile of dirt so he could tower over McQueen who, in turn, would try to kick said dirt pile into oblivion. Brynner returned fire by hiring an assistant whose sole purpose was to call out any attempted scene stealing by McQueen.
He also became known for his outrageous requests. During the filming of the World War II drama Morituri, Brynner demanded a helipad be put on the ship so he could fly in and out for the daily shootings. He also had a massive lift installed to fit his limousine into The King and I’s theater so he could avoid adoring fans. One can imagine these types of requests also likely lead to his four marriages.
Even though Brynner held many strange proclivities, many still loved him. As a colleague of his once said, 'Who cares if all the stories he has told about himself are true or not?'' He colors everything he does. It's just Yul. He sees things as he wants to see them. I once horrified him by saying, 'I'm so bored.' He said, 'How can you be bored? There's no time to be bored.''' As Yul once put it, he’s "just a nice, clean-cut Mongolian boy."
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