Remembering an exotic and versatile actor: Yul Brynner (July 11 is Yul Brynners’ 96th Birth Anniversary)

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Fans copy their favourite movie stars’ hairstyles and this legendary actor also inspired such a craze — even though he sported a clean shaven head. His unique bald look, intense gaze, deep, authoritative voice and indefinable accent made Yul Brynner, whose 96th birthday would have fallen on Monday, almost a cult-like figure.

He was capable of portraying a wide gamut of memorable roles — an Egyptian pharaoh, a Siamese monarch, a Wild West gunslinger, a Cossack hitman, one of the Karamazov brothers and a (Red) Indian warrior.

Any list of the most iconic Hollywood works is bound to have those starring Yul Brynner (1920-85), and most of them are easily representative of their genres — musicals (“The King and I”), westerns (“The Magnificent Seven”), Biblical epics (“The Ten Commandments”, “Solomon and Sheba”), historical spectacles (“Taras Bulba”), literary adaptations (“The Brothers Karamazov”, “The Sound and the Fury”), or even science fiction (“Westworld”).

But what was Yul Brynner’s own story and was he originally bald?

His background was as exotic as the roles he played — and not the least because he cloaked his life in mystery and even lies, but just to tease. Brynner, who once said that “People don’t know my real self, and they’re not about to find out”, and told interviewers to “just call me a nice, clean-cut Mongolian boy”, also claimed to be born Tadje Khan, of Mongolian, Swiss and Japanese descent.

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It was only in a biography by his eldest son Rock, published in 1989, that it came to be known he was born to Russian parents, though his father was half Swiss-German, in Vladivostok. He moved with his mother and sister in 1923 to the international city of Harbin (in Manchuria) after his father abandoned them, and then to Paris in 1932 where he learnt French, played guitar in nightclubs, and even worked as a trapeze artist.

Coming to the US in 1940, he worked for the US government, during World War II as a French radio announcer, broadcasting propaganda to occupied France.

Studying acting from Mikhail Chekhov (nephew of the famous Russian writer), Brynner’s first role was a brief part in a Shakespeare play. After some other stage and TV roles, he became a director at CBS TV studios. His first film was crime noir “Port of New York” (1949) in which he played a suave drug don, but what propelled him to fame was his role in Broadway play “The King and I” (1951), which he performed for over 4,000 times.

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It was for this role that he was asked to shave his head but refused, convinced he would look terrible. But when producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein backed costume designer Irene Sharaff, he had to give in. Ironically, his look was so well received that he decided to maintain it henceforth — though for some of his films, he wore a wig.

Brynner also starred in its film adaptation in 1956, and though it was only his second onscreen appearance, it earned him an Oscar. The same year he was seen in “The Ten Commandments”, for which he, coming to know he would be featured bare-chested, undertook rigorous weight lifting so that he wouldn’t be physically overshadowed by Charlton Heston.

He appeared in about 50 films. Among those worth a look are comedy “Once More, with Feeling!” (1960) where he is a highly-egoistic and temperamental orchestra conductor; World War II adventure, “Morituri” (1965), opposite Marlon Brando; UN-backed anti-drug ensemble film “The Poppy Is Also a Flower” (1966) where he plays an Afghan colonel; Raj adventure “The Long Duel” (1967), where he is leader of an Indian ‘criminal’ tribe; satirical drama “The Madwoman of Chaillot” (1969), opposite Katherine Hepburn; and spy story “Night Flight from Moscow” (1973).

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A man of many parts, he was an avid and accomplished cameraman with “Yul Brynner: Photographer” bringing together photographs he had taken of family, friends, and fellow actors, as well as those taken as a UN special consultant on refugees.

He also wrote “Bring Forth the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East” and “The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You”.

He also served as visual inspiration for two comic book heroes — alien Green Lantern Abin Sur, the predecessor of Earth’s Hal Jordan, and Professor X of the X-Men.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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