Timeless: Yul Brynner

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Our Timeless series continues with a look at the enigma that was Yul Brynner. Sexy, manly, plainspoken and smart, he commanded attention wherever he was.

Bisexual Russian-born actor Yul Brynner (1920-1985) began his career playing guitar and singing gypsy songs among Russian immigrants in Parisian nightclubs. His fluency in Russian and French enabled him to build up a following with the Czarist expatriates in Paris. After a brief stint as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque D'Hiver company in France, he started acting with a touring company in the early 1940s. He was soon on his way to becoming the first ever bald stage and movie idol.

But you want to know about the bisexual part, right?

As an awkward teen, Yul's family moved from Russia to China and eventually to Paris - the undisputed Mecca of the European arts, and was enrolled at Lycée Moncelle, one of the city’s top schools. During this time, he focused on his skills as a guitar player.

At age 16, Yul dropped out of school to become a musician. He began playing guitar with a group of gypsies amidst the decadent backdrop of Russian nightclubs in Paris decorated with rich velvet and gilded candelabras. 

It was in this creative environment, among these amazing artists, that Yul met luminaries such as Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. After this period, Brynner moved on and worked as a trapeze artist with the famed Cirque d'Hiver company and soon became an apprentice at the Théâtre des Mathurins in Paris.

In 1941 Yul Brynner traveled to the U.S., and began an affair with American actor Hurd Hatfield (photo below), best known for playing the title role in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both men were enrolled at the Michael Chekhov Theatre Studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and many of their classmates have since confirmed the affair.

A year later, twenty-two year old Brynner (before he shaved his head) posed in full-frontal nude positions for noted gay photographer George Platt Lynes.

Brynner frequently posed nude for art classes and photographers for $5 or $10 a session.

“It was for money, eatin’ money. I did it three, four times a week… I don’t see anything wrong with it morally, ” he explained in 1977, when one of his nude photographs (taken by George Platt Lynes) was published in Andy Warhol’s Interview. “It was done in a studio with 50 people around. I didn’t do it for art. I did it from hunger.” That particular photograph was part of a full-frontal nude series in which he had a full head of hair and showed his statuesque, athletic body. “I needed the money. It would only be surprising if I did it now that I am a star.”

After some notable appearances on Broadway, Brynner struggled to find acting work and fell in to the burgeoning world of television. In 1950, Yul held a steady job as a staff producer and director at CBS, working alongside Sidney Lumet and his assistant, John Frankenheimer. It was at this time that Yul developed his life long passion for photography.

Yul continued to pursue his acting career and, in 1951, he landed the defining role of his career as the King of Siam in the original stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, The King and I. Brynner won a Tony Award for his role, which he performed on stage over 5,000 times over the span of his career. He went on to star in and co-direct the film version of The King and I, and was intimately involved in virtually every aspect of the production.

At thirty-six years old, Yul won a Tony Award for his performance in The King and I, as well as an Academy Award for Best Actor in the film adaption. Yul went on to star in a multitude of highly-acclaimed films including The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston, Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman, The Brothers Karamazov (1958) with William Shatner, The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Steve McQueen, Morituri (1965) co-starring Marlon Brando, and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) with Katharine Hepburn. Among his final feature roles, Brynner appeared in Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973) and its sequel, Futureworld (1976). Yul also appeared in drag, as a torch singer, in an unbilled role opposite Roman Polanski in the Peter Sellers comedy, The Magic Christian (1969).

In 1959, Yul was extremely moved by a visit to a refugee camp. This experience prompted him to immediately accept an offer to serve as special consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During his tenure, Brynner toured several refugee camps in Europe, the Middle and Far East, documenting his experiences.

Brynner's romantic life included throngs of women, as well as men. He had four wives and is romantically linked (innuendo, of course) with many studs.

Brynner was possessed of a massive, nearly uncontrollable ego. In the mid-1960s, while filming Morituri aboard a freighter with co-star Marlon Brando, Brynner demanded in his contract that a landing pad be built on the ship so he could get a private helicopter to take him ashore after each day's shoot. He got his way, as usual.

According to Frank Langella’s recent memoir, no actor ever talked about himself so much as Brynner, whom Langella described as “never far from a full-length mirror.” Brynner explained how he’d had a special lift – big enough to fit a car – installed in the Broadway theater where he was starring in The King And I. His chauffeur could thus drive straight in and spare the star from having to “deal with the public.”

Brynner's last major film role was in the sci-fi thriller Westworld (1973) as a murderously malfunctioning robot, dressed in Western garb reminiscent of Brynner's wardrobe in The Magnificent Seven. What could have been campy or ludicrous became a chilling characterization in Brynner's hands; his steady, steely-eyed automaton glare as he approached his human victims was one of the more enjoyably frightening film-going experiences of the 1970s.

On October 10th 1985, Yul Brynner died after a long battle with lung cancer. And scanning through most photographs of him, it's true, he most often was holding a cigarette or cigar.

Nine months prior to his death, Yul gave an interview on Good Morning America expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial. After his death, the American Cancer Society turned a clip of this interview into an anti-smoking public service announcement, which was one of the most highly recognized and acclaimed PSAs ever made, resonating with millions across the country.

We raise a toast to Yul Brynner, a man who stood out among his peers. Shall we dance?




Don't forget about our TRIVIA night. & I Am Telling You that You & I remember Pomp & Circumstance with Heart & Soul then Shut Up & Dance with our Ex's & Oh's or Sex & Candy so we can Twist & Shout then Rock & Roll All Night.