Brynner was noted for his distinctive voice and for his shaved head, which he maintained as a personal trademark long after adopting it in 1951 for his role in The King and I. Earlier, he was a model and television director, and later a photographer and the author of two books.
Statue of Brynner in front of his birthplace in Vladivostok, Russia
Yul Brynner was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner in 1920. He exaggerated his background and early life for the press, claiming that he was born "Taidje Khan" of part-Mongol parentage, on the Russian island of Sakhalin. In reality, he was born at home in a four-story residence at 15 Aleutskaya Street, Vladivostok, in the Far Eastern Republic (present-day Primorsky Krai, Russia). He occasionally referred to himself as Julius Briner, Jules Bryner or Youl Bryner. The 1989 biography by his son, Rock Brynner, clarified some of these issues.
His father, Boris Yuliyevich Briner, was a mining engineer and inventor of Swiss-German and Russian descent, whose father, Jules Briner, was a Swiss citizen who moved to Vladivostok in the 1870s and established a successful import/export company. Brynner's paternal grandmother, Natalya Yosifovna Kurkutova, was a native of Irkutsk and a Eurasian of part Buryat ancestry.
Brynner's mother, Marousia Dimitrievna (née Blagovidova), came from the Russian intelligentsia and studied to be an actress and singer. Brynner felt a strong personal connection to the Romani people; in 1977, Yul Brynner was named Honorary President of the International Romani Union, an office that he kept until his death.
Boris Briner's work required extensive travel, and in 1923 he fell in love with an actress, Katya Kornukova, at the Moscow Art Theatre, and soon after abandoned his family. Yul's mother took him and his sister, Vera (January 17, 1916 – December 13, 1967), to Harbin, China, where they attended a school run by the YMCA. In 1932, fearing a war between China and Japan, she took them to Paris. Brynner played his guitar in Russian nightclubs in Paris, sometimes accompanying his sister, playing Russian and Roma songs. He trained as a trapeze acrobat and worked in a French circus troupe for five years, but after sustaining a back injury, he turned to acting. In 1938, his mother was diagnosed with leukemia, and they briefly moved back to Harbin.
During World War II, Brynner worked as a French-speaking radio announcer and commentator for the US Office of War Information, broadcasting propaganda to occupied France. At the same time, he studied acting in Connecticut with the Russian teacher Michael Chekhov. Brynner’s first Broadway performance was a small part in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in December 1941. Brynner found little acting work during the next few years, but among other acting stints, he co-starred in a 1946 production of Lute Song with Mary Martin. He also did some modeling work and was photographed nude by George Platt Lynes.
Brynner's first marriage was to actress Virginia Gilmore in 1944, and soon after he began working as a director at the new CBS television studios, directing Studio One, among other shows. In 1949, he made his film debut in Port of New York. The next year, at the urging of Martin, he auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein's new musical in New York. He recalled that, as he was finding success as a director on television, he was reluctant to go back on the stage. Once he read the script, however, he was fascinated by the character of the King and was eager to perform in the project.
His most famous role was that of King Mongkut in The King and I (4625 times on stage). He appeared in the original 1951 production and later touring productions as well as a 1977 Broadway revival, a London Production in 1979 and another Broadway revival in 1985. He won Tony Awards for both the first and the last of these Broadway productions. He also appeared in the 1956 film version, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Actor and in Anna and the King, a short-lived TV version on CBS in 1972. Brynner is one of only nine people who have won both a Tony Award and an Academy Award for the same role. His connection to the story and the role of King Mongkut is so deep that he was mentioned in the song "One Night in Bangkok" from the 1984 musical Chess the second act of which is set in Bangkok.
In 1951, Brynner shaved his head for his role in The King and I. Following the huge success of the Broadway production and subsequent film, Brynner continued to shave his head for the rest of his life, though he wore a wig for certain roles. Brynner's shaven head was unusual at the time, and his striking appearance helped to give him an exotic appeal. Some fans shaved off their hair to imitate him, and a shaven head was often referred to as the "Yul Brynner look". Brynner reprised his "Shall We Dance?" segment with Patricia Morison on the TV special General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, broadcast March 28, 1954 on all four American TV networks of the time.
In addition to his work as a director and performer, Brynner was an active photographer and wrote two books. His daughter Victoria put together Yul Brynner: Photographer (ISBN 0-8109-3144-3) a collection of his photographs of family, friends, and fellow actors, as well as those he took while serving as a UN special consultant on refugees. Brynner wrote Bring Forth the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East (1960), with photographs by himself and Magnum photographer Inge Morath, and The Yul Brynner Cookbook: Food Fit for the King and You (1983 ISBN 0-8128-2882-8).
He was also an accomplished guitarist. In his early period in Europe he often played and sang gypsy songs in Parisian nightclubs with Aliosha Dimitrievitch. He sang some of those same songs in the film The Brothers Karamazov. In 1967 he and Dimitrievitch released a record album The Gypsy and I: Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs (Vanguard VSD 79265).
In 2006, Rock wrote a book about his father and his family history titled Empire and Odyssey: The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond. He regularly returns to Vladivostok, the city of his father's birth, for the "Pacific Meridian" Film Festival. Yul Brynner had a long affair with Marlene Dietrich, who was 19 years his senior, beginning during the first production of The King and I.
In 1959, Brynner fathered a daughter, Lark Brynner, with Frankie Tilden, who was 20 years old. Lark lived with her mother and Brynner supported her financially. His second wife, from 1960 to 1967, Doris Kleiner, was a Chilean model whom he married on the set during shooting of The Magnificent Seven in 1960. They had one child, Victoria Brynner (born November 1962), whose godmother was Audrey Hepburn. Belgian novelist and artist Monique Watteau was also romantically linked with Brynner, from 1961–67.
His third wife, Jacqueline Thion de la Chaume (1971–1981), a French socialite, was the widow of Philippe de Croisset (son of French playwright Francis de Croisset and a publishing executive). Brynner and Jacqueline adopted two Vietnamese children: Mia (1974) and Melody (1975). The first house Brynner owned was the Manoir de Criqueboeuf, a sixteenth-century manor house that he and Jacqueline purchased. His 1980 announcement that he would continue in the role of the King for another long tour and Broadway run, together with his affairs with female fans and his neglect of his wife and children, purportedly broke up this marriage.
On April 4, 1983, aged 62, Brynner married his fourth and last wife, Kathy Lee (born 1957), a 24-year-old ballerina from Malaysia, whom he had met in a production of The King and I . They remained married for the last two years (1983–85) of his life.
Brynner, a Swiss citizen, was naturalized as a US citizen, but in June 1965, he renounced his citizenship at the US Embassy in Berne, Switzerland for tax reasons. He had lost his tax exemption as an American resident abroad by working too long in the United States and would have been bankrupted by his tax and penalty debts.
Brynner began smoking heavily at age 12 and, although his promotional photos often showed him with a cigarette in hand, he quit the habit in 1971. In September 1983, he found a lump on his vocal cords. In Los Angeles, only hours before his 4,000th performance in The King and I, he received the test results. His throat was fine, but he had inoperable lung cancer. He and the national tour of the musical were forced to take a few months off while he underwent radiation therapy, which hurt his throat and made it impossible for him to sing or speak easily. The tour then resumed.
In January 1985, nine months before his death, the tour reached New York for a farewell Broadway run. Aware he was dying, he gave an interview on Good Morning America discussing the dangers of smoking and expressing his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial. The Broadway production of The King and I ran from January 7 to June 30 of that year, with Mary Beth Peil as Anna. His last performance marked the 4625th time he had played the role of the King. Meanwhile, he and the American Cancer Society created a public service announcement using a clip from the Good Morning America interview.
Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985, in New York City. A few days after his death the recorded anti-cigarette public service announcement was shown on all the major US television networks, and also in many other countries. In it he expressed his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial after discovering how sick he was, and that his death was imminent. He then looked directly into the camera for 30 seconds and said, "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn't be talking about any cancer. I'm convinced of that."
His body was buried in the grounds of the Saint-Michel-de-Bois-Aubry Russian Orthodox monastery, near Luzé, between Tours and Poitiers in France.
On September 28, 2012, a 2.4-metre (8-foot) tall statue was inaugurated at Yul Brynner Park, in front of the home where he was born at Aleutskaya St. No. 15 in Vladivostok, Russia. Created by local sculptor Alexei Bokiy, the monument was carved in granite from China. The grounds for the park were donated by the city of Vladivostok, which also paid additional costs. Vladivostok Mayor Igor Pushkariov, US Consul General Sylvia Curran, and Yul's son, Rock Brynner, participated in the ceremony, along with hundreds of local residents.