When, towards the end of his life, Yul Brynner was challenged to explain the conflicting accounts of the time and place of his origins that he'd given in almost every interview, he declared imperiously: 'Ordinary mortals need but one birthday.' The quote is an indication of how assiduously Brynner worked at burnishing his own legend. His name was already a byword for an outré kind of Hollywood exotica - he was the first shaven-headed movie idol, and his gimlet stare, precipitously arched eyebrows and all-purpose arcane mien saw him equally at home in bell-sleeved silk tunics (as the King of Siam in 1956's The King And I), pleated skirts and leopard-skin pashminas (as Pharaoh Rameses I in The Ten Commandments, released the same year), or the darkest outlaw double-denim (in 1960's The Magnificent Seven). In a rare moment of levity, he described himself as 'just a nice, clean- cut Mongolian boy'. He at least got the middle bit right.
He was actually born Yuliy Borisovich Briner in 1920 in Vladivostok, of Swiss-Eurasian ancestry; his father was a mining engineer and his mother was a singer and actress. His malleable sense of identity - at times he called himself 'Julius Briner', 'Jules Bryner' or 'Youl Bryner' - was surely the product of a peripatetic childhood. His father abandoned the family when Brynner was three, and his mother took him and his older sister Vera to Manchuria, and later to Paris, where Brynner played Russian and Roma songs on his guitar in Russian nightclubs, worked as a trapeze artist with the touring Cirque d'Hiver (until a back injury put him out of commission), studied philosophy, and eventually, under the patronage of his best friend Jean Cocteau (their relationship sparked lifelong rumours of Brynner's bisexuality), joined a repertory theatre company. In 1940, the Brynners immigrated to the United States, and he enrolled in acting classes with the Russian teacher Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton), whilst nude modelling for renowned photographer George Platt Lynes on the side; the pictures revealed that a more-than-generous endowment could be added to Brynner's swelling list of accomplishments.
By the mid-'40s, the buzz around Brynner was building: he married the first of his four wives, actress Virginia Gilmore, in 1944, and played a Chinese student named Tsai-Yong in the musical Lute Song on Broadway, alongside Mary Martin, a couple of years later. After a brief diversion directing shows for US TV - including a kids' puppet show with the deathless title of Life with Snarky Parker - Brynner was recommended by Martin for the role of King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's new Broadway musical. The King and I was supposed to be a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence as Anna, governess to Mongkut's children, but so indelible was Brynner's performance (and so incandescent his dome, newly depilated for the part) that his role was beefed up; he went on to play the part 4,625 times on stage over a span of 30 years, winning two Tony Awards, plus an Oscar for the 1956 film version. He even reprised the role in a short-lived TV reboot (Anna and the King) in the early '70s. Shall We Dance? was Brynner's big number, and his own answer was a resounding yes, not only embarking on an affair with Lawrence at the height of their joint success (whilst maintaining a concurrent affair with Marlene Dietrich), but also developing a robustly untrammelled ego. Rodgers and Hammerstein were fond of telling the story that, when Lawrence died during the run of the show and Brynner finally got top billing, he burst into tears at the news - of getting top billing. Meanwhile, Frank Langella, one of his later costars, opined in his memoir Dropped Names that Brynner was unmatched in his ability to wax lyrical about himself, adding, for good measure, that he was'never far from a full-length mirror'.