Yul Brynner loved telling tall tales — especially about himself. The legendary actor, best known for his role as commanding King Mongkut in The King and I, once claimed to have fought with Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War and boasted that his bald head was the result of being struck by a machete-swinging stranger!
“He was so funny,” Brian Tochi, who costarred with Yul in the 1972 sitcom Anna and the King, tells Closer. “He told so many stories. His mind was always working.” As Yul once said, “People don’t know my real self, and they’re not about to find out.”
For Yul, fudging the details of his life was part playfulness, part self-preservation. Born into a wealthy Swiss-Russian family, Yul’s childhood was shadowed by heartbreak and disappointment. When he was about 4, “his father abandoned him and ran off with an actress,” says Brian Hannan, author of The Making of the Magnificent Seven: Behind the Scenes of the Pivotal Western. “They were estranged, with his father rarely making contact. Many people believe Yul made up fanciful childhood tales because he couldn’t bear to talk about his real childhood.”
After his parents’ divorce, Yul moved to China and then France with his mother and older sister. At 13, he dropped out of school and worked as a trapeze acrobat for five years. The thrill of the circus helped Yul forget about his troubles at home — until a bad injury forced him to quit. “It was depressing working on the ground,” he said. “I still wanted to fly.”
Yul’s passion for performing led him to join a French acting troupe, and in 1940 he moved to New York City with dreams of making it big. But it would be years before Yul would land the role that changed his life forever.
When a friend urged Yul to audition for The King and I, “I hadn’t read the book, so it didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I turned it down. But it turned up again and again, and, finally, I was convinced that it was for me.”
The Broadway musical would be a turning point in Yul’s career — and personal life. “He was suddenly very wealthy and bought a yacht and took up waterskiing,” says Hannan. Yul also took up with women other than his wife, including a four-year affair with Marlene Dietrich. “[They] indulged their love of culture, visiting museums and art galleries,” says Hannan.
While his career took off — he’d go on to star in films and television — Yul’s personal life suffered. Divorced three times and estranged from his only son, Rock, he married a fourth time, in 1983. But his happiness was short-lived.
A heavy smoker, Yul became terminally ill during a King and I farewell tour but powered through it. He died in 1985 at 65, months after his final performance. “You have to make a choice, being sick in bed, and that’s a fearsome kind of thing, or playing in a theater to standing ovations every night,” Yul said. “The choice is obvious. I simply go on playing.”
— Ian Spelling, with reporting by Fortune Benatar
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