Whether thundering across the screen in The Magnificent Seven or scowling at the world in the King and I, Brynner was a unique screen presence. The self-proclaimed “Mongolian” star fought his way up from being an immigrant circus performer and loved to elevate himself to epic levels. When asked about his various conflicting dates of birth, he grandly replied, “Ordinary mortals need but one birthday.” He liked it to be known that he prepared breakfast in a silk kimono, other stars commented how he was “never far from a mirror” and his on-set demands and dramas were legendary. But then, his whole life had been extraordinary, from nearly dying in a youthful trapeze accident to numerous bisexual affairs along the way to becoming more famous than the Siamese king he played so many times on stage and screen.
Brynner’s iconic look was even a calculated ploy. He did not lose his hair but kept his head shaved because he enjoyed the attention he got for it when he debuted The King and I on Broadway in 1951. After that, he also demanded that he was never photographed with another bald man so that he always stood out in pictures.
The musical made his name but he chafed at taking second billing behind Gertrude Lawrence. When she died in 1952, he notoriously wept – but with joy because it meant his name would, at last, be top of the bill.
It was somehow fitting that he died just on October 10, 1985, just a few months after performing The King and I on Broadway – his 4,625th time taking the stage in his regal, spotlight role. For an actor who was obsessed his whole life with having top billing, he would have been far less pleased to know that he passed away on the same day as Orson Welles, and so was overshadowed in his final hour.
Brynner had grafted hard for his success and fought even harder to keep it. Raised in Beijing and abandoned by his father, his mother fled with her children to Paris in 1932, where talented acrobat Yul became a trapeze artist with the Cirque d’Hiver.
A horrifying fall in 1937 broke many bones in his body and left him unable to walk for eight months. He turned his attention to the stage and set sail for America in 1940.
During that first Hollywood decade of bit parts and odds jobs, he had an affair with handsome heartthrob Hurd Hatfield, who starred in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as 1961’s El Cid opposite Charlton Heston.
Married four times, he also had affairs with men and women alike, from Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Judy Garland to artist Jean Cocteau.
Brynner’s enormous success on Broadway brought him back to Hollywood as a star and he was determined to impress in every way. His obsession with his own appearance meant that he increased his work-out regime when he learned he was playing Pharaoh Ramses II opposite Heston’s Moses in 1956’s The Ten Commandments, so as not to be overshadowed by the strapping actor.
This meant he was in phenomenal shape when he starred as King Mongkut of Siam in the film version of The King and I that same year, going on to win the Best Actor Oscar.
His impressive physique was also bared for all to see when pictures surfaced of a naked shoot he had down with gay photographer George Platt Lynes.
In turn, Brynner was an accomplished photographer himself, taking noted snaps of famous friends like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Sophia Loren, Mia Farrow and Audrey Hepburn.
From the mid-1950s he instantly became established as a major Hollywood star, with roles, salary and ego to match. Unfortunately, he did not have the corresponding physical height, which lead to two of his most infamous showdowns with fellow Tinseltown legends.
Bergman was over an inch taller in flat feet than his own 5ft 6½in. When the Swedish actress politely asked him if he would like to use any props to stand on, Brynner hissed back: “I am not going to play this on a box, I’m going to show the world what a big horse you are.” Horselike or otherwise, the actress went on to win her own Oscar for that role, her second of three in total.
Brynner’s behaviour hit new “heights” on the 1960s sets for The Magnificent Seven, particularly centering on a running battle with co-star Steve McQueen, who wasn’t particularly tall himself at 5ft 8in.
Whenever they were shooting outside, Brynner would scuff the earth and dirt into low mounds for him to stand on. McQueen, in return, would causally flatten them as he walked past.
Increasingly amused and irritated by Brynner’s behaviour, McQueen would also play with his hat or belt whenever his co-star was talking in a scene to subtly pull focus. All those iconic shots of the square-jawed star taking off his hat to shade his face or using it to scoop up water from river were mainly shameless scene-stealing tactics.
He later said: “We didn’t get along. Brynner came up to me in front of a lot of people and grabbed me by the shoulder. He was mad about something. He doesn’t ride well and knows nothing about guns, so maybe he thought I represented a threat. I was in my element. He wasn’t. When you work in a scene with Yul, you’re supposed to stand perfectly still, 10 feet away. Well, I don’t work that way.”
Brynner even hired an assistant with the sole job of monitoring McQueen’s misdemeanours and counting how many times he fidgeted during scenes, playing his hat, belt or gun. The antics increasingly infuriated the rest of the cast, leading to considerable friction on set. Decades later, dying of cancer, McQueen called to apologise. Brynner forgave him but Charles Bronson never did.
That said, Brynner’s own notorious behaviour never changed. In his early days of stardom, he insisted a special lift was installed at the Broadway theatre where The King and I was playing. Not just for him, but big enough for his white limousine – so he could drive in and out without being bothered by fans.
In 1965, he starred with Marlon Brando in the World War II ocean-bound action thriller Morituri and managed to eclipse his co-star by demanding a landing pad be built onboard the ship where they were filming, so his private helicopter could fly him back at the end of each day while his castmates were left, literally, all at sea..