Hollywood legend once claimed that, 100 years ago this month in July 1920, a baby named Taidje Khan was born on the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin. A child of Mongol ancestry, he grew up windswept and wild, eventually becoming the dashing, shaven-haired actor Yul Brynner.
Though that story has often been cited as fact, the truth is that Brynner was never named Khan. His birth name was Yuliy Borisovich Bryner. He was indeed born in eastern Russia, but not on Sakhalin. His family lived in the city of Vladivostok, where his father worked as a mining engineer and his mother was an actress and singer.
But the legend – which Brynner made up for the press – was a memorable story that may even have helped his career, as through the 1950s, his starring roles often saw him portray the mighty leaders of distant and foreign lands.
One such ruler was Rameses II, pharaoh of Egypt, in the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster The Ten Commandments. The power struggle between Brynner’s Rameses and Charlton Heston‘s Moses – along with the spectacular-for-the-time visual effects and DeMille’s “cast of thousands” approach – made The Ten Commandments the sixth most financially successful film of all time.
Brynner’s tanned and chiseled good looks lent themselves to biblical epics. Five years after The Ten Commandments, he played King Solomon in Solomon and Sheba.
And of course, we can’t forget Brynner’s most famous king – Mongkut, King of Siam. It’s the role we most associate with Brynner and that’s no surprise, since in addition to playing Mongkut in the classic film musical The King and I (opposite Deborah Kerr), Brynner played the king onstage for an astonishing 4,525 performances on Broadway and beyond.
The longevity of his role won him a special Tony award in 1985, just months before his death. In this clip, he speaks beautifully about some of what The King and I meant to him: