July 11 (1920) is the birthday of Yul Brynner. Despite his many outstanding artistic accomplishments, to me he will always be “Chris” from the great movie “The Magnificent Seven”.
He was born as Youl Borisovich Briner in Vladivostok, Far Eastern Republic (now Russia) of Swiss-German and Russian descent. His father was a mining engineer and inventor. His mother was an actress and singer.
His father abandoned the family in 1923, and after that Yul and his mother and sister (Vera) lived in China until 1932, when they moved to Paris, France. Yul played guitar and sang in Russian nightclubs in Paris. He also trained as a trapeze artist and performed in circuses. He also turned to acting.
In 1940 Yul and his mother moved to New York, where Vera had emigrated to earlier. During WWII he was a French-speaking announcer and commentator for the US Office of War Information. He studied acting and had a few parts on Broadway. He did some directing and became an accomplished photographer. He had his film debut in 1949.
In 1951 he got the role of King Mongkut in the Broadway musical “The King and I”, and he shaved his head for the part. A shaved head was unusual for the time and became known as the Yul Brynner look. He shaved his head for the rest of his life; it became his personal trademark.
The Broadway production and the film version (1956) of “The King and I” were huge successes. He appeared in the Broadway production 4625 times.
He got a huge boost in his film career in 1956 when he appeared as Rameses II in the blockbuster “The Ten Commandments”. He appeared in over 40 films over the next two decades.
“The Magnificent Seven” appeared in 1960. His role as Chris Larabee Adams became iconic. (Although I don’t recall last names being mentioned in the film. Perhaps they were listed in the end credits. I’ll have to research that more.)
The movie was a remake of the Japanese-language film “The Seven Samurai” (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa. Besides Brynner, roles were played by Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, and Brad Dexter. That was a great lineup. Each of the seven gunfighters had a story of his own that compelled him to join the group to protect the peasant citizens of a small Mexican village harassed by a bandit, Calvera (Eli Wallach).
The film had an unforgettable musical score composed by Elmer Bernstein. Today many people recognize the music even though they never saw the movie.
In 1960 the reception of the film was not great, but the movie has grown in importance. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The plot has become classic, the theme music widely recognized, and some of the actors went on to superstar levels. The movie is frequently seen on TV.
Three sequels were made. Brynner starred in only the first sequel, “Return of the Seven” (1966). The other two were “Guns of the Magnificent Seven” (1969) with George Kennedy as Chris and “The Magnificent Seven Ride” (1972) with Lee Van Cleef as Chris. The sequels never matched the success of the original.
Another Western that Yul starred in was “Invitation to a Gunfighter” (1964). He played a gunfighter named Jules Gaspard d'Estaing. George Segal plays a Confederate veteran that Brynner is hired to goad into a fatal gunfight. The film was a box office loser, but I rather liked it. I liked the plot twists, and I liked Brynner’s performance.
Brynner played a gunslinger android in an amusement park that goes rogue in the science fiction film “Westworld” (1973). Brynner essentially plays Chris Adams as the android. The film was directed by Michael Crichton. The movie was a box office success.
That movie was followed by a sequel called “Futureworld” (1976). Brynner had a cameo appearance as the android gunslinger. The film is noteworthy for me because of its derogatory reference to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I live in South Dakota so I got a big kick out of the remarks. I made a short video of the exchange. See:
Brynner was a Swiss citizen, was naturalized as a US citizen, but renounced his US citizenship in 1965 for tax reasons.
Yul married four times – in 1944-60, 1960-67, 1971-81, and in 1983. He was still married when he died.
He died on October 10, 1985. He had been a heavy smoker since he was 12, but he quit smoking in 1971. Still, he died of lung cancer. Shortly after his death a public service announcement he had made denouncing smoking was shown on all major networks. His remains were buried in France.