YUL BRYNNER: ROMANI HOLLYWOOD ICON

Born in Vladivostok, on the distant Pacific rim of Russia, Yul Brynner was one of the most colorful figures of his acting generation. While his career took him to the most salubrious of locations across the world, he always stayed true to his Romani heritage.

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Yul Brynner

Known primarily as an actor who performed alongside the likes of Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen and won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1957, Brynner was also a talented singer who performed and recorded Russian Roma songs including “End of the Road” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afvbC_7Egj8

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Yul Brynner CD with Romani songs

Later in his life, the Russia-born star became more politically involved and took an active interest in supporting the Romani movement. He attended the 1st World Romani Congress in London in 1971 and  2nd World Romani Congress in Geneva in 1978 in his capacity as Honorary President of the International Romani Union, a position he held from 1977 until his death in 1985.

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2st World Romani Congress in Geneva in 1978

Brynner’s Romani roots emanated from his mother Marousia Blagovidova’s side of the family, as she had a Jewish father and Romani mother. Born in the inter-war period and also in the infancy of the Soviet Union, it was a turbulent era and, after his father abandoned the family for a Moscow actress in 1923, they moved to Manchuria.

It was as a teenager that Brynner started to be recognized as an artist after his mother took him and his sister Vera from Manchuria to Paris in the early 1930s where he performed Russian Romani songs in the decadent Russian nightclubs of the French capital.

A few years as a trapeze artist followed before the Brynner family was again on the move, fleeing the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe for the United States.

In New York City Brynner continued his education as a circus performer under Michael Chekhov with whom he toured in his theatrical troupe although soon his efforts turned to acting.

His first stage roles were in Shakespeare productions on Broadway in the early 1940s but he initially struggled to break into cinema and developed a keen interest in photography.

1951 proved to be a pivotal year for Brynner as he landed the leading role of the King of Siam in “The King and I” and his iconic performances finally drew the attention of Hollywood.

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Yul Brynner in “The King and I”

His career from then on would subsequently soar with memorable performances in The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven and the Madwoman of Chaillot.

However, while his career had now hit unnerving heights, it was on a visit to refugee camps in 1959 that Brynner was moved to take an active role in civil and human rights.

He co-wrote the book “Bring Forth the Children: A Journey to the Forgotten People of Europe and the Middle East” which contained numerous photographs he took and why he felt it imperative that children did not have to endure such conditions.

Following his first visit to a refugee camp, Brynner quickly accepted the position of special consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

His work there was well documented in the aforementioned book, and following the inaugural World Romani Congress in England in 1971, the international movement gathered pace and Brynner felt a strong responsibility toward promoting Roma rights even after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1983.

After his death in 1985, a statue of him was erected in his hometown of Vladivostok and his memory, both on screen in the movies and off screen in various rights movements, lives on.

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Yul Brynner’s statue in Vladivostok