Charles Bronson (born Charles Dennis Buchinsky) was born on November 21, 1921 in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. He was one of fourteen children born to his poor Polish immigrant parents. His father, a coal miner, died when Bronson was ten. At 16, Bronson worked in the mines to help support his family. This lead to a lifetime fear of enclosed spaces, brought terrifyingly to life in “The Great Escape” (1963).
Bronson served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, flying one 25 missions and receiving a Purple Heart. Afterwards, he used the G.I. bill to study art. He enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse and was recommended to director Henry Hathaway by one of his teachers. Bronson made his film debut “You’re in the Navy Now” (1951).
At the suggestion of his agent, the actor changed his name from Buchinsky to Bronson. This was at the height of the McCarthy “Red Scare” era, and the agent was afraid “Buchinsky” would scare studios away. Legend has it that Bronson got his new last name from the “Bronson Gate” at Paramount Studios.
Though many of his early film roles were uncredited, he was noticed by audiences as Vincent Price’s evil assistant in “House of Wax” (1953). He soon found himself cast in tough-guy action flicks. Roger Corman cast him as the lead in the low budget “Machine-Gun Kelly” (1958 ) and Bronson starred in his own television series, “Man with a Camera” the same year.
The 1960s seemed to bring upon the on-screen persona that would follow him for the rest of his career. His characters spoke little but made their mark through lots of action. He was the gunslinger Bernardo O’Reilly in John Sturges’ blockbuster “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). The director cast him again as POW Danny Velinski in another smash hit, “The Great Escape.” Bronson joined another testosterone-packed cast for “The Dirty Dozen” (1967).
European audiences were great fans of his minimalist acting style, and he spent time over there starring in several films. One of the best is the Sergio Leone masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). Leone later said that Bronson was one of the best actors he had ever worked with.
Bronson returned to American filmmaking in the 1970s, when he was cast in his best-know role. Written with Henry Fonda in mind, “Death Wish” (1974) was a controversial hit. The actor played Paul Kersey, a man avenging the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter, vigilante-style. The film spawned four sequels over the next 20 years.
Later films include “Hard Times” (1975) with James Coburn and “Indian Runner” (1991), directed by Sean Penn. His final role was as Police Commissioner Paul Fein in the television movies “Family of Cops (1995-1999). Much of his work wasn’t loved by critics, but he remained unfazed: “We don’t make movies for critics, since they don’t pay to see them anyhow.”
Throughout his career he also appeared in several advertisements for items such as GE Batteries (1957), Japan’s Mandom cologne (1970s), and in print ads for the Motorcycle Industry Council promoting safety and responsible riding (1987).
Bronson was married three times. He appeared onscreen a handful of times with his second wife, actress Jill Ireland. He was introduced to her by her then-husband David McCallum during the filming of “The Great Escape.” Bronson and McCallum acted alongside one another in the film.
Though he was known the world over as a hero, he was never thought of as a handsome man. He himself described himself as looking “like a rock quarry that someone has dynamite.” The man who looked like “a Clark Gable who had been left out in the sun too long” died of complications brought on by pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease on August 23, 2003, just a few months short of his 82nd birthday.
Below are my top five picks of Bronson’s work.
“Once Upon a Time in the West”: Known in Italy as “C’era una volta il West,” this is the epic story of a mysterious stranger with a harmonica (Bronson) who joins with a desperado (Jason Robards) to watch over a beautiful widow (Claudia Cardinale) and protect her from an assassin (Henry Fonda). I could go on and on about this film. Everything is fabulous – the cinematography, the haunting music, the acting. Cardinale could not be more beautiful, Fonda is cast deliciously against type, and Bronson and Robards are compelling anti-heroes. Despite the brutality of much of the film, it is also quite romantic. The tagline sets it all up: “There were three men in her life. One to take her…one to love her…and one to kill her.”
“The Great Escape”: One of the great war movies of all time, this is the story of a real-life escape attempt from a German prisoner-of-war camp. There is lot of action and all-star cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, et al. The film alternates between thrilling, heartbreaking and patriotic, and sometimes is all three.
“The Dirty Dozen”: The ultimate man’s movie, but exciting for anyone who tunes in. A U.S. Army major (Lee Marvin) is assigned a thankless task. He must rain and lead a dozen convicted murderers into an assassination mission during World War II. This is another Who’s Who of tough guys – Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas. Savalas is no Kojak in this one – he is so frightening, it’s almost reason enough for a rental.
“The Magnificent Seven”: In a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), a Mexican village hires seven gunmen to protect them from the evil Calvera (Eli Wallach). Bronson again joins forces with Steve McQueen and James Coburn, and is lead by Yul Brynner. Lots and lots of fun. This is another of Bronson’s sensitive tough guy roles, and he excels at it.
“Death Wish”: This is Bronson’s most famous role. The rape sequence is one of the most brutal and horrifying scenes I’ve ever experience on film. (And on a weird note, a young Jeff Goldblum plays one of the thugs). Bronson is sympathetic and proud, and Vincent Gardenia is believable as the police officer hunting him.