Death Wish star Charles Bronson, the Pennsylvania coal miner who drifted into films as a villain and became a hard-faced action star, has died, it was reported today.
Bronson, 81, died yesterday of pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, with his wife at his bedside, publicist Lori Jonas said. He had been in the hospital for weeks.
During the height of his career, Bronson was hugely popular in Europe -the French knew him as “le sacre monstre” (the sacred monster), the Italians as “Il Brutto” (the brute). In 1971, he was presented with a Golden Globe as “the most popular actor in the world”.
Like Clint Eastwood, whose spaghetti westerns won him stardom, Bronson had to make European films to prove his worth as a star. He left a featured-role career in Hollywood to play leads in films made in France, Italy and Spain. His blunt manner, powerful build and air of danger made him the most popular actor in those countries.
At age 50, he returned to Hollywood a star.
In a 1971 interview, he theorised on why the journey had taken him so long.
"Maybe I’m too masculine. Casting directors cast in their own, or an idealised image. Maybe I don’t look like anybody’s ideal,” he said.
His early life gave no indication of his later fame. He was born Charles Bunchinsky on November 3, 1921 – not 1922, as studio biographies claimed – in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. He was the 11th of 15 children of a coal miner and his wife, both Lithuanian immigrants.
Young Charles learned the art of survival in the tough district of Scooptown, "where you had nothing to lose because you lost it already".
The Buchinskys lived crowded in a shack, the children wearing hand-me-downs from older siblings. At the age of six, Charles was embarrassed to attend school in his sister's dress.
Charles’ father died when he was 10, and at 16 Charles followed his brothers into the mines. He was paid $1 per tonne of coal and volunteered for perilous jobs because the pay was better. He spent time in jail for assault and robbery.
He might have stayed in the mines for the rest of his life except for the Second World War.
Drafted in 1943, he served with the US Army Air Corps in the Pacific, reportedly as a tail gunner on a B29. Having seen the outside world, he vowed not to return to the squalor of Scooptown.
He was attracted to acting not, he claimed, because of any artistic urge; he was impressed by the money movie stars could earn. He joined the Philadelphia Play and Players Troupe, painting scenery and acting a few minor roles.
At the Pasadena Playhouse school, Bronson improved his diction, supporting himself by selling Christmas cards and toys on street corners. Studio scouts saw him at the Playhouse and he was cast as a gob in the 1951 service comedy You’re in the Navy Now, starring Gary Cooper.
As Charles Buchinsky or Buchinski, he played supporting roles in Red Skies of Montana, The Marrying Kind, Pat and Mike (in which he fell victim to Katharine Hepburn’s judo), The House of Wax, Jubal and other films. In 1954 he changed his last name, fearing communist-wary American audiences would shun his movies because of his Russian-sounding name.
Bronson’s first starring role came in 1958 with an eight-day exploitation film, Machine Gun Kelly. He also appeared in two brief TV series, Man with a Camera (1958) and The Travels of Jamie McPheeters (1963).
His status grew with impressive performances in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Battle of the Bulge, The Sandpiper and The Dirty Dozen. But real stardom eluded him, his rough-hewn face and brusque manner not fitting the Hollywood tradition for leading men.
Alain Delon, like many French, had admired Machine Gun Kelly, and he invited Bronson to co-star with him in a British-French film, Adieu, L’Ami (“Farewell, Friend”). It made Bronson a European favourite.
Among his films abroad was a hit spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Finally Hollywood took notice.
He took starring roles in films including: The Valachi Papers; Chato’s Land; Breakout; Telefon; Love and Bullets; Death Hunt; Assassination, and Messenger of Death.
The titles indicated the nature of the films: lots of action, shooting, and dead bodies. They were made on medium-size budgets, but Bronson was earning 1 million a picture before it was fashionable.
His most controversial film came in 1974 with Death Wish, directed by Briton Michael Winner. He played an affluent, liberal architect, whose life was shattered when young thugs killed his wife and raped his daughter. He vowed to rid the city of such vermin, and his executions brought cheers from crime-weary American audiences.
The character’s vigilantism brought widespread criticism, but Death Wish became one of the big moneymakers of the year.
Bronson made three more Death Wish films, and in 1987 he defended them, saying: “I think they provide satisfaction for people who are victimised by crime and look in vain for authorities to protect them. But I don’t think people try to imitate that kind of thing.”
Bronson could be as taciturn in interviews as he appeared on the screen. He remained aloof from the Hollywood scene, once observing: “I have lots of friends and yet I don’t have any.”
His first marriage was to Harriet Tendler, whom he met when both were fledgling actors in Philadelphia. They had two children before divorcing.
In 1966 Bronson fell in love with the British actress Jill Ireland, who was married to Man From Uncle star David McCallum. Bronson reportedly told McCallum bluntly: “I’m going to marry your wife.”
The McCallums were divorced in 1967 and Bronson and Ireland married the following year. She co-starred in several of his films.
The Bronsons lived in a grand Bel Air mansion with seven children: two by his previous marriage, three by hers and two of their own. They also spent time in a colonial farmhouse on 260 acres in Vermont.
Ireland lost a breast to cancer in 1984, became a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society and wrote a bestselling book, Life Wish. She followed with Life Lines, in which she told of her struggle to rescue her 27-year-old son, Jason McCallum Bronson, from drug addiction. He died of an overdose in 1989, and she died of cancer a year later.
Bronson is survived by his third wife, Kim, six children and two grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private.