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Charles Bronson Dies at 81

Craggy faced tough punched his way to stardom. My favorite Bronson role was as the only surviving member of the Dirty Dozen . My favorite of his leading roles was in Hard Times, Walter Hill’s directorial debut about a taciturn street fighter in New Orleans in the ’30s managed by James Coburn. What an unlikely success story Bronson was!

    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 ugly man). In 1971, he was presented 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.

    His early life gave no indication of his later fame. He was born Charles Buchinsky on Nov. 3, 1921 – not 1922, as studio biographies claimed — in Ehrenfeld, Pa. 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 6, 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 ton of coal and volunteered for perilous jobs because the pay was better. Like other toughs in Scooptown, he made trouble and landed in jail for assault and robbery.

    He might have stayed in the mines for the rest of his life except for World War II.

    Drafted in 1943, he served with the Air Force 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 in 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 sailor in the 1951 service comedy “You’re in the Navy Now” starring Gary Cooper.

    ….Bronson’s first starring role came in 1958 with “Machine-Gun Kelly,” an exploitation film made in eight days. 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 (news), 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 favorite.

    Among his films abroad was a hit spaghetti western, “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Finally Hollywood took notice.

    Among his starring films: “The Valachi Papers,” “Chato’s Land,” “The Mechanic,” “Valdez,” “The Stone Killer,” “Mr. Majestyk,” “Breakout,” “Hard Times,” “Breakout Pass,” “White Buffalo,” “Telefon,” “Love and Bullets,” “Death Hunt,” “Assassination,” “Messenger of Death.” [AP]

About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com/weblog.html Ed Driscoll

    Eric,

    I was sorry to read that Bronson has passed away. But every time I was at the supermarket checkout in the past couple of months, the National Enquirer or The Star had cover stories that he was in bad shape.

    Those magazine are certainly full of hype, but over the years, I’ve noticed, if they report a celebrity is ailing–he’s a goner.

    I once read an interview with Brian Garfield, the author of the book, Death Wish. Ironically, he wanted a milquetoast actor–specifically Jack Lemmon(!) to play the Paul Kersey character when it came time to shoot the film. And I can’t say I blame him; you’re too busy waiting for Bronson to go nuts, instead of watching this timid, urbane architect being transformed his wife’s death into a vigilante.

    But the film’s timing was perfect, the script and direction by Michael Winner surprisingly good, and it properly made Bronson into a legend. (Neat score by Herbie Hancock, too.)

    Good actor–great persona. He’ll be missed.

    Ed

  • Eric Olsen

    Great point about the persona Ed, one of the most distinctive ever.

  • http://www.makeyougohmm.com/ TDavid

    Bet folks are out buying Bronson DVDs this week. If anybody here is in that mode, skip with the Death Wish sequels because they were pretty much awful, but Death Wish is definitely a goodie for the library.

    Apparently Bronson in his later years was a bit upset that he was typed as being an action movie guy. Odd point of view for a guy who reached stardom through action movies, if this is accurate, of course.

    Also, am I the only one who didn’t realize Bronson was in his eighties? I would have thought he was in his 60′s maybe. He was a good actor and will be sorely missed. R.I.P!

  • http://www.resonation.ca Jim Carruthers

    It takes a tough guy writer to write about a tough guy actor.

    Harry Crews on Charles Bronson:

    “He stood utter still, and I tried to rember what that way of standing reminded me of. And then I knew. Charles Bronson stands like a pit bulldog. He somehow manges that kind of balance with only two feet. It is the kind of balance only the very finest athtletes, the world-beaters, have.”

  • Eric Olsen

    T, I knew he didn’t become a star until he was older, but time does fly.

    Jim, good one. I think he was so successful because he really was someone you wouldn’t want to fuck with, as it were.

  • MCH

    Well, E.O., we may disagree on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but we’re on the same page regarding Charlie Bronson. Hard Times was my favorite Bronson movie, also, followed by The Dirty Dozen.