(b. 3 November 1921 in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania; d. 30 August 2003 in Los Angeles, California), actor who played mostly character roles in Hollywood before finding success as a lead in European films in the late 1960s. He finally achieved stardom in his own country in 1974 as the New York architect-turned-vigilante in Death Wish.
Bronson was born Charles Dennis Bunchinsky, the eleventh of fifteen children of Walter Bunchinsky, a coal miner, and Mary (Valinsky) Bunchinsky, a homemaker. His father was an ethnic Russian who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. His mother, also of Russian descent, was born in Tamaqua in eastern Pennsylvania. Family members later changed their name to “Buchinsky.” Bronson grew up in Ehrenfeld, a dreary company town in southwestern Pennsylvania run by the Pennsylvania Coal and Coke Company, and attended public schools there and in nearby South Fork. His father died when he was eleven years old, and he joined his brothers in the coal mines after his graduation from South Fork High School in 1940.
Bronson was liberated from the marginal living conditions of Ehrenfeld and the dust and claustrophobic circumstances of the coal mines by the World War II military draft in 1943. Assigned to Kingman Army Air Field in Kingman, Arizona, he drove a mess delivery truck before serving in the South Pacific as a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber. After his discharge from the Army Air Forces in 1946, Bronson, who had drawn and painted since childhood, decided to try his hand at commercial art. While attending classes at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia on the GI Bill of Rights in 1947, he was recruited by members of a local repertory company to paint and design scenery for their productions at the Plays and Players Theater. Subsequently, he dropped out of art school, became a member of the company, and was given acting roles. With money he saved from a summer job on the amusement pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bronson and an actor friend, Jack Klugman, rented a one-room apartment in New York City in the fall of 1948 and sought theatrical auditions. Although the more experienced Klugman had greater success in getting work, Bronson was encouraged by the few small parts he received and felt he was ready to make acting his full-time career. He married Harriet Tendler, an actress with the Plays and Players Theater repertory company, on 30 September 1949. They had two children and divorced in March 1965.
Believing he needed more of an acting education and hoping for film work, Bronson moved to southern California and enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre (later the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts) in the fall of 1949. He took acting and speech classes and performed in student productions while Harriet supported the couple by working in a department store. In anticipation of becoming a character player, Bronson curtailed his speech instruction after a year because he thought that imperfect diction was a better fit for his rough-hewn, Slavic looks. Bronson made his screen debut in 1951, after one of his instructors suggested him for the small role of a Polish-American sailor in You’re in the Navy Now, a comedy directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. His competent performance got him an agent and led to minor parts in a number of motion pictures in the early 1950s.
Among the films he appeared in as Charles Buchinsky or Buchinski were The People Against O’Hara (1951), The Mob (1951), Pat and Mike (1952), House of Wax (1953), Apache (1954), and Vera Cruz (1954). Early in his career he had the opportunity to learn from such stars as Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Broderick Crawford, Vincent Price, and Burt Lancaster and to work with some of Hollywood’s better directors, including Hathaway, John Sturges, George Cukor, André de Toth, and Robert Aldrich. Although Bronson failed to obtain a studio contract, he continued to secure secondary roles because he was always on time for work and knew his lines. Producers and directors were impressed by his professionalism and often used him again.
Against a backdrop of cold war tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and congressional investigations of Communism, Bronson was advised to change his Russian-sounding surname in 1954. He renamed himself after a street in Hollywood (Bronson Avenue) and earned his first critical praise as a renegade Indian leader in Drum Beat (1954), starring Alan Ladd and directed by Delmer Daves. After more solid supporting work in Big House, U.S.A. (1955), Target Zero (1955), Jubal (1956), and Run of the Arrow (1957), Bronson was given the chance to star in the B movies Gang War, Showdown at Boot Hill, and Machine Gun Kelly in 1958. The last of these low-budget films was well received overseas largely due to his strong portrayal of its vicious but cowardly subject and helped make him a cult figure in Europe in the 1960s.
Bronson was also a busy television actor throughout the 1950s, appearing on a host of dramatic programs including Medic, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, The Millionaire, M Squad, and Have Gun—Will Travel. In the fall of 1958 he landed the starring role of Mike Kovac, a freelance photojournalist in New York City who helps the police solve crimes, in Man with a Camera, a weekly thirty-minute series on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network. The show, which General Electric (GE) had sponsored to promote a new flashbulb, did well in the Nielsen television ratings but was canceled in its second season after Polaroid came out with a new bulb that rendered the GE product obsolete. Bronson also had featured parts on two short-lived series, Empire (1962, National Broadcasting Company) and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (1963–1964, ABC).
Bronson gave two of his most memorable big-screen performances in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), both directed by John Sturges. In the former, a Western based upon the Japanese classic The Seven Samurai (1954), he displayed a mixture of toughness and tenderness as a gunman who bonds with the children of a Mexican village he is hired to protect, and in the latter, a World War II prisoner-of-war film, he put his coal-mining experience to good use playing Danny Velinski, the digger of escape tunnels. Bronson worked in several other highly touted Hollywood films later in the decade, but only The Dirty Dozen (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich, was successful. The Sandpiper (1965), Battle of the Bulge (1965), and This Property Is Condemned (1966) were commercial and critical disappointments. During this period Bronson rejected European film offers, including leading roles in two Westerns directed by the then-little-known Italian Sergio Leone. Two other American actors, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, accepted the parts in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) and became international stars.
Although he was prospering as a supporting actor, Bronson decided to seek leading roles and was more open to European overtures in the late 1960s. At the request of the French actor Alain Delon, a fan of Machine Gun Kelly, he was hired to costar (with Delon) in Adieu l’Ami (1968), a complicated thriller centering on the criminal activities of two veterans of the Algerian War of Independence. The British-French production was an enormous hit, as was Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Sergio Leone’s biggest and best “Spaghetti Western.” Bronson dominated that film as a harmonica-playing stranger who stalks a cold-blooded hired killer (Henry Fonda). He scored again in Rider on the Rain (1970), a suspense film in the Hitchcock tradition directed by René Clément, as a mysterious American military investigator. Affectionately called Le Sacre Monstre (The Holy Monster) in France and Il Brutto (The Ugly One) in Italy, the muscular, craggy-faced, squinty-eyed American actor became a continental sensation in his late forties. Red Sun (1971), a Western that costarred Delon and Japanese legend Toshirô Mifune, became a worldwide hit and extended Bronson’s popularity to Asia. He married the British actress Jill Ireland on 5 October 1968. They had one child and adopted a second. Bronson and Ireland also appeared in fifteen films together.
Bronson’s international blockbusters were not widely shown in the United States, and his new, American-financed films got only a mixed reception at home in the early 1970s. Chato’s Land (1972), a collaboration with the British director Michael Winner in which he played a half-breed Apache fugitive who visits revenge upon a bloodthirsty posse, was largely ignored. The Valachi Papers (1972), for which he was paid $1 million and given 2 percent of the film’s profit by the producer Dino De Laurentiis, became his first substantial hit as a lead actor in the United States. Although he won some praise for his depiction of the life of the famous mob informant from age twenty-five to age sixty, most critics compared the picture unfavorably to The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s fictional gangster epic, which had been released earlier in the year.
The slick and violent action films The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), and Mr. Majestyk (1974) were modest successes for Bronson, but the controversial Death Wish (1974), produced by De Laurentiis and directed by Winner, brought him superstardom in his own country. He gave arguably his finest performance as Paul Kersey, a grief-stricken Manhattan architect who reluctantly takes to the streets with a concealed gun after his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape and metes out frontier justice to the criminal element. Released at a time when urban crime rates were on the rise, the picture made $20 million. While critics deplored the film as manipulative and reactionary, filmgoers openly cheered whenever Kersey dispatched a mugger.
Death Wish proved to have been the high point of Bronson’s career. He gave sturdy performances in Break-out (1975), Hard Times (1975), Breakheart Pass (1975), St. Ives (1976), From Noon Till Three (1976), Telefon (1977), and Borderline (1980), but none of these pictures came close to matching the success of his greatest hit. In the 1980s and early 1990s Bronson starred in four ultraviolent Death Wish sequels (1982, 1985, 1987, 1994) of steadily diminishing quality and the equally blood-soaked police thrillers Murphy’s Law (1986) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989). Although he remained popular overseas, the aging Bronson began to lose audiences at home to a new generation of action stars. Following Jill Ireland’s death from breast cancer in 1990, he touchingly portrayed husbands who suffered personal losses in The Indian Runner (1991) and the made-for-television movie Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1991). Bronson married the singer Kim Weeks on 22 December 1998. He died of lung cancer and was buried in Brownsville Cemetery in West Windsor, Vermont.
Bronson came a long way from the mines and shacks of Ehrenfeld. His rise to movie stardom was improbable. The only award he received in his fifty-five-year acting career was a special Golden Globe for having been chosen as male world film favorite (along with Sean Connery) in a poll conducted in sixty countries in 1971. However, the ugly-handsome face that even the actor himself disliked watching on screen became highly marketable in the anti-heroic 1960s and 1970s. When he became a major star after Death Wish, Bronson often opted to make films in the action genre that are mostly forgettable. But Bronson’s life was clearly a success. He made millions and owned a mansion in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles and a horse farm in Vermont. Contrary to his tough-guy film persona, he was a gentle man who doted on his family.
The Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, has a file on Bronson. Jill Ireland, Life Wish: A Personal Story of Survival (1987), a memoir of her battle with cancer, contains information on Bronson. Works on his life and career include W. A. Harbin-son, Bronson: A Biographical Portrait (1975); Steven Whitney, Charles Bronson, Superstar (1975); Jerry Vermilye, The Films of Charles Bronson (1980); David Downing, Charles Bronson (1982); and Michael R. Pitts, Charles Bronson: The 95 Films and the 156 Television Appearances (1999). Articles include Roger Ebert, “Bronson Speak! You Listen!” Esquire (Aug. 1974); and Bill Davidson, “America Discovers a ‘Sacred Monster’” New York Times Magazine (22 Sept. 1974). Stephen Hunter, “From Bronson, No Complaints; Craggy Features Paved Way for New Breed of Antiheros,” Washington Post (2 Sept. 2003), is a tribute to Bronson. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (1 Sept. 2003) and the Independent (London), New York Times, and Daily Variety (all 2 Sept. 2003).
Richard H. Gentile