A face like an eroded cliff: Beyond the tough exterior of ‘Death Wish’ vigilante Charles Bronson

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On location near Guadix, Spain, in May 1968, Charles Bronson is “Harmonica”, a mysterious gunman who ultimately challenges Henry Fonda’s sadistic gang in Sergio Leone’s classic western epic, “Once Upon a Time In the West.” Image Credit: Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli / Paramount

Underappreciated actor Charles Bronson was born Charles Dennis Buchinsky in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, often referred to as “Scooptown” by local residents, on November 3, 1921. Of Lithuanian and Russian descent, the occasionally gruff and always soft-spoken star passed away on August 30, 2003 after battling Alzheimer’s Disease and pneumonia.

But who was Bronson on and off the silver screen? It must be said that the charismatic actor truly experienced very hardscrabble beginnings. When noted film critic Roger Ebert visited the wintry New York City set of Death Wish — the film that ultimately made Bronson a star in America — in Jan. 1974, the actor consented to a rare interview.

Extremely private and reserved off camera, Bronson admitted how rough his childhood was. “I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice,” he recalled. “Times were poor. I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids just older than me in the family were girls, sometimes I had to wear my sisters’ hand-me-downs. I remember going to school in a dress. And my socks, when I got home sometimes I’d have to take them off and give them to my brother to wear into the mines” [Bronson had 14 siblings].

Once Bronson graduated from high school, he found work as a coal miner. A fear of claustrophobia soon manifested itself, which continued to be a perennial thorn in his side for years to come and was sagaciously captured on film in The Great Escape.

During the heat of World War II in 1943, he was drafted and became a B-29 tail gunner in the Pacific, certainly not helping his claustrophobia. While others might have groaned at the prospect of leaving home and venturing into enemy territory, the star had overall good memories of his years in the service.

In fact, he called it the luckiest stroke of luck that could have befell him, remembering that “I was well fed, I was well dressed for the first time in my life, and I was able to improve my English. In Ehrenfeld, we were all jammed together. All the fathers were foreign-born. Welsh, Irish, Polish, Sicilian. We were so jammed together we picked up each other’s accents. And we spoke some broken English. When I got into the service, people used to think I was from a foreign country.”

Earning a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle, the tough guy was adrift for several years following the war’s conclusion. Eventually deciding to head to New York City and try his hand at acting, Bronson picked up a variety of odd jobs while trying to make ends meet.

Sharing a tiny, derelict apartment with none other than Jack Klugman, best known as Oscar Madison on the television version of The Odd Couple, Bronson remembered in a 1993 interview with CNN Showbiz Today that one Christmas he and Klugman decided to deliver mail in a Puerto Rican section of town. When they would return to their apartment after an exhausting day, “Klugman would have blisters on his toes. He would take his socks off and put them on the radiator so they could dry. You talk about stink.”

Bronson was always honest and never sugarcoated why he decided to go into acting. In his conversations with Ebert, he unequivocally stated that “it seemed like an easy way to make money. A friend took me to a play, and I thought I might as well try it myself. I had nothing to lose.

“I hung around New York and did a little stock-company stuff. I wasn’t really sure at that time if I even wanted to be an actor. I got no encouragement. I was living in my own mind, generating my own adrenaline. Nobody took any notice of me. I was in plays I don’t even remember.”

His first film arrived in early 1951 with an uncredited bit role in You’re in the Navy Now, a comedy war flick starring Gary Cooper, another actor who relied on silence and a commanding presence instead of endless pages of dialogue.

Tracy and Hepburn’s Pat and Mike and Vincent Price’s House of Wax are the two movies released during Bronson’s formative years that classic movie buffs will likely recall. Incidentally, Bronson first got notice as Price’s deaf mute sidekick in the latter, still a cult classic to this day.

The muscular actor remained a mainstay of television and film throughout the ’50s, particularly in westerns as one of the bad guy’s henchmen. In a 1956 episode of the classic western Gunsmoke entitled “The Killer”, Bronson got much screen time as a weaselly desperado who stooped so low as to murder a cowboy he met on the trail while in the process of shaking his blanket out for bedbugs.

Nineteen fifty-eight found Bronson finally achieving top billing, albeit in several quickie B-movies. Machine Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman, is probably the most notable. He even landed the title role of Man with a Camera, a half-hour drama that ran on ABC for 29 episodes beginning in October of that same year.

In 1959 Bronson teamed up with Steve McQueen for the first time in John Sturges’s war epic Never So Few, starring Frank Sinatra. Loren Janes, one of the greatest movie stuntmen of all time, doubled all three actors.

In an interview with author Marshall Terrill for Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, Janes called the trio “the three devils.” They were always having fun, looking for the next big prank. One memorable incident that nearly cost the stuntman’s life occurred while he was trying to sleep one night in his trailer.

After falling asleep for several hours, Janes awoke to the sound of giggling. Turns out, the actors had rigged a dangerous amount of firecrackers and cherry bombs together and were planning on opening Janes’s door and throwing them inside.

Sensing that he might be in some serious trouble, Janes quietly slipped out through a small panel door in the rear. No sooner had he gotten outside that he heard a tremendous boom. His ceiling was torn off, his mattress had gaping holes in it, the trailer caught on fire, and it sounded like World War III had broken out with the loud, machine gun-like noise constantly sounding off.

Their laughter suddenly turned into terror as they realized the stuntmen was inside somewhere. Janes snuck up behind them and watched the awesome sight of Sinatra, McQueen and Bronson scrambling around, shouting his name, and searching in vain. The stuntman finally burst into guffaws, which caused the trio to start chasing him around the set. They all eventually apologized to Janes, and he continued to double McQueen and Bronson for years to come.

Sturges must have been impressed by McQueen and Bronson, as he asked them to appear in his very next film, The Magnificent Seven. The western, a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that soon became a genre classic, starred Yul Brynner of The King and I fame. Rounding out the cast were James Coburn and Robert Vaughan.

Portraying Bernardo O’Reilly, one of the gunfighters accompanying Brynner, Bronson had his fair share of memorable moments in the movie, including unbuttoning his shirt during one of the early scenes where the seven cross a creek leading into Mexico and his ultimate death scene, made all the more poignant by several children he had befriended who mourned his loss.

However, it was McQueen who immediately benefited from the movie, becoming a box office sensation almost overnight due to his constant scene stealing and natural grace in front of the camera.

It would take Bronson nearly another decade before his career took off, albeit in Europe, with Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. The craggy-faced actor would have to wait another six years until Death Wish vaulted him into superstar status with American audiences. He was 52 years old at the time.

Leone considered Bronson for the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, but the former coal miner thought the script was the worst he’d seen in years. Of course, Clint Eastwood took the part and eventually left network television and hot-tempered ramrod Rowdy Yates of Rawhide for good and became a screen icon.

“Two”, a critically-acclaimed episode of The Twilight Zone, aired on CBS in Sept. 1961. In it, Bronson was pitted against the beautiful Elizabeth Montgomery as survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Montgomery’s then-husband, Gig Young, acted with Bronson in Kid Galahad one month later.

Among Bronson’s many well-known costars in the ’60s, one who certainly stands out is Elvis Presley. Bronson portrayed Presley’s boxing trainer in Kid Galahad, one of Presley’s better acting vehicles.

The Memphis Mafia was by Presley’s side throughout the shoot, and longtime member and bodyguard Sonny West spoke about Bronson and Presley’s relationship in his finally-setting-the-record-straight memoir, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business.

“Elvis got his nose a little bent out of shape by Bronson,” West revealed. “As he did on all of his pictures, between takes Elvis often demonstrated his karate moves for the cast and crew. While the others at least acted impressed, Bronson never joined in the applause. That rankled Elvis big-time.

“‘That muscle-bound sonofab — ch wouldn’t know something good if it hit him right in the face’”, Elvis angrily remarked to his buddies. Yet West considered Bronson to be a true professional who never bad-mouthed Elvis. “Both of them were able to give the impression that the two had a tremendous chemistry on screen,” West concluded.

Lamar Fike, who eventually ran Presley’s Hill and Range music publishing office in Nashville, was another Memphis Mafia member present on the set. In Alanna Nash’s Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, Fike considered Bronson to be “real quiet, but real strong. He and Elvis sort of circled each other for awhile. After they got to know each other, they got along real well. Elvis decided he wasn’t a threat.”

Marty Lacker was the King of Rock and Roll’s Mafia foreman until he branched out into the record business, founding the first Memphis Grammy chapter and simultaneously working side by side with esteemed music producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studios.

In an exclusive interview with this writer, Lacker agreed to a point with West and Fike’s respective accounts, except to add that “Charlie seemed to be a bit of a loner on Kid Galahad. He basically stayed off by himself in between takes and I don’t recall him socializing with anyone, not just Elvis. Charlie was a man of few words with any of us but he was nice about it all.

“I remember in one instance when we were on a break up in Idyllwild, Calif., that Charlie chose to sit on top of a closed dumpster and just stare out at the beautiful scenery up in the mountains while everyone else was conversing with each other.

“But when it came to the boxing stuff, including the scene where he wraps Elvis’s hands before the gloves were put on, Charlie started to tell the professionals (e.g. famed boxing trainer Al Silvani, who was on the picture playing Elvis’s corner man) how to wrap the hands. Elvis noticed that too and made a disparaging remark about Charlie being a know it all and foolishly telling a longtime boxing man like Al how to do his job.”

As to the incident where Presley became irritated by Bronson’s lack of interest in his karate demonstration, Lacker offered further analysis, saying “I also think in spite of what Elvis said to Charlie, I think he respected his acting ability, and he knew Charlie was a good actor. Elvis’s remark was just a spur of the moment remark because he thought Charlie was dissing karate as foolishness but he got over it.”

Robert E. Relyea, production manager on Kid Galahad and later a close business partner of McQueen, may have the final word about why Presley and Bronson’s relationship may have been strained. In his insightful autobiography, Not So Quiet on the Set: My Life in Movies During Hollywood’s Macho Era, Relyea revealed that Bronson became interested in Joan Blackman, who Presley was also romancing at the time (the actress had costarred with Presley the year prior in Blue Hawaii).

The director of Never So Few and The Magnificent Seven had another ace up his sleeve when he reunited Bronson with McQueen and Coburn in The Great Escape, released one year after Kid Galahad. The film became one of the most popular war epics of all time, and it further enhanced Bronson’s acting resume, although once again, McQueen received most of the critical and public acclaim.

[Author’s Note: Terrill tried to contact Bronson for his first bio on McQueen, but the actor refused. Always a private man, Bronson was likely still grieving over the loss of actress Jill Ireland, his second wife. Fortunately, Coburn consented to a free-wheeling conversation that became one of the project’s highlights. The In Like Flint star told the author, “Charlie has always been a grump!”].

Portraying a claustrophobic, Polish World War II prisoner of war who plots to escape with his fellow comrades by tunneling under their confines, Bronson brought a certain realism to the role through his coal mining background.

The all-star cast also featured James Garner, who appeared with Bronson in their only joint film. In his best-selling memoir, The Garner Files, the easy-going thespian surprised many fans by being particularly brutal in his assessment of Bronson, calling him “a pain in the ass who used and abused people. He was a bitter, belligerent SOB, and he wasn’t a barrel of laughs on the set, either.” Incidentally, Garner labeled McQueen “a pain in the ass” too, but the two eventually became neighbors. Garner somewhat begrudgingly deemed McQueen his “delinquent younger brother.”

A year or two later, Bronson turned up at a poker game at the Maverick star’s home. When Bronson made a bet and decided to withdraw his money after it was too late in the game, Garner told him, “Sorry, you can’t do that” (Garner wasn’t part of the hand).

“Charlie was against a street kid who was working as an extra in Hollywood”, Garner wrote. He made Bronson pay the kid (probably no more than 50 bucks) because the money would have seemed like a lot to a struggling extra. Garner admitted, “Charlie got upset and we got head-to-head, but it didn’t come to blows. After that, Charlie went around swearing he’d never work with me again.”

In an ironic twist, once Bronson married Ireland, the couple attended an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills one evening and ran into Garner and his wife, Lois. The quartet eventually sat down and had a pleasant dinner together, but Garner stated in his book that he thought Bronson still held a grudge. And if that wasn’t the case, Garner definitely did.

An appearance in “The Underdog”, a 1964 episode of Bonanza, is one of the primary Bronson television roles most often seen in syndication. Then the №1 show in the ratings, the episode found the gruff actor portraying an Indian half-breed facing constant racism among the townspeople of Virginia City. In one scene, he evens feigns hanging. The climax finds Bronson fighting Michael Landon to the death. Memorably, he is thrown into the fork of a giant oak tree, breaking his neck.

By 1967, the next phase of the resilient actor’s career was in focus. Europe was beckoning, so he decided to forgo his guaranteed bread and butter — television, for good. Just prior to leaving America for better roles, Bronson appeared in yet another World War II action flick, The Dirty Dozen. Starring Lee Marvin, it nevertheless earned critical acclaim and adulation among the viewing public.

Tony Curtis appeared with Bronson in You Can’t Win ’Em All, a soldier-of-fortune drama filmed in Istanbul. Made at a time when Bronson’s star was rising and Curtis’s was rapidly fading, the final product was definitely a “turkey” (in the words of Curtis) when it was released by Columbia in 1970.

In his scintillating memoir, American Prince, Curtis remembered his costar with affection. “Charlie was a thoughtful, intelligent man, and he and I got along very well”, Curtis stated. “The director, Peter Collinson, understood the technical aspects of filmmaking, but he didn’t have the necessary leadership skills to make a movie, so Charlie and I took over.”

Concerning Bronson’s European phase, in addition to Once Upon a Time in the West, three of the best are Rider on the Rain, Red Sun, and The Valachi Papers. In a brief 1983 biography unimaginatively titled Charles Bronson, the actor was quoted as saying Rider and Red Sun were his personal favorites.

After returning full-time to American productions, an underrated vehicle arrived for the actor just prior to Death Wish. Entitled Mr. Majestyk, the violent flick is often shown on television today. Playing somewhat against type as a mild-mannered watermelon farmer who runs afoul of the mob and takes matters into his own hands, Bronson’s costar was actress Lee Purcell.

In a wide-ranging interview with this writer, Purcell described Bronson “as a real gentleman, a devoted family man who played Frisbee with his kids between takes, very polite, soft-spoken and extremely shy.

“I liked him, and we worked well together, as he was so easy-going. We had a nice rhythm on the set. But, when a certain individual who was visiting the set insulted me, he really stepped up and defended me. You can bet that rude individual developed some manners real fast!”

Purcell next tackled the age-old question which Bronson’s critics love to highlight. Was he a good actor? “Charlie was very different on-screen than in person”, Purcell admitted. “That takes a certain kind of talent. He was loaded with charisma and knew exactly what worked best for him on camera and utilized that to great success.”

Once Death Wish arrived, the actor still remained an elusive enigma. Speaking with Ebert, the film’s cinematographer, Arthur Ornitz, revealed, “Charlie’s remote. He’s a professional, he’s here all the time, well prepared. But he sits over in a corner and never talks to anybody… I think there’s a little timidity there. He’s a coal miner.”

The massive success of Death Wish hardened Bronson’s uneasiness with the pitfalls that come with celebrity. In conversations with Ebert, Bronson admitted that “When I’m in public, I try to hide. I keep as quiet as possible so that I’m not noticed. Not that I hide behind doorways or anything ridiculous like that, but I hide by not making waves. I also try to make myself seem as unapproachable as possible.”

Bronson’s lasting onscreen persona began to find its legs during this era. In an attempt to pinpoint exactly why he connected with viewers, especially guys, on such a visceral level, the words of longtime Bronson aficionado and writer Jerry McDaniel are quite revelatory.

“Nobody could set a mood like Bronson could…and often times he didn’t have to say a word,” said McDaniel. “He had that look…and I know that’s a cliché…but he really did. He could turn his head a certain way, get that look on his face, and it would convey much more emotion than words perhaps could have.

“Also, Bronson possessed a certain smirk…often seen whenever his character felt he was pulling one over on somebody or if he was at the receiving end of a lecture from a superior officer (such as in the string of vigilante-type films). He’d give that smirk and you, as a viewer, could sense that Bronson’s character was letting the lecture go in one ear and out the other.”

Hollywood did acknowledge the actor’s contributions by giving him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Dec. 1980. Speaking to a local television interviewer before he accepted the award, Bronson modestly said he would rather be having lunch instead of attending the ceremony.

In a short speech to the throngs of fans gathered, the actor sheepishly related a story told to him by his brother earlier that morning that illustrated his down-to-earth persona. “When I left the house, my brother questioned me, ‘You’re gonna get a piece of a sidewalk?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He replied, ‘Geez, where we come from, they don’t have sidewalks, let alone paved streets…and here you are getting a star on a sidewalk.”

If you are curious about checking out some of Bronson’s best roles, stick with his classic work from the ’60s and ’70s. A slew of great or certainly enjoyable films not mentioned previously that are easily available on DVD or YouTube include The Mechanic, Hard Times, From Noon Till Three, his final western, the vastly misunderstood The White Buffalo, and Telefon, directed by Don Siegel. In fact, Hard Times, where Bronson plays a down-on-his-luck boxer coached by Coburn during the Great Depression, may be his greatest film of the decade.

Unfortunately, when Bronson took a two-year break after filming Telefon, his career slowly began a decline that was exacerbated by his relationship with Cannon Films, a company who thrived on low budget movies.

While the new decade began with two fairly good films, Borderline and Death Hunt, it progressed into endless Death Wish sequels and lousy copycat action flicks undeserving of Bronson’s talents, although 10 to Midnight and Murphy’s Law both have their charms.

However, these vigilante/cop movies were popular with a certain segment of the public and remained lucrative for years in video rentals. In defense of the silent hero’s movie choices, he kept working while most of his contemporaries either retired, kicked the bucket, or simply quit caring.

In stark contrast to his other generic movies of the era, Act of Vengeance deserves an honorable mention. One of HBO’s very first original movies, the drama found Bronson revisiting his mining past by portraying union leader Jock Yablonski, who was viciously murdered by a political opponent when he ran for president of the Pennsylvania United Mines Union in 1969. Never released on DVD and rarely, if ever, shown on television, the actor delivered a nuanced, restrained performance that is prime for critical re-evaluation.

When Ireland passed away in 1990 after a long struggle with breast cancer, Bronson was faced with his own immortality. A brief interview on the set of Death Wish V: The Face of Death found the stone-faced thespian admitting that he would never marry again and that his wife “was far brighter than me.”

But everything was not all doom and gloom for the veteran actor. In the year immediately after Ireland’s passing, the tough guy accepted roles in two late career projects that allowed him to really sink his teeth into acting and prove his detractors wrong — his first character role in decades in Sean Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner and the television film Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. In both movies, still largely forgotten to this day, Bronson portrayed characters that were forced to come to terms with the death of their significant other.

Towards the end of Bronson’s life, he recanted and tied the knot with Kim Weeks in 1998, who was originally brought in by Ireland to help record her audio books (Ireland wrote two memoirs documenting her cancer ordeal).

For better or worse, there has been no definitive biography on the action hero. However, his first wife, Harriet, released a memoir entitled Charlie & Me [2011], which has received favorable reviews on Amazon.com. The two were married for 16 years and had two children together until Bronson became enamored with Ireland. And there is Bronson’s Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson [2015], a chronicle captured by Paul Talbot consisting of insightful interviews with Bronson’s costars, directors, and various confidants detailing the star’s movie career in the ’70s and beyond.

So while we may never know who Charles Bronson really was away from the camera lenses, he led a colorful life in his 81 years. Inexplicably, he never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. Bronson amassed a body of work comprising 160 television and film performances that continues to intrigue aficionados a decade and counting after his death.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2016. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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