Scholar Paul Talbot chronicles badass action hero Charles Bronson

Paul Talbot, guilty as charged for two Charles Bronson tomes including “Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films,” explains his affinity for the Lithuanian-descended action star in an exclusive interview. Seen here on location in Durango, Mexico, a majestic, cascading waterfall sets a romantic scene as a ripped Bronson is lovingly embraced by visiting, soon to be wife Jill Ireland. Costarring Anthony Quinn and Anjanette Comer, “Guns for San Sebastian” found Bronson cast as antagonist half breed “Teclo” and was distributed on March 20, 1968. Photography John R. Hamilton / Globe Photos

“Charles Bronson had a very interesting, rough face that was slightly scary,” confesses classic cinema enthusiast Paul Talbot, the author behind both Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films and Bronson’s Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson. “I liked his entire persona…no other action icon ever aged as well onscreen as Bronson did. He always kept fit and wasn’t afraid to act his age.”

In an exclusive conversation dropping today, Talbot explains his affinity for the chiseled, reticent Once Upon a Time in the West gunslingin’ victor. A kid growing up in early ’70s northeastern Massachusetts, the future historian first glimpsed Bronson as a journeyman character actor in television “movie of the week” reruns and then compared notes with his school pals. Talbot’s mom admired Elvis Presley — Bronson portrayed a dependable boxing trainer in Kid Galahad — while his dad’s all-time favorite movie was The Great Escape — Bronson’s true life experiences as a 16-year-old Pennsylvania coal miner added authenticity to his scene-stealing moments as a claustrophobic World War II prisoner among the all-star cast spearheaded by Steve McQueen and James Garner.

But catching a filled to capacity neighborhood matinee of the just-distributed Breakout, the first post-Death Wish film that found Bronson cast as an ultra cool, sleeveless, wise-cracking helicopter pilot rescuing the wrongfully accused Robert Duvall from a deplorable Mexico prison, sealed the burgeoning Blu-Ray commentator’s fate as an avowed Bronson aficionado. Since his demise in 2003 from a myriad of health tribulations— Alzheimer’s, pneumonia, metastatic lung cancer, heart disease — Bronson’s cult status is steadily rising as Talbot readily corroborates below.

The Paul Talbot Interview, Part One

When do you first recall catching Charles Bronson onscreen?

The first Bronson movie I saw was Kid Galahad [1962] when I watched it with my mom on TV in the early ’70s. She was a big Elvis Presley fan, and we always watched his movies.

A few days later, I watched The Great Escape [1963] on television with my dad. That was his favorite movie. Bronson was fifth billed as tunnel king “Danny Valinski.” I thought he had a very interesting, rough face that was slightly scary. And I liked his entire persona.

The first Bronson movie I saw in a theater was Breakout at the Cabot Cinema in Beverly, Massachusetts, when I was 10 years old in 1975. It was a matinee and I recall that it was crowded with a line outside.

The Cabot Cinema was a neighborhood, second-run theater that showed movies that had already played their initial run in larger cities. The theater always showed a double-feature of movies from one studio/distributor. Breakout was a Columbia Pictures release, so I saw it billed with another Columbia movie, possibly the Gene Hackman-Candice Bergen western Bite the Bullet. I loved Breakout’s action and suspense scenes.

After that, I saw almost all of his movies in a theater. My friends shared my passion. Bronson was huge in the ’70s. His older movies were constantly on television and kids at school would talk about them the next day. That’s how I became a Bronson fan. My all-time favorite Bronson film is still the original Death Wish [1974].

How did journalism enter your life?

I had always kept lists of reviews and notes on every movie I saw theatrically. I particularly liked horror/suspense/action. My first published article was a “making of” piece on Tod Browning’s Freaks that was in Filmfax around 1988. I didn’t write or publish anything on Bronson until my book Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films, which came out in 2006.

I furnished the Blu-Ray commentary tracks for Mr. Majestyk — Signal One Entertainment found me when a friend of mine who does supplements for DVDS and Blu-rays recommended me to them — Death Wish II [Shout! Factory], Cabo Blanco [Kino Lorber], The Stone Killer [Twilight Time], Death Wish 4: The Crackdown [Umbrella Entertainment], Death Wish V: The Face of Death [Umbrella Entertainment], Breakout [Indicator], 10 to Midnight [Scream Factory], and The Mechanic [Scorpion Releasing]. I did a making-of article for the booklet in the Indicator Blu-ray of The Stone Killer. Mr. Majestyk and Cabo Blanco were distributed simultaneously on DVD. I have three more imminent Bronson Blu-ray commentary tracks, but Covid-19 may delay them.

After my two Bronson books were published, I found some early script drafts for Death Wish II and Cabo Blanco that had interesting, different material. The Cabo Blanco script was completely different from what ended up on screen.

What convinced you to tackle Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films?

The first Bronson’s Loose! book came about when I watched the original Death Wish in the early 2000s for the first time in many years and was reminded what a great movie it was. I then decided to revisit the sequels. This was before any of them were on DVD, and I had to go to several mom and pop video stores to find VHS copies of each sequel.

I re-watched Death Wish II — V in one marathon weekend viewing. I thought, ‘How did we get from the original masterpiece to these bizarre sequels, especially since the first three were directed by the same man?’ The first Death Wish is as good as any film made in the 1970s. It works as a piece of exciting entertainment, and it’s a very deep, rich movie with a lot of social commentary and a fascinating lead character.

Anyway, I did a lot of research on the first three, tracked down an address for Michael Winner, and requested an interview in a letter. I told him that I was writing an article on his Death Wish movies, and I listed my credentials and the other articles I had written.

He agreed to the interview right away. Winner’s assistant set me up with a time. He was in London, and I had to do the interview at around five a.m., my time. We talked for about an hour, and Winner told me some great stories.

I wrote an article on the first three movies, included Winner’s quotes, and sent a query to every movie magazine. I got no response. No magazine editors wanted to read the article. I then decided to track down more people from the series, do more research on the sequels, and write a book.

When the book was finished, I sent a query to dozens of publishers and asked if they wanted to read a sample chapter. Again, I got no response. I thought that there must be some people who would want to read about the Death Wish series, so I did a lot of research on self-publishing and decided to put the book out through a self-publishing company called iUniverse. The book came out in 2006 and over the past decade has sold well and has gotten great response.

Kudos on being persistent and prepared when you sent that interview request to Winner.

I always do extensive research and preparation before requesting an interview because the subject may grant your request right away and you need to be prepared. There have been many times when I’ve done extensive preparation for a hoped-for interview that doesn’t pan out. Still, the knowledge gained is worth it.

Did you have any follow-up correspondence with Winner?

No. I only had one interview session with Winner, but he answered all my questions. In the book I remember writing, “How did we get from the original Death Wish masterpiece to these bizarre sequels, especially since the first three were directed by the same man?”

When I asked Winner about the different tone of each of his Death Wish movies, he explained why Death Wish II and Death Wish 3 were different — i.e. Death Wish 3 was an outrageous comedy, as he intended. I also got some Winner quotes from other sources to use in the book. When Bronson’s Loose was finished, I sent Winner a copy but I never heard anything from him.

Nine years later saw the distribution of Bronson’s Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson. Why did you choose BearManor Media as your publisher?

I hadn’t done any extensive Bronson research in awhile, but I did an interview with The Evil That Men Do screenwriter John Crowther and wrote an article on that film. That research got me thinking about a sequel to Bronson’s Loose!, and I decided to try and interview as many living actors and crew members who worked with Bronson as I could.

BearManor didn’t exist when I did my first Bronson’s Loose!, but they published my book The Films of the Dionne Quintuplets [2007] so I went with them for Bronson’s Loose Again! They are a great company to work with.

Might another Bronson book be worth tackling?

I’m always gathering material on Bronson — including a couple of recent interviews — so we’ll see what happens. Unfortunately, almost everyone that worked with Bronson is gone.

During your extensive conversations with those that worked with Bronson, was there a unifying theme that emerged?

Most of the people I interviewed noted how private and standoffish Bronson was. Those that gave him space found that he would mellow out and talk to them eventually.

Despite Bronson being private and standoffish, how did he regard his fans?

I think he certainly appreciated his fans. There are some stories of him refusing to sign autographs, but there are photos of him signing for teenage fans on the set of The Stone Killer [1973] and video footage of him signing on the set of Death Wish II.

Did you uncover any true friends of the chiseled superstar who seemed to prefer the devotion of his wife Jill Ireland and family?

Despite his public persona, he probably had some close friends.

If you could have had a casual conversation with Bronson, what questions would you have asked?

What was your best experience as an actor from each decade you worked? What process did you go through while preparing for a scene? Who were your favorite directors that you worked with and why?

Are there any Bronson television guest appearances or movies that you have been unable to track down?

I have seen all of Bronson’s feature films, but there are still many of his TV performances of the 1950s that I have not seen. I would especially like to obtain Adventure in Java, which was a 1954 NBC pilot for a Western TV series pairing Bronson with B-Western star Tim Holt, who also costarred with Humphrey Bogart in director John Huston’s iconic Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I don’t consider any of his roles to be unwatchable.

If you were placed in a position of authority at a major film company and tasked with obtaining, restoring, and releasing Bronson’s entire TV and filmography, where would you begin?

I would start with Cabo Blanco. In the spring of 1979, a two-hour cut was distributed in Italy, France, Sweden, Portugal, Greece, Argentina, and Venezuela. Distribution for the United States and all other territories remained unsold.

In early 1980, producer Lance Hool, who later worked with Bronson on 10 to Midnight and The Evil That Men Do, screened Cabo Blanco for the major American distributors and studios. They all passed except for 20th Century Fox, which stalled for six months before deciding against the film.

Cabo Blanco was chopped down to 96 minutes and then to 87 minutes — including credits — to create a tighter-paced film that would appeal to American audiences. The version currently available on Blu-ray/DVD runs 92 minutes. No longer versions have surfaced on physical media anywhere in the world.

I would love to find the missing pieces of Cabo Blanco. Hool owns the official vault elements, and the long two-hour version is not there.

If you had plenty of financial resources at your disposal, how would you introduce Bronson to young audiences?

I would have a streaming service devoted to Bronson with all of his appearances available on it.

List the Top Ten roles that you would show to a Bronson nonaficionado to demonstrate his charisma, natural acting, and presence.

In chronological order — not necessarily his 10 best films — my list consists of Drum Beat [1954], The Great Escape [1963], Once Upon a Time in the West [1969], Rider on the Rain [1970], Violent City [1970], Chato’s Land [1972], The Mechanic [1972], Death Wish [1974], Hard Times [1975], and From Noon Till Three [1976].

What’s a funny behind the scenes anecdote regarding From Noon Till Three? It’s Jill Ireland’s best celluloid outing with her husband.

Writer-director Frank D. Gilroy insisted on a rehearsal period, and his contract stated that there had to be a rehearsal period. Bronson was initially enraged about having to rehearse and tried to get Gilroy fired. But Bronson adjusted to the rehearsal process and ended up giving one of his best performances.

Why is The White Buffalo not covered in Bronson’s Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson?

I love The White Buffalo’s unusual and surrealistic atmosphere which I briefly discuss in the book. I did not devote a whole chapter to it because I only did chapters on the films for which I could secure at least one primary interview. Bronson was originally going to play the Crazy Horse role. But then he took the Wild Bill Hickok part and insisted that the producers find a real Native American to play Crazy Horse [i.e. Will Sampson].

I did extensive research for an article on The White Buffalo that was set to debut in an issue of the Australian magazine Cinemaniacs exploring Fantasy Westerns. Unfortunately, Cinemaniacs ceased publication. I hope to someday use my unpublished article as a chapter in a book.

Was it a mistake for Bronson to rely so heavily on Golan-Globus’s Cannon Films for his ’80s oeuvre?

The major studios and big-budget independent producers had lost interest in him. Cannon made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — $1 million per picture subsequently raised to $1.5 million each for Death Wish II and Death Wish 3.

Where were you when you learned that Bronson had passed away on August 30, 2003?

I remember that I was visiting relatives at a lake house when I read about Bronson’s death in a newspaper. This was before I was on social media so I had not seen numerous listings from friends about his death.

I knew that he had Alzheimer’s because there were reports in the news about his declining health. By August 2003 I was already researching the first Bronson’s Loose! book so I was in an intense Bronson-movie watching mode. I figured that his death was a blessing because I knew he had been very ill.

Was Bronson deserving of an Emmy or Oscar nomination?

Bronson was actually nominated for an Emmy in 1961 for the General Electric Theater episode entitled “Memory in White.” It would have been reasonable — and not far-fetched — for him to be Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Drum Beat, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape and for Best Actor for Death Wish and Hard Times.

Regarding Emmy nominations, he deserved them for the television movies Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus [1991] and The Sea Wolf [1993]. For some reason, Yes Virginia is possibly the only latter-day Bronson film never distributed on VHS or DVD in the United States. And it is not frequently re-run on television during the holiday season. You can fortunately watch it on YouTube.

Since Bronson’s passing, does his substantial body of work receive more accolades? And what is a fitting epitaph for the taciturn Chino horse rancher?

Bronson’s cult is definitely on the rise. I hear from Bronson fans all the time who are in their late teens and twenties. Many young people are buying his movies on Blu-ray. At conventions and movie screenings, I see kids with Bronson T-shirts and tattoos.

No other action icon ever aged as well onscreen as Bronson did. He always kept fit and wasn’t afraid to act his age. When people see Bronson, they’re captivated and they want to see more of his movies. There has never been another screen presence like Bronson.

DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! HERE’S CHAPTER TWO…

© Jeremy Roberts, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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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