Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson (1973)
Born Charles Dennis Buchinsky
November 3, 1921(1921-11-03)
Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 30, 2003(2003-08-30) (aged 81)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1949–99
Spouse Harriet Tendler (1949–67; divorced; 2 children)
Jill Ireland (1968–90; her death; 2 children)
Kim Weeks (1998–2003; his death)

Charles Bronson (November 3, 1921 – August 30, 2003), born Charles Dennis Buchinsky (Lithuanian: Karolis[1] Dionyzas Bučinskis),[2][3][4] was an American actor best known for his "tough guy" image. Bronson starred in films such as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Rider on the Rain, The Mechanic, and the popular Death Wish series. He was most often cast in the role of a police officer or gunfighter, often in revenge-oriented plot lines.


Early life and World War II service

Bronson was born Charles Dennis Buchinsky in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny Mountain Coal region north of Johnstown PA. During the McCarthy hearings he changed his last name to Bronson, fearing that Buchinsky sounded "too Russian."[5]

He was one of 15 children born to a Lithuanian immigrant[6][7] father of Lipka Tatar ancestry[4] and a Lithuanian mother.[8][9][10][11] His father[6][12] was from the town of Druskininkai.[2] His mother, Mary Valinsky, whose parents were born in Lithuania, was born in the anthracite coal mining town of Tamaqua in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Bronson was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.[6] As a young child, Bronson did not initially know how to speak English and only learned it in his teens.[7] Bronson's father died when he was 10, and he went to work in the coal mines. Initially, Bronson worked in the office of a coal mine, later in the mine itself.[6] He worked there until he entered military service during World War II.[6] He earned $1 per ton of coal mined. His family was so poor that, at one time, he reportedly had to wear his sister's dress to school because he had nothing else to wear.[13][14]

In 1943, Bronson enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served as an aerial gunner in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron, and in 1945 as a B-29 Superfortress crewman with the 39th Bombardment Group based on Guam. He was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received during his service.[15]

Acting career

Early roles, 1951–1959

After the end of World War II, Bronson worked at many odd jobs until joining a theatrical group in Philadelphia. He later shared an apartment in New York with Jack Klugman while both were aspiring to play on the stage. In 1950 he married and moved to Hollywood where he enrolled in acting classes and began to find small roles.

Bronson's first film role — an uncredited one — was as a sailor in You're in the Navy Now in 1951. Other early screen appearances were in Pat and Mike which featured Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Miss Sadie Thompson and House of Wax (as Vincent Price's mute henchman Igor). In 1952, Bronson boxed in a ring with Roy Rogers in Rogers' show Knockout. He also appeared on the Red Skelton Show as a boxer in a skit with Red as his character of "Cauliflower" McPugg.

In 1954, he made a strong impact in Drum Beat supporting Alan Ladd. He played a murderous Modoc warrior, Captain Jack, who enjoys wearing the tunics of soldiers whom he has killed. Eventually captured by Ladd and sent to the gallows, Jack dies as he has always lived, fearlessly.

In 1954, during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings, he changed his surname from Buchinsky to Bronson at the suggestion of his agent, who feared that an Eastern European surname might damage his career.[16] He took his inspiration from the Bronson Gate at Paramount Studios, situated on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Bronson Street.

Bronson made several appearances on television in the 1950s and 1960s, including a 1952 segment, with fellow guest star Lee Marvin, of Biff Baker, U.S.A., an espionage series on CBS starring Alan Hale, Jr.. Bronson had the lead role of the episode "The Apache Kid" of the syndicated crime drama Sheriff of Cochise. He also guest-starred in the short-lived situation comedy, Hey, Jeannie! and in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: And So Died Riabouchinska (1956), There Was an Old Woman (1956), and The Woman Who Wanted to Live (1962). He starred alongside Elizabeth Montgomery in The Twilight Zone episode "Two" (1961) and played a killer named Crego in Gunsmoke (1956). He appeared in five episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel (1957–1963).

Many of his filmographies state that he appeared in the 1958 Gary Cooper film Ten North Frederick, although this is a matter of some dispute.[17]

In 1958, he was cast in his first lead role in Roger Corman's Machine-Gun Kelly, a low-budget, though well received, gangster film.

Bronson also scored the lead in his own ABC's detective series Man with a Camera (from 1958 to 1960), in which he portrayed Mike Kovac, a former combat photographer freelancing in New York City. Frequently, Kovac was involved in dangerous assignments for the New York Police Department.

Success, 1960–1968

Bronson gained attention in 1960 with his role in John Sturges' western The Magnificent Seven, where he played one of seven gunfighters taking up the cause of the defenseless. During filming of this movie, Bronson was a loner who kept to himself, according to Eli Wallach.[18] He received $50,000 for this role.[19] This role also made him a favorite actor of many Soviet people, among them Vladimir Vysotsky.[20][21] Two years later, Sturges cast him for another Hollywood production, The Great Escape, as a claustrophobic Polish prisoner of war nicknamed "The Tunnel King" (coincidentally, Bronson was really claustrophobic because of his childhood work in a mine).

In 1961, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his supporting role in a TV episode with the title "Memory in White".[22]

1962 saw Bronson in the role of Lew Nyack, a veteran boxing trainer who helped Walter Gulick (Elvis Presley) polish his skills for the big fight with Sugarboy Romero in the movie, Kid Galahad (a remake of a 1937 film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart in those roles).

In the first half of 1963, Bronson co-starred with Richard Egan in the NBC Western series Empire, set on a New Mexico ranch. In the 1963–1964 season he portrayed Linc, the stubborn wagonmaster in the ABC series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, where he starred together with Dan O'Herlihy and then twelve-year-old Kurt Russell. In the 1965-1966 season, he guest-starred in an episode of The Legend of Jesse James, starring Christopher Jones in the title role. In 1965, he guest starred as a demolitions expert in an episode of Combat. In The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson played an Army death row convict conscripted into a suicide mission. In 1967, Bronson also played Ralph Schuyler in The Fugitive episode "The One That Got Away".

European roles and rise with United Artists, 1968–1973

Although he began his career in the United States, Bronson first made a serious name for himself in European films.

In 1968, he starred as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. The director, Sergio Leone, once called him "the greatest actor I ever worked with", and had wanted to cast Bronson for the lead in A Fistful of Dollars. Bronson turned him down and the role instead launched Clint Eastwood to film stardom.

Even though he was not yet a headliner in America in 1970, he helped the French film Rider on the Rain win a Hollywood Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The following year, this overseas fame earned him a special Golden Globe Henrietta Award for "World Film Favorite - Male" together with Sean Connery. This was the most prestigious of the few awards he ever received. At the time, the actor wondered if he was "too masculine" to ever become a star in the United States.[citation needed]

However, it was beginning in 1972 that he made a string of successful action films for United Artists, beginning with Chato's Land, although he had done several films for UA before this in the 1960s (The Magnificent Seven, etc.). One film UA brought into the domestic mainstream was Città violenta (also known as The Family), an Italian-made film originally released overseas in 1970. Despite the cutting of eight minutes from the original version, it firmly established Bronson as a major star in the 1970s.

Death Wish series and departure from UA, 1974–1980

Bronson at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival
Bronson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

One of Bronson's most memorable roles came when he was over the age of 50, in Death Wish (Paramount, 1974), the most popular film of his long association with director Michael Winner. He played Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect. When his wife (played by Hope Lange) is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted, Kersey becomes a crime-fighting vigilante by night. It was a highly controversial role, as his executions were cheered by crime-weary audiences. After the famous 1984 case of Bernhard Goetz, Bronson recommended that people not imitate his character. This successful movie spawned sequels over the next 20 years, in which Bronson also starred. His great nephew, Justin Bronson, was scheduled to star in a remake of Death Wish in 2008, but the project was canceled[23].

In 1974, he starred in the film adaptation of the Elmore Leonard hard-boiled gangster-meets-his-match in a farmer saga, Mr. Majestyk. For Walter Hill's Hard Times (1975), he starred as a Depression-era street fighter making his living in illegal bare-knuckled matches in Louisiana, earning good reviews.

Charles Bronson's highest box-office was 4th in 1975, beaten only by Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Al Pacino.[24] His stint at UA came to an end in 1977 with The White Buffalo.

Cannon Films era and final roles, 1981-1994

He was considered to play the role of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981), but director John Carpenter thought he was too tough looking and too old for the part, and decided to cast Kurt Russell instead. In the years between 1976 and 1994, Bronson commanded high salaries to star in numerous films made by smaller production companies, most notably Cannon Films, for whom some of his last films were made. Many of them were directed by J. Lee Thompson, a collaborative relationship that Bronson enjoyed and actively pursued, reportedly because Thompson worked quickly and efficiently. Thompson's ultra-violent films such as The Evil That Men Do (Tri-Star, 1984) and 10 To Midnight (1983) were blasted by critics, but provided Bronson with well-paid work throughout the '80s. Bronson's last starring role in a theatrically released film was 1994's Death Wish V: The Face of Death. He also played in The Indian Runner (1991) with Dennis Hopper and Viggo Mortensen.

Charles Bronson became very popular in Japan in the early 1990s with the bushy eyebrowed TV critic Nagaharu Yodogawa hosting 1-2 seasons of his films every year on NTV, one of the main TV channels in Japan.

Personal life

His first marriage was to Harriet Tendler, whom he met when both were fledgling actors in Philadelphia. They had two children before divorcing in 1965.

Bronson was married to British actress Jill Ireland from October 5, 1968[25] until her death from breast cancer at age 54 in 1990. He had met her when she was married to Scottish actor David McCallum. At the time, Bronson (who shared the screen with McCallum in The Great Escape) reportedly told him, "I'm going to marry your wife." Six years later, Bronson did just that. The Bronsons lived in a grand Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles with seven children: two by his previous marriage, three by hers (one of whom was adopted) and two of their own (another one of whom was adopted). After they married, Jill Bronson usually played his leading lady, and they starred in 14 movies together. When filming they would load up the entire family and take them along to Europe or wherever the filming took place, maintaining a close family. They also spent time in a colonial farmhouse on 260 acres (1.1 km2) in West Windsor, Vermont.[26] Charles rode off-road motorcycles and had an extensive collection at his farmhouse. Jill Ireland Bronson raised horses and provided training for their daughter Zuleika so that she could perform at the higher levels of horse showing. The Vermont farm, "Zuleika Farm", was named for the only natural child between them. During the late 1980s through the mid 1990's Bronson regularly spent winter holidays vacationing with his family in Snowmass, Colorado.

In December 1998, Bronson married Kim Weeks, a former employee of Dove Audio who helped record Jill in the production of her audiobooks. They stayed married for five years until his death.


Bronson's health deteriorated in later years, and he retired from acting after undergoing hip-replacement surgery in 1998. He also suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his final years. Bronson died of pneumonia at the age of 81 on August 30, 2003, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He is buried near his Vermont farm.

Complete filmography

Feature length films made for television

  • This Rugged Land (1962)
  • Luke and The Tenderfoot (1965)
  • The Meanest Men in the West (1967) advertised as starring Bronson with Lee Marvin, this "feature film" was actually cobbled together from two different episodes of the TV series The Virginian, one episode featuring Bronson, the other Marvin, so the two actors do not actually share any scenes together, despite the repackaging editors' efforts to suggest otherwise[27]
  • The Bull of the West (1971) like The Meanest Men in the West before it, this "feature-length movie" was stitched together from multiple, unrelated episodes of The Virginian, with largely confusing results[28]
  • Raid On Entebbe (1976)
  • Act of Vengeance (1986)
  • Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (1991)
  • Donato and Daughter (1993; also known as Under Threat in the UK)
  • The Sea Wolf (1993)
  • 100 years of the Hollywood Western (1995) documentary
  • A Family of Cops (1995)
  • Breach of Faith: A Family of Cops 2 (1997)
  • Family of Cops 3 (1999)
  • The Gangster Hit (2003) as Tony Willis (the main charter) (tv movie)

Selected television series appearances

  • The Public Defender "Cornered" (CBS, 1955) as Nobby Bullaid
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents "And So Died Riabouchinska" (1955)
  • Have Gun - Will Travel "The Man Who Wouldn't Talk" (27 September 1958) as Chris Sorenson
  • The Untouchables "The Death Tree" (15th February 1962) as Yanosh Kolescu

Gunsmoke Season 1 E 28 "The Killer" 1955-56

See also


  1. ^ Or, according to some sources, Casimir
  2. ^ a b Dumbliauskas, Petras. "Charlesas Bronsonas išeina" (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 2009-04-21. 
  3. ^ Lehman, Jeffrey (2000). Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America (2vol). Thomson Gale. pp. 1147. ISBN 0787639869. 
  4. ^ a b Bratkowski, Stefan, "Najkrotsza Historia Polski" (The Shortest History of Poland), KAW, Warsaw, 1999, p. 9.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e Michael, Pitts (1999). Charles Bronson. McFarland. p. 1. ISBN 0786406011. 
  7. ^ a b Aaker, Everet (2006). Encyclopedia of early television crime fighters: all regular cast members in American crime and mystery series, 1948-1959. McFarland. pp. 80. ISBN 0786424761. 
  8. ^ "Charles Bronson, Actor". Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  9. ^ "Hollywood star Bronson dies". BBC News. September 1, 2003. Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  10. ^ "Action film star Charles Bronson dead at 81". USA Today. 2003-08-31. Retrieved 2009-04-25. 
  11. ^ "US movie legend Bronson is dead". The Scotsman (Edinburgh). 2003-09-01. Retrieved 2009-04-21. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Richard Severo (September 1, 2003). "Charles Bronson, 81, Dies; Muscular Movie Tough Guy". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-14. 
  14. ^ The dress story has been repeated in Celebrity Setbacks: 800 Stars who Overcame the Odds by Ed Lucaire (ISBN 0-671-85031-8) and in an edition of Ripley's Believe It or Not!.
  15. ^ "Corrections". September 18, 2003. Retrieved 2010-04-28. 
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ American Legends Exclusive interview with Eli Wallach
  19. ^ Howard Hughes "Stagecoach to tombstone: the filmgoers' guide to the great westerns". Published by: I.B.Tauris, 2008 - 274 p. ISBN 1845115716, 9781845115715 (P.125)
  20. ^ Владимир Иванович Новиков/V.I. Novikov "Высоцкий/Vysotskiĭ". Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2002 - 412 с. ISBN 5-235-02541-5, 9785235025417 (С.327)
  21. ^ (Russian)"Живая жизнь/Živaja žiznʹ : štrichi k biografii Vladimira Vysockogo". Moscow: "Московский рабочий/Moskovskij rabočij", т. 1 - 1988 - 316 c. ISBN 5-239-00483-8 9785239004838 (C.217)
  22. ^ An episode of the General Electric Theater anthology series.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Hughes, Howard (2006). rime wave: the filmgoers' guide to the great crime movies. I.B.Tauris. pp. xx. ISBN 1845112199. 
  25. ^ Charles Bronson Documentary, Biography Channel.
  26. ^ "Action film star Charles Bronson dead at 81". USA Today. 2003-09-01. Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  27. ^ The Meanest Men in the West at the Internet Movie Database
  28. ^ The Bull of the West at the Internet Movie Database

External links

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