Charles Bronson (born Charles Dennis Buchinsky; November 3, 1921 – August 30, 2003) was an American actor who was often cast in roles of police officers, gunfighters, or vigilantes in revenge-oriented plot lines. He had long-term collaborations with film directors Michael Winner and J. Lee Thompson and appeared in 15 films with his second wife, Jill Ireland.
At the height of his fame in the early 1970s, he was the world's No. 1 box office attraction, commanding $1 million per film.
Early life and war service
Bronson was born Charles Dennis Buchinsky, the eleventh of fifteen children, into a Roman Catholic family of Lithuanian descent in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, in the coal region of the Allegheny Mountains north of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His father, Valteris P. Bučinskis, a Lipka Tatar, who later adjusted his name to Walter Buchinsky to sound more American, was from Druskininkai in southern Lithuania. Bronson's mother, Mary (née Valinsky), whose parents were from Lithuania, was born in the coal mining town of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.
Bronson did not speak any English at home during his childhood in Pennsylvania, like many children he grew up with. He recalled that even back when he was in the army, his accent was strong enough to make his comrades think he came from another country (despite Bronson having been born in the US). Besides English, he could also speak Lithuanian, Russian and Greek.
In a 1973 interview, Bronson said that he did not know his father very well and "I'm not even sure if I loved him or hated him." He said that all he could remember was that when his mother said that his father was coming home, the children would hide. When Bronson was 10 years old, his father died and he went to work in the coal mines, first in the mining office and then in the mine. He later said he earned one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined. In another interview, he said that he had to work double shifts to earn $1 a week. Bronson later recounted that he and his brother engaged in dangerous work removing "stumps" between the mines, and that cave-ins were common.
The family suffered extreme poverty during the Great Depression, and Bronson recalled going hungry many times. His mother could not afford milk for his younger sister, so she was fed warm tea instead. His family was so poor that he once had to wear his sister's dress to school for lack of clothing. Bronson was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
Bronson worked in the mine until he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in 1943 during World War II. He served in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron, and in 1945 as a Boeing B-29 Superfortress aerial gunner with the Guam-based 61st Bombardment Squadron within the 39th Bombardment Group, which conducted combat missions against the Japanese home islands. He flew 25 missions and received a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.
Acting training (1946–1951)
After the end of World War II, Bronson worked at many odd jobs until joining a theatrical group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He later shared an apartment in New York City 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.
Early film roles (1951–1954)
Until 1954, Bronson's credits were all as Charles Buchinsky. His first film role – an uncredited one – was as a sailor in You're in the Navy Now in 1951, directed by Henry Hathaway. Other early screen appearances were in The Mob (1951); The People Against O'Hara (1951), directed by John Sturges; Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952); Battle Zone (1952); Pat and Mike (1952), as a boxer and mob enforcer; Diplomatic Courier (1952), another for Hathaway; My Six Convicts (1952); The Marrying Kind (1952); and Red Skies of Montana (1952).
In 1952, Bronson boxed in a ring with Roy Rogers in Rogers' show Knockout. He appeared on an episode of The Red Skelton Show as a boxer in a skit with Skelton playing "Cauliflower McPugg". He appeared with fellow guest star Lee Marvin in an episode of Biff Baker, U.S.A., an espionage series on CBS starring Alan Hale Jr. In the following year, he had small roles in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953); House of Wax (1953), directed by Andre DeToth; The Clown (1953); Torpedo Alley (1953); and Riding Shotgun, starring Randolph Scott and again directed by DeToth.
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. Still as Buchinsky, he had a notable support part as an Apache, "Hondo", in the film Apache (1954) for director Robert Aldrich, followed by roles in Tennessee Champ (1954) for MGM, and Crime Wave (1954) directed by de Toth.
As Charles Bronson (1954–1958)
His first film as Charles Bronson was Vera Cruz (1954), again working for Aldrich. Bronson then made a strong impact as the main villain in the Alan Ladd western Drum Beat, directed by Delmer Daves, as a murderous Modoc warrior, Captain Jack (based on a real person), who relishes wearing the tunics of soldiers he has killed. He was in Target Zero (1955), Big House, U.S.A. (1955), and had a significant role in the Daves western Jubal (1956), starring Glenn Ford.
He had the lead role in the episode "The Apache Kid" of the syndicated crime drama The Sheriff of Cochise, starring John Bromfield; Bronson was subsequently cast twice in 1959 after the series was renamed U.S. Marshal. He guest-starred in the short-lived CBS 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).
In 1957, Bronson was cast in the Western series Colt .45 as an outlaw named Danny Arnold in the episode "Young Gun". He had a support role in Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957). In 1958, Bronson appeared as Butch Cassidy on the TV western Tales of Wells Fargo in the episode titled "Butch Cassidy".
Leading man (1958–1960)
Bronson in Man with a Camera, 1959
Bronson scored the lead in ABC's detective series Man with a Camera (1958–1960), in which he portrayed Mike Kovac, a former combat photographer freelancing in New York City.
He was cast in leading man roles in some low budget films, notably, Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), a biopic of a real life gangster directed by Roger Corman. He also starred in Gang War (1958), When Hell Broke Loose (1958), and Showdown at Boot Hill (1959).
On television, he played Steve Ogrodowski, a naval intelligence officer, in two episodes of the CBS military sitcom/drama, Hennesey, starring Jackie Cooper, and he played Rogue Donovan, an escaped murderer in Yancy Derringer (episode: "Hell and High Water"). Bronson starred alongside Elizabeth Montgomery in a Twilight Zone episode ("Two"; 1961). He appeared in five episodes of Richard Boone's Have Gun – Will Travel (1957–63).
Bronson had a support role in an expensive war film, Never So Few (1959), directed by John Sturges. Bronson was cast in the 1960 episode "Zigzag" of Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin. That same year, he was cast as "Dutch Malkin" in the episode "The Generous Politician" of The Islanders. Bronson appeared as Frank Buckley in the TV western Laramie in the 1960 episode "Street of Hate."
Bronson made a serious name for himself in European films. He was making Villa Rides when approached by the producers of a French film Adieu l'ami looking for an American co-star for Alain Delon. Bronson's agent Paul Kohner later recalled the producer pitched the actor "on the fact that in the American film industry all the money, all the publicity, goes to the pretty boy hero types. In Europe... the public is attracted by character, not face."
The film was a big success in Europe. Even more popular was Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) where Bronson played Harmonica. The director, Sergio Leone, once called him "the greatest actor I ever worked with",: 123 and had wanted to cast Bronson for the lead in 1964's A Fistful of Dollars. Bronson turned him down and the role launched Clint Eastwood to film stardom. The film was the biggest hit of 1969 in France.
Screenshot of Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Bronson appeared in a French action film, Guns for San Sebastian (1968) alongside Anthony Quinn. In Britain, he was cast in the lead of Lola (1969), playing a middle-aged man in love with a 16-year-old girl. He then made a buddy comedy with Tony Curtis in Turkey, You Can't Win 'Em All (1970).
Bronson then played the lead in a French thriller, Rider on the Rain (1970) which was a big hit in France. It won a Hollywood Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Bronson starred in some French-Italian action films, Violent City (1970) and Cold Sweat (1970), the latter directed by Terence Young. He was in a French thriller, Someone Behind the Door (1971) alongside Anthony Perkins, then starred in another directed by Young, the French-Spanish-Italian Western, Red Sun (1971). The Valachi Papers (1972) was a third with Young; Bronson played Joseph Valachi.
That year, this overseas fame earned him a special Golden Globe Henrietta Award for "World Film Favorite – Male" together with Sean Connery.