Charles Bronson

charles bronson by roberto bizama

Charles Bronson (1921 – 2003), born Charles Dennis Buchinsky was an American actor, best-known for such films 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 often cast in the role of a police officer or gunfighter, often in revenge-oriented plot lines.

He was one of 15 children born to Lithuanian immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Bronson was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. As a young child, he did not initially know how to speak English and only learned it in his teens. He spoke Polish at home. Bronson’s father died when he was 10, and he went to work in the coal mines. He worked there until he entered military service during World War II. In 1943, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served as an aerial gunner, and as a B-29 Superfortress crewman based on Guam.

After the end of World War II, Bronson worked at many odd jobs until joining a theatrical group in Philadelphia. In 1950, he married and moved to Hollywood where he enrolled in acting classes and began to find small roles.

In 1954, during the House Un-American Activities Committee 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. He took his inspiration from the Bronson Gate at Paramount Studios, situated on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Bronson Street.

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. 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).

Bronson 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.

One of Bronson’s most memorable roles came when he was over the age of 50, in ‘Death Wish’ (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 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.

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