American actor Charles Bronson (1921-2003) was the archetypal screen tough guy with weatherbeaten features. He was a man of few words but much action in hits like Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). But our favourite is the iconic Spaghetti Western C’era una volta il West/Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Charles Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, in 1921. He was one of 15 children of struggling parents. His mother, Mary (Valinsky), was born in Pennsylvania, to Lithuanian parents, and his father, Walter Buchinsky, was a Lithuanian immigrant coal miner. He completed high school and joined his father in the mines and then served in WW II. After his return from the war, Bronson used the GI Bill to study art, then enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. One of his teachers was impressed with the young man and recommended him to director Henry Hathaway, resulting in Bronson making his film debut in You’re in the Navy Now (1951). He appeared on screen often early in his career, though usually uncredited. However, he made an impact on audiences as the evil assistant to Vincent Price in the 3-D thriller House of Wax (Andre de Toth, 1953). His sinewy yet muscular physique got him cast in action-type roles, often without a shirt to highlight his manly frame. He received positive notices from critics for his performances in Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954), Target Zero (Harmon Jones, 1955) and Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957) with Rod Steiger and Sara Montiel. Indie director Roger Corman cast him as the lead in his well-received low-budget gangster flick Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), then Bronson scored the lead in his own TV series, Man with a Camera (1958-1960).
The 1960s proved to be the era in which Charles Bronson made his reputation as a man of few words but much action. Director John Sturges cast him as half Irish/half Mexican gunslinger Bernardo O’Reilly in the smash hit Western The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner, and hired him again as tunnel rat Danny Velinski for the WWII POW big-budget epic The Great Escape (1963), starring Steve McQueen. Several more strong roles followed, then once again he was back in military uniform, alongside Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in the testosterone-filled The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967). European audiences had taken a shine to his minimalist acting style, and he headed to the Continent to star in several action-oriented films, including La bataille de San Sebastian/Guns for San Sebastian (Henri Verneuil, 1968), the cult western C’era una volta il West/Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) opposite Claudia Cardinale, Le passager de la pluie/Rider On The Rain (René Clément, 1970) with Jill Ireland, the Western Soleil rouge/Red Sun (Terence Young, 1971) alongside Japansese screen legend Toshirô Mifune and Ursula Andress, and The Valachi Papers (Terence Young, 1972) with Lino Ventura and Jill Ireland, who had become his wife in 1968.
Charles Bronson returned to Hollywood in the early 1970s to take the lead in the revenge Western Chato’s Land (Michael Winner, 1972) and the crime film The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972). After nearly 25 years as a working actor, he became an ‘overnight sensation’. Bronson and British director Michael Winner made more highly successful urban crime thrillers, such as The Stone Killer (1973). He then scored a solid hit as a Colorado melon farmer-done-wrong in the Elmore Leonard adaptation Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer, 1974). However, the film that proved to be a breakthrough for both Bronson and Winner was the controversial Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974). IMDb: "The US was at the time in the midst of rising street crime, and audiences flocked to see a story about a mild-mannered architect who seeks revenge for the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter by gunning down hoods, rapists and killers on the streets of New York City. So popular was the film that it spawned four sequels over the next 20 years." Possibly his best role was the Depression-era street fighter Chaney in Hard Times (Walter Hill, 1975) alongside James Coburn. That was followed by the Western Breakheart Pass (Tom Gries, 1975) with Jill Ireland, the light-hearted romp From Noon Till Three (Frank Gilroy, 1976) and as Soviet agent Grigori Borsov in the Cold War thriller Telefon (Don Siegel, 1977) with Lee Remick. Bronson remained busy throughout the 1980s, with most of his films taking a more violent tone. Bronson jolted many critics with his forceful work as murdered United Mine Workers leader Jock Yablonski in the TV movie Act of Vengeance (John Mackenzie, 1986) opposite Ellen Burstyn, and gave an interesting performance in The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, 1991) starring David Morse and Viggo Mortensen. He surprised many as compassionate newspaper editor Francis Church in the family film Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus (Charles Jarrott, 1991). Ill health began to take its toll; Charles Bronson suffered from Alzheimers disease for the last few years of his life, and finally passed away from pneumonia at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 2003.
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