Charles Bronson

'Tough guy' actor and epitome of the strong, silent avenger
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The Independent Online

Charles Dennis Bunchinsky (Charles Bronson), actor: born Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania 3 November 1921; married 1949 Harriet Tendler (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1965), 1968 Jill Ireland (died 1990; one daughter, one adopted daughter), 1998 Kim Weeks; died Los Angeles 30 August 2003.

Charles Bronson was, for a generation of film-goers, the epitome of the strong, silent avenger, a monolithic screen presence of immense power whose aura of eloquent impassivity and natural strength was so convincing as to make other "tough guy" actors appear both puny and garrulous by comparison. Whether as the half-breed Apache in Chato's Land (1972), or the architect-turned-vigilante in Death Wish (1974), Bronson excelled at playing characters capable of sloughing off the constraints of "civilisation" in favour of an elemental violence that seemed as much a part of Bronson the man as Bronson the actor.

"Bronson," said the director John Huston, articulating a commonly held view, "reminds me of a hand-grenade with the pin pulled." None the less, while it was the image of the man of action that prevailed in the public mind, Bronson also possessed an engagingly tender quality that was noted by the poet and writer James Dickey: "A source of depth in Bronson's art lies in the fact that he can play off toughness and craggy intractability against a totally unsuspected affection and concern." It was this human quality which, despite what contemporary critics wrote, separated Bronson from the many comic-strip replicas who attempted to inherit his mantle.

He was born Charles Bunchinsky in the bleak mining town of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, in 1921, the son of a Russian-Lithuanian immigrant and his American-Lithuanian wife. A withdrawn and taciturn child with a talent for art, he had already begun to work in the mines by the time he graduated from South Fork High School in 1939. Four years later, by then Charles Buchinsky, the name having been "softened" from the original, he was drafted into the US army, serving first as a driver with the 760th Mess Squadron in Arizona before being posted to the Pacific as a tail-gunner on a B-29 bomber. Despite being wounded in the shoulder, he completed more than 25 missions, and gained an honourable discharge in 1946.

Following a year back in Ehrenfeld, Bronson moved to Philadelphia and started art school on the GI Bill. He then joined the Plays and Players amateur theatre group, initially to paint scenery, but soon found himself drawn to acting. In 1949, he married Harriet Tendler, a fellow member of the troupe, and that year the couple moved to California (taking five suitcases - "four and a half of them hers") where Buchinsky enrolled at the renowned Pasadena Playhouse.

He worked hard at learning his craft, though it appeared early on that his hard Slavic features and unusual accent would confine him to secondary roles. However, he was shrewd enough to realise that his natural style was his strength and quickly dropped out of elocution lectures, saying later, "I was afraid that too much speech instruction would hurt me. Precise English and my kind of looks don't go together."

In 1951, Buchinsky appeared in his first film, a Gary Cooper comedy called USS Teakettle (later retitled You're In The Navy Now). He played the part of a brawling sailor in a film that also marked the screen début of another future icon of screen violence, Lee Marvin. Buchinsky followed this with a succession of "bit" parts, mainly as Indians, gangsters and assorted other "heavies" in films such as Pat and Mike (1952), House of Wax (1953), Apache, Vera Cruz and Drum Beat (all 1954). In the last, he was billed for the first time as Bronson, having dropped Buchinsky (and the occasional variant, Buchinski) mainly in response to the Cold War hysteria then sweeping through Hollywood.

Having consolidated his reputation as a reliable supporting actor, Bronson was finally offered leading roles in Roger Corman's gangster film Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and three other low-budget "programmers". Despite good notices for his portrayal of Kelly, these films failed to make an impression at the box-office, and so Bronson turned to television, playing Mike Kovac, the title character in the ABC series Man With a Camera (1958-59), a show sponsored by General Electric in an effort to promote their camera equipment. While Man With a Camera proved reasonably popular, it was not lost on Bronson that he was, as he put it "playing second banana to a flashbulb"'.

In 1960, Bronson played one of his most memorable roles, as the gunslinger who forms a close bond with the children of a besieged Mexican village, in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven. He gave another fine performance in his next film for Sturges, The Great Escape (1963), in which he was able to bring his own experience of the mines of Ehrenfeld to the part of Danny Velinski, the "Tunnel King" who suffers from claustrophobia but who is one of the few to successfully escape from a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp.

While Bronson's career as a character actor was now at its peak, his personal life was in some disarray; his marriage was disintegrating, and Bronson had begun an affair with the English actress Jill Ireland, then married to the actor David McCallum. In 1965, he and Harriet Tendler divorced, with Bronson later gaining custody of their two children.

Following a marginal role in Battle of the Bulge (1965), Bronson returned to prominence in Robert Aldrich's immensely successful The Dirty Dozen (1967), a war film heavily criticised in some quarters for both its violence and its anti-military attitude. Although Bronson's role was important, it was still secondary (to Lee Marvin's), and he began to entertain offers from Europe, a move he had previously resisted.

After playing the villain in the dull 1967 French co-production La Bataille de San Sebastian (Guns for San Sebastian), Bronson was seen to better effect in the American financed Villa Rides! (1968), in which his deft comic playing of the homicidal revolutionary Fierro enabled him to steal the acting honours from Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum, the film's nominal stars. It was for this role that Bronson first grew the drooping moustache which, combined with the softening effects of middle age, added an air of mystery to the latent menace that was to become his trademark.

His next film of 1968, the thriller Adieu l'ami (Farewell, Friend) saw Bronson co-starring with Alain Delon in what became the domestic hit of the year in France. He followed up with Sergio Leone's masterly C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West), certainly the finest spaghetti western ever made, and a strong candidate for the best western of all time. As Harmonica, the mysterious avenger with "something inside him, something to do with death", Bronson had at last been given a role which added a mythic dimension to the tough, self-reliant image he already projected. In October 1968, he and Jill Ireland were married, and he ended the year, at the age of 47, as the top box-office attraction in Europe.

In 1970, Bronson turned in one of his best performances as the charming but deadly investigator in René Clément's thriller Le Passager de la pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1970), before embarking on a number of lucrative, if undistinguished, action films. The success of the enjoyable western Soleil rouge (Red Sun, 1971) contributed to Bronson's Golden Globe award as the world's most popular star for that year, and helped establish him as a box-office draw in Japan and throughout the Far East. In France he was now affectionately known as "le sacré monstre", and in Italy as "il brutto" ("the ugly one"), while audiences in South America, another territory in which his films were extremely popular, voted him "the world's sexiest man".

In 1972, Bronson began what was to become a six-film collaboration with the English director Michael Winner. Chato's Land is perhaps the best example of Bronson's ability to dominate a film through sheer presence. As Pardon Chato, who lures a pursuing posse into the desert before presiding over its destruction, Bronson is seen only briefly, in an almost mute role; yet the viewer is always aware of him, an implacable, integral part of the savage landscape he inhabits. Bronson and Winner then made two slickly packaged contemporary thrillers, The Mechanic (1972) and The Stone Killer (1973), before embarking on what was to be the most popular - and controversial - film of their partnership, and the one that finally made Bronson's name in his home country.

Death Wish (1974) tells the story of Paul Kersey, a New York architect compelled to take a violent stand against street criminals when his family is destroyed by muggers; dubbed "the Vigilante", Kersey is then hailed by a crime-weary public as an embodiment of lost frontier values. The film immediately struck a chord in urban film-goers, who cheered every time Kersey gunned down another low-life, while at the same time upsetting liberal critics with its reactionary message. But it was Bronson's finely etched portrayal of grief and frustration which gave the film its emotional core. Death Wish proved to be both the peak of Bronson's success in America, and the film which defined his public image.

Once firmly established, Bronson displayed a strange diffidence towards his career, apparently content (particularly in later years) to churn out variations on the Death Wish theme in films that were often poorly written and carelessly directed. "I'm only a product - like a cake of soap - to be sold as well as possible," he once remarked, and he showed no inclination to take charge of his own career in the way that Clint Eastwood, his principal rival in the "hard man" stakes, had done.

The frequent casting of Jill Ireland, never a strong actress, further damaged his films, and ensured that his time as a front-rank star in Hollywood was relatively brief, despite consistently good performances in films such as Breakout (1975), Hard Times (1975, shown in Britain as The Streetfighter), Breakheart Pass (1976), and Don Siegel's daft but enjoyable Cold War thriller Telefon (1977).

Speaking in 1985, Bronson acknowledged the limitations imposed by his stone-faced avenger image, as well as the element of luck required by any successful actor.

All the pictures I make are in the Bronson mould. I can't break out of it - unless I want to do impersonations. No matter what the role, I still give a lot of myself. I never aimed for the top - I didn't sit and calculate moves and try to figure out what I'd have to do to make it. It was always one step at a time.

None the less, while his career faltered in America, Bronson retained his popularity abroad, and he continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s in films such as Death Hunt (1981 - a final pairing with Lee Marvin), Death Wish II (1982), 10 to Midnight (1983), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4: the crackdown (1987), and Kinjite: forbidden subjects (1989).

In 1990, Ireland died of cancer, six months after the death of an adopted son from a drug overdose. Movingly, Bronson chose to return to work the following year in two projects which reflected his own grief. In both the TV movie Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, and The Indian Runner, he played men cast adrift by the loss of their wives. With the latter, an impressive directing début by Sean Penn, Bronson once again reminded film critics (who routinely deplored his star vehicles) what a fine actor he was. And in 1993, he appeared as a cop whose son has died of drug abuse in the television film Under Threat (shown on British television as Donato and Daughter) before returning to business as usual in Death Wish V: the face of death.

While it is true that there were too many poor films in his later career, Bronson will be remembered as a great natural screen actor, whose presence alone (like that of Bruce Lee) transcended often indifferent material. At the climax of his best film, Once Upon a Time in the West, Bronson's Harmonica says to the killer Frank (Henry Fonda), "So you found out you weren't a businessman after all?" "Just a man," replies Frank. "An ancient race . . ." remarks Harmonica, acknowledging his, and the West's, passing into the realm of myth. And it is in the realm of cinematic myth that Bronson occupies his own special niche.

John Exshaw

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