The French revered him as “Le sacre monstre” (the sacred monster), and to the Italians he was as “Il Brutto” (the ugly man). In 1971, he was presented a Golden Globe as “the most popular actor in the world.”
He was born Charles Buchinsky on Nov. 3, 1921, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, the 11th of 15 children to a coal miner and his wife who were both Lithuanian immigrants.
He was raised in a crowded hovel in a tough coal mining district known as Scoop Town. His father died when he was 10, and when he was 16 he went to work in the mines.
Scoop Town bred troublemakers and young Bronson was no exception. He did time for assault and robbery. World War II and the draft in 1943 saved his bad ass. He served with the Air Force in the Pacific as a tail gunner on a B29.
After the war he decided to give acting a shot because of the big money that could be made. He joined the Philadelphia Players Troupe as a scenery painter and eventually was cast in a few minor roles.
He headed for California and the famous Pasadena Playhouse acting school, landing his first role as a sailor in the 1951 service comedy ‘You’re in the Navy Now’ starring Gary Cooper.
As Charles Buchinsky or Buchinski, he acted in supporting roles in several action movies. At 33 he changed his name and got his first starring role in 1958 in ‘Machine-Gun Kelly.’
He became better known with strong roles in a string of popular movies, including ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in 1960, ‘The Great Escape’ (1963), ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ and ‘The Sandpiper,’ both 1965, and the classic ‘The Dirty Dozen’ in 1967.
Despite such notable roles, real stardom eluded him. In 1968, French movie star Alain Delon, who had seen him in ‘Machine Gun Kelly,’ invited him to co-star in a British-French film, ‘Adieu, l’Ami’ (Farewell, Friend).
That was the beginning of his stardom, albeit in Europe. But it was his role in the 1969 hit spaghetti western, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ that finally got Hollywood’s attention.
Thus began a slew of starring roles in action movies that included ‘The Valachi Papers,’ ‘The Mechanic,’ ‘Mr. Majestyk,’ ‘Assassination’ and ‘Death Hunt.’ Bronson was paid a million bucks a picture, big money back then, and a long way from the coal mines of Scoop Town.
Then came ‘Death Wish,’ his 1974 breakout hit as the pacifist New York architect Paul Kersey who turns vigilante to avenge the brutal murder of his wife and sexual assault of his daughter. The movie was hugely popular and spawned four sequels.
Bronson’s first marriage was to fellow fledgling Philadelphia actor Harriet Tendler, and they had two children.
In 1968, he married British actress Jill Ireland. They had three children. Bronson and Jill Ireland acted in 15 films together, including ‘Hard Times’ in 1975. Bronson plays a drifter in the Great Depression who makes money as a bare-knuckled fighter with James Coburn as his hustler manager.
Jill Ireland died after a long battle with breast cancer in 1990 at the age of 54.
Bronson’s health deteriorated in his later years, and he retired from acting in 1998. He died at age 81 on August 30, 2003, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was buried at Brownsville Cemetery in West Windsor, Vermont.
Bronson has “a quality that the motion-picture camera responds to,” said director Michael Winner who worked with Bronson on ‘Death Wish’ and five other movies. “He has a great strength on the screen, even when he’s standing still or in a completely passive role. There is a depth, a mystery — there is always the sense that something will happen.”