Charles Bronson

From Poverty To Fame, The Little Known Story Of Charles Bronson

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Not Such A Tough Guy

Sometimes actors become typecast, and Charles Bronson certainly fell under that category. Known as the tough character in almost all his roles, people took this beyond his movies and assumed Bronson was as troublesome in real life. Playing on this, he would tell journalists tales of his arrests and fistfights. However, after doing some digging, it seemed Bronson was nothing like this. In fact, the actor lied about a lot of his life…

Living In Poverty

Born in 1921 under a different name, Bronson was just another number to an already large family. He was number 11 out of 15 children born to Lithuanian immigrant parents. The family lived in great poverty, struggling to make ends meet, to the point that Bronson occasionally had to wear his sister’s dress to school and shave his head to avoid lice. The teasing that Bronson would, therefore, encounter in school would have been enough to turn anyone into a tough guy.

A Minor Miner

Wanting to help his family keep afloat after his dad passed away, Bronson began to work in the nearby coal mines by the age of 10. He started in the office before moving on to the mine, earning one dollar for each ton of coal he mined. The stress of losing his father combined with having to work at such an early age led Bronson to take up smoking at the same age. Apparently, he even enjoyed chewing tobacco before this.

Fears And Phobias

During the shooting of Death Wish, Bronson was relocated to New York. He insisted to the producers that he and his family could stay in a suite on the second floor and no higher. It turned out that Bronson feared they wouldn’t be able to get out in case there was a fire. But he had one other fear. Bronson would avoid shaking the hands of his fans and declined giving autographs out of fear of germ exposure. It seems even mining didn’t accustom him to the dirt.

Communism Changed His Name

Being born to Lithuanian parents, Bronson was originally Charles Buchinsky. He even broke into the film industry with roles in House of Wax and You’re in the Navy Now under this name. However, Buchinsky became concerned when Communists started being booted from Hollywood. He realized his European name could be a trigger for accusations and, with the help of friend Steve McQueen who pointed to a “Bronson” street sign, Charles Buchinsky became Charles Bronson.

Stealing Women

While filming The Great Escape in 1962, Bronson had the chance to work alongside Scottish actor David McCallum. At the same time, he met McCallum’s wife, Jill Ireland. Bronson did not hold back his thoughts and openly told his co-star, “I’m going to marry your wife.” Although it seemed like a confident brag at the time, McCallum and Ireland divorced shortly after and she re-married Bronson in 1968. The pair remained together living in a Bel Air mansion with seven children until her death in 1990. This was his second of three marriages.

The Superfan

Charles Bronson received one of the most generous fan gifts of all time. In 1996, his superfan from Louisville left her entire $300,000 fortune to Bronson in a handwritten will. The lady explicitly stated that her fortune was not to go to her family but to her favorite actor instead. Although she had never met Bronson, she was a huge fan of his movies and had a collection of newspaper clippings on him. After a lawsuit with the fan’s family, they settled for an undisclosed amount.

A Man Of Few Words

Bronson may have voiced his thoughts on Jill Ireland openly, but the rest of the time he kept things to himself and said very little. His personality on screen, monosyllabic and quiet, was not far off from his real character. In 1974, Roger Ebert found himself interviewing a man that would prefer to be anywhere else. “I don’t like to overtalk a thing … Because I’m entertained more by my own thoughts than by the thoughts of others,” Bronson said.

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A Life-Changing Hobby

When not pretending to be a macho tough guy, Bronson enjoys painting. After contributing to World War II, he went from place to place working various jobs. One of which was renting chairs on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. There, he met a group of actors and convinced them to let him help paint their sets. From this, Bronson ended up spending so much time surrounded by the theatre that he decided to put the paintbrush down and try acting.

Earned A Role With A Burp

While surrounded by the acting troupe, Bronson developed a passion for the arts. He had served in the army, worked in Atlantic City doing odd jobs, and was now ready to give up painting after realizing he much preferred to perform. He landed his first role in the 1951 film You’re in the Navy Now as he was the only actor who could burp on demand, a skill he picked up while working in the mines.

Conquering Europe

Bronson may have started his film career in 1951 but he did not become a star in the U.S. until decades later. Although he was in many high-profile films such as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, he tended to be overshadowed by the likes of Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. However, in Europe, Bronson was a household name. His Italian fans would refer to him as “Il Brutto” (The Ugly One), while his French fans called Bronson the “monstre sacre” (Holy Monster).

A Good Ironer

While aspiring to become an actor in the late 1940s, Bronson moved to New York and shared an apartment with Jack Klugman, who also had his eyes set on the stage. When thinking of their time together, Klugman recalled Bronson being a very neat flatmate and a “damn good ironer.” However, by 1950, Bronson married Harriet Tendler, also a hopeful actor, and the couple moved to Hollywood where Bronson began acting classes and appeared in small roles.

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Bronson’s Death Wish

Finally, after turning 50, Bronson made it in the States. He headlined the 1974 film Death Wish playing an architect-turned-vigilante named Paul Kersey, which was his most well-known role. However, he was not actually the first choice for this part. Director Michael Winner approached Henry Fonda who found the film’s subject to be “repulsive.” Meanwhile, when Bronson was asked, the actor replied, “I’d like to do it.” The film grossed $22 million and one theatre in New York took over $70,000 in one week!

Making Clint Eastwood

Being a huge fan of Bronson’s, Italian director Sergio Leone was desperate to get the tough guy to appear in his films. When producing A Fistful of Dollars, he tried to cast Bronson as the “Man with No Name.” Yet, the actor rejected the role, finding the script to be awful. Leone then offered it to Clint Eastwood, a decision that would be the making of him. This would not be the only one of Leone’s offers that he would turn down…

Missed Chances

Bronson also turned down a part in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly due to his commitments to The Dirty Dozen, creating yet another star, Lee Van Cleef, as his replacement. When Ingmar Bergman requested to Bronson to make a film together, the actor declined his offer saying, “Everything is weakness and sickness with Bergman.” However, there were times Bronson was on the receiving end of rejection. After auditioning for Superman (1978), director Ilya Salkind dismissed him for being too earthy.

Doing His Service

Although not an American from birth, Bronson left the mines and enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. He was drafted in 1943 and served with the Air Corps in the Pacific as a tail gunner. He took part in 25 missions and was awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds he received in battle. As Bronson was able to see a different side to the world he had never seen before, he vowed to never return to Ehrenfeld (known as Scooptown).

Leaving A Mark

Living in Ehrenfeld left a big mark on Bronson. He chose to write a screenplay with his wife at the time, Jill Ireland, about life in the mines. For Bronson, being drafted was the best thing that ever happened to him. “I was well fed, I was well dressed for the first time in my life, and I was able to improve my English. In Ehrenfeld, we were all jammed together… I was Lithuanian and Russian.”

Henriksen As Bronson

In 1990 Bronson was left heartbroken when his second wife, Jill Ireland passed away. An NBC film, Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story was then released based on her memoirs. Bronson, however, did not star in the movie as her husband, instead, his character was played by Lance Henriksen. Meanwhile, Bronson was threatening legal action to stop the film being made. Although Henriksen barely resembled Bronson, Entertainment Weekly wrote, “he nonetheless summons up Bronson’s tough-guy inscrutability.”

A Cheap Date

Jill Ireland was not the first love in Bronson’s life. Meeting in a Philadelphia acting school, he and Harriet Tendler fell in love. Despite withholding consent from her successful dairy farmer father, the two wed. They had two children before splitting ways in 1965. The aspiring actress later recalled that Charles only had four cents in his pocket on their first date, the same man that went on to become one of the highest paid actors.

A Close Family

By the time he married Ireland, he certainly carried more money in his pocket. The Bronsons moved to a huge Bel Air mansion where they lived with his two previous children, three of hers, and two of their own. The large family would make sure they could always be together, even loading up and following Bronson to wherever it was he was filming. The family would regularly vacation in the winter holidays in Snowmass, Colorado.

A Japanese Sensation

After the release of The Red Sun, Bronson became a huge star in Japan. He even featured in a commercial for a Japanese cologne, Mandom, and received $100,000 for just four days work. This sum, apparently, was greater than the amount Bronson made for his roles in both The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape put together. Just like his films, the commercial was a huge hit, making Mandom the No.1 selling male toiletry brand in the country.

A Hollywood Couple

What started off as an affair between an international star and his friend’s wife, soon became one of the most iconic relationships. Both in their second marriages, Bronson and Ireland were more than just a powerful Hollywood couple. She became his leading lady in many films and together they collaborated in 15 films. Assassination, Death Wish II, Hard Times, and Breakout were among the many. We wonder if they are back together in Hollywood heaven.

Unknown Cause Of Death

In August 1998 Bronson underwent hip replacement surgery, causing him to retire from acting. However, in the years that followed his health began to deteriorate. In 2003, at the age of 81, he passed away at a hospital in Los Angeles. The actual cause of the Hollywood actor’s death remains unknown. While many cite pneumonia and/or Alzheimer’s disease, his death certificate states “respiratory failure” amongst other lung problems. He left behind his third wife of five years, Kim Weeks.

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