Back in the ’70s, Charles Bronson was one of the hottest action stars in Hollywood. His stoic demeanor made him the embodiment of the typical, rugged macho man. And while his popularity soared in America, it absolutely skyrocketed in Europe.
This iconic star has gone down in cinematic history as one of the most devilish and interesting guys who could do most of his stunts on his own (despite being a relatively late bloomer in Hollywood). Here’s a look at his humble beginnings, and how he made it to the top with his persistence and strong spirit.
A Nine-Year-Old Smoker
Charles Buchinsky (known as Charles Bronson) was born in 1921 and was a great addition to an already large family – he was the 11th kid out of a family of 15 siblings! His parents struggled to make ends meet. And they were so poor that Bronson had to wear his sister’s clothes to school, and yes, that includes her dresses.
He also had his hair repeatedly shaved off to keep the lice away. Very early on, Bronson felt that he had to work to help his family and spent his afternoons working away at a local coal mine. All that early stress is likely why Bronson picked up the nasty habit of smoking at nine years old.
He Burped His Way to His First Role
Charles had always been fascinated with the arts, and he loved nothing more than painting. But it took him a while to get into showbiz. After serving in the army during World War II, he landed up in Atlantic City and made a living by working odd jobs.
One day, he was invited by a theater troupe to paint a scenery for one of their plays. He ended up falling in love with performing, and he landed his first role on the silver screen, in the film You’re in the Navy Now (1951), by being the only actor in the line who could “burp on demand.”
What Nationality Is Charles Bronson?
American, yet his parents were from Lithuania. In fact, their origin is why he changed his last name.
When Bronson was at the start of his career, Senator Joseph McCarthy busied himself with getting rid of all the communists in Hollywood. Scared that his Lithuanian name would cause trouble or raise some eyebrows, he decided to change it up.
He decided on the name Bronson after driving around with his friend Steve McQueen, who spotted a sign that read “Bronson” and cried that it would be a perfect name for this up and rising star!
He Was Jack Klugman’s Roommate
Before Jack Klugman rose to stardom for playing the ruffled and unkempt Oscar in the small screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, he was starring opposite a star in real life – Charles Bronson. In the late ’40s, the duo shared a flat together.
Charles Bronson and Jack Klugman lived together in New York for a few years. They became great friends, sharing dinner and getting to know each other’s inner circles. According to Klugman, Charles Bronson was organized and tidy, and a “damn good ironer.”
He Wasn’t the First Pick for Death Wish
After an adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel Death Wish (1972) began circling around movie studios, director Michael Winner decided it was time to search for the perfect actor who could play a very convincing Paul Kersey.
The character was a pacifist who became a vigilante and starts shooting down criminals after his wife was violently attacked. One of the first actors to be approached was Henry Fonda, but he found the persona to be “repulsive.” Then, when the director approached Bronson, he smiled and “I’d like to do it.” When the director asked him, “the movie?” he answered, “No, shoot muggers.” The movie, which was released in 1974, ended up being a huge hit, grossing $22 million.
His Two Biggest Fears
It’s hard to picture Charles Bronson in a state of fear, isn’t it? What could he have possibly feared? Well, according to sources, when shooting Death Wish, the star insisted that the suite they booked for him be on the second floor, he didn’t want to be placed any higher up.
His reason was that he was scared that he wouldn’t be able to get out on time in case a fire suddenly erupted. Charles Bronson also avoided getting too close to fans at the time, politely declining any autographs. His reason? He was scared of germs.
He Didn’t Talk Much
Charles Bronson didn’t talk much on screen, and according to sources, that wasn’t so far from how he was in reality. The actor usually preferred to say as little as possible during interviews. Journalist Roger Ebert said that he felt like Bronson would rather be anywhere else than in the hot chair being interviewed.
“I don’t ever talk … about the philosophy of a picture,” Bronson said. “It has never come up. And I wouldn’t talk about it to you. I don’t expound. I don’t like to overtalk a thing … Because I’m entertained more by my own thoughts than by the thoughts of others.”
He Was a Huge Star in Italy
While Bronson’s career in the States was pretty humble, and he was considered a bona fide movie star, he was actually as a massive star in other countries, among them, Italy. Apparently, Italians used to call him “Il Brutto,” meaning, The Ugly One.
In France, he was tagged as one of the cinematic “monstres sacrés.” His film would often rake in a lot more in those countries than in North America. According to one publicist, Charles Bronson’s name once appeared on a huge sign in Japan that was over a block long!
Played by Lance Henriksen in a TV Film
A little after Charles Bronson’s wife, actress Jill Ireland, passed away in 1990, a movie based on her private journals was produced. They called it “Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story,” and it starred Jill Clayburgh in the role of Ireland and Lance Henriksen ( from Aliens) as Charles Bronson.
Apparently, the NBC movie upset the star, who threatened to sue them if they continued shooting it. Entertainment Weekly released a statement: “While Henriksen doesn’t resemble Bronson at all, he nonetheless summons up Bronson’s tough-guy inscrutability.”
He Distanced Himself From Hollywood
Many people believe that all huge Hollywood stars choose to live in the Golden State. While that’s true for many people in show biz, there are a few exceptions, and Charles Bronson was one of them. Never a fan of being in the limelight for too long, he spent most of his years outside of Hollywood.
Bronson did indeed have a mansion near L.A., but he spent most of his life in Vermont with his wife Jill and their big family of seven children. He also spent a significant amount of time in Colorado throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
He Earned a Purple Heart
During the Second World War, in 1943, the actor enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron. Two years later, in 1945, he switched positions and joined the Guam-based 61st Bombardment Squadron to be an aerial gunner on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
During his time flying in the sky, he directed some dangerous combat missions against Japan’s grounds. In total, the actor flew 25 missions and was eventually granted a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered in battle.
“The Greatest Actor I Ever Worked With”
We covered this before, but in case you skipped that page – Charles Bronson was bigger in Europe than he was in the United States. He was huge. The reason for that is because he established himself in some European movies, like Once Upon a Time in the West, where he starred as Harmonica.
The film’s director, Sergio Leone, said he was “the greatest actor I ever worked with.” After the movie wrapped up, he wanted to cast him as the leading man in the 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars. Charles ended up turning down the role. But in 1970, he agreed to star in a French flick called Rider on the Rain, a movie that later won a Golden Globe.
He Was the First in His Family to Graduate High School
Out of a family of 15 children, Charles Bronson was the first one in his family to graduate high school, a pretty emotional feat if you ask me. This was a really big deal, considering the family’s humble beginnings.
Bronson’s mother tongue was actually Lithuanian, due to his parent’s Baltic background. But during his adolescence, he taught himself English. He would listen to others speak and didn’t care to sound silly himself, he talked and talked until it came out naturally. If you pay attention, in some of his movies, you can hear a slight accent.
He Had “Old School” Vibes
You can say many things about Charles Bronson, but there’s no doubt that he gave off “old school” vibes, in the sense that he was a very typical alpha male. Both his characters were like that, and so was he in real life.
One journalist captured his macho persona in a famous interview from 1974. For one moment, the journalist said he wasn’t sure whether to approach the actor, who was sitting all by himself. He wrote: “I don’t know whether to approach him; he seems absorbed by his own thoughts, but after a time he yields.” After a while, the actor invited him over and said, “You can talk to me now. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t want to talk. I’d be somewhere else.”
He Lost His Dad at a Young Age
Not only was Bronson’s family terribly poor, but they also suffered a huge blow when the father of the family died. At the age of ten, little Charles Bronson became fatherless. From that point on, he had to grow up, and fast.
As noted before, he began working in the coal mines. And there’s a reason he stumbled onto the job specifically – his dad had previously worked there before he died. Like father, like son, it was now Bronson’s turn to take care of the family.
He Was Paid a Single Dollar
Nowadays (and also back in the day), the minimum wage is, well, pitiful. But when Charles Bronson lost his dad at the age of 10 and had to go out to work in the coal mines, earning minimum wage was a luxury.
As if spending his days working underground wasn’t hard enough for such a young little boy, Bronson barely saw any money out of it. According to the actor, for every ton of coal that he managed to mine, he was given one single, sorry dollar.
Shooting in Mexico
In the mid ’50s, Bronson was busy shooting a movie in Mexico called Vera Cruz, a movie centering around some American gunslingers who get caught up in a messy feud between the French and the Mexican. One day during production…
Bronson and his co-star, Ernest Borgnine, went into town to run some errands. They happened to have the horses from filming, so they decided to ride them into town. Unfortunately for them, they were in for some trouble…
They Dodged a Bullet
Picture this – Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine, dressed all wild, wild west, as outlaws, with prop guns and everything, galloping on their horses into the foreign town. A truck full of Mexican authorities spotted them and had no idea about the movie.
Unaware there was a movie set near town, shooting an action movie with prop guns and all, the Mexican authorities freaked out and demanded to know who these intruders were. So, they did what all of us would do! They pointed their guns at the American film stars and demanded to know who they were.
Nowadays, especially in showbiz, it’s probably easier to break into the scene if you’re young. A fresh face is almost always “better” and has more potential than one who has some life experience under his belt. But Charles Bronson was, once again, an exception to the rule.
Bronson was one of Hollywood’s greatest late bloomers in film history. He landed his breakout role, a supporting role in The Magnificent Seven at the age of 39. And he didn’t become an actual film star until he starred in Death Wish. By that point, he was already 53!
A Tunnel Digging Expert
In 1963’s action film, The Great Escape, Charles Bronson famously plays a character named Danny, also known as “the Tunnel Rat.” The Tunnel Rat is a master at digging tunnels and knows exactly how to escape from POW camps.
Despite being claustrophobic, the Tunnel Rat manages to successfully get over his fear and dig his way through. In much the same way, Bronson served in the Second World War, and just like his on-screen character, he also suffered from claustrophobia after having to work in the mines as a child.
How He Met Jill
Charles Bronson met his second wife, and the woman he would spend most of his life with, Jill Ireland, in 1963, while the actor was shooting the movie The Great Escape. Apparently, he was introduced to Jill by Jill’s then-husband and Bronson’s co-star at the time, David McCallum.
Charles Bronson was taken aback by Jill’s beauty and charming body language. As a joke, he told his co-star, McCallum: “I’m going to marry your wife.” Funny, right? Because he wasn’t lying. A while later, they tied the knot.
His Most Frequent Co-Star
The person who Charles Bronson starred with most on screen was, fittingly, his second wife, Jill Ireland. Head over heels for the actress, Bronson loved starring alongside her. The pair married in 1968, and in that same year, they appeared for the first time together in the movie Villa Rides.
The two were deeply in love with each other and had several kids with whom they lived happily. They remained together for years, until 1990 when Jill Ireland passed away after a long and tiring battle with breast cancer.
Hard Times on the Set of The Dirty Dozen
One of Charles Bronson’s most beloved movies is The Dirty Dozen. The 1967 film centered around a group of World War II soldiers whose fate was either execution or imprisonment but eventually took on a suicide mission.
Despite the fact that the movie was a huge hit, Bronson himself admitted he had a horrible time on the set of the film. Apparently, he was terribly upset when the film’s lead, Lee Marvin, vanished from the set one day to look for booze. The actor also didn’t want to cut his hair, and only agreed to it after the producers threatened to sue him.
A Victim of a Nasty Prank
Life on the set of The Dirty Dozen was horrible for Charles Bronson. He didn’t get along with a lot of the people, and his frustration only grew when he became the subject of a rude prank. As it turns out, he was made fun of for his height.
It was obvious that compared to his tall co-stars, Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown, Charles Bronson was relatively short. Even after the movie wrapped up, Bronson still cringed at watching some of the scenes. He also refused to watch several scenes because he claimed that the violence was too brutal.
He Tried to Hide
Charles Bronson’s reluctance to speak during interviews gave him a reputation as a mysterious, rugged man. Which was far from what he intended. But you know how it is, when you’re famous, people are going to make things up about you, whether you speak or not.
Bronson wasn’t a man of many words. And he often admitted that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t participate in interviews at all. He once revealed, “When I’m in public, I even try to hide.”
Bronson Spoke Up for Death Wish
Charles Bronson’s most well-known movie is undoubtedly Death Wish, a film that has often been criticized for promoting armed vigilantism. But the actor himself refused to see it that way. According to him, the movie promoted the contrary.
Bronson’s agent urged him not to go ahead with the movie, but the star argued that movie’s main message wasn’t “be violent,” but rather, “an eye for an eye makes the world blind” – one of his favorite mantras in life.
One of His Most Successful Movies
Apart from Death Wish, another one of Bronson’s most successful movies, both critically and commercially, was Hard Times, released in 1975. Bronson was 53 when he was cast to participate, but was in tip-top shape, and even did most of the stunts himself.
According to the movie’s director, Walter Hill, the actor was paid nearly $1 million to star in the film. The movie itself cost between $2 and $4 million to make, and when it came out, it made around $30 million at the box office. The film was such a hit that the director said he was still making money from it.
He Bought His Agent a Luxury Car
If Charles Bronson liked you, he would stick with you to the very end. He was a loyal friend and a generous person. Unsurprisingly, he spent most of his years working with the same agent, a man named Paul Kohner. When Paul first signed him, the actor promised the agent that as soon as he would make it big, he would buy a car.
And not just any car – but a Rolls-Royce. Years later, Bronson, a man who was always true to his word, bought his agent the luxury car, right after his career officially kicked off. What a fantastic gift!
More Hard Times on the Set of Hard Times
Charles Bronson had his fair share of problems on the set of Hard Times. When the movie’s director, Walter Hill, made a comment about the acting skills of Bronson’s wife, Jill Ireland, he was furious. Shamelessly, he went ahead and confronted the director.
Reports say that he went so far as to refuse to shake Walter Hill’s hand afterward. Not only that, but once the movie wrapped up, he swore to never work with him ever again. But there are some rumors that point to other reasons for Bronson’s refusal to shake hands…
As mentioned before, over the course of the actor’s life, Charles Bronson avoided shaking hands. At first, his fans, as well as the media accused the star of being arrogant. A snob, they called him. But the truth was that he simply struggled with some personal issues.
A complete germaphobe, Bronson did his best to avoid infections and feared getting sick more than anything. Some people have even suggested that the star might have suffered from an undiagnosed OCD, however, it has never been (or will be) officially confirmed.
“A Grenade With the Pin Pulled”
In 1975, Charles Bronson starred in the action packed, adventurous movie titled Breakout, working alongside filmmaker and actor John Huston. Following the duo’s work together, and after getting personally acquainted with the actor, Huston had some interesting thoughts about Bronson.
In one interview, Hollywood filmmaker John Huston famously mentioned that Charles Bronson was like “a grenade with the pin pulled.” Indeed, sometimes that grenade exploded, and sometimes it didn’t. On the set of Mr. Majestyk, for example, he exploded.
Bronson Infuriated an Entire Film Crew
On the set of the 1974 movie Mr. Majestyk, Charles Bronson managed to upset his whole crew. Things got off to a bad start after the production was delayed on its first day of shooting. That in itself put Bronson in a bad mood.
After a transport truck was late to get to the set, he shamelessly cried out, “You know what this company needs—it needs a European first assistant and a European crew!” This offended everyone on set, and according to the late actor, the crew never really forgave him for it.
He Made Good Money
While there were actors much more famous than him in his lifetime, Bronson was actually one of the best paid actors during that time. When talking about Mr. Majestyk (1974), the film’s producer, Walter Mirisch, was quoted saying:
“Charlie is making $20,000 a day for a six-day week, plus ten percent of the net, plus $2,500 a week walking-around money. On his next picture, he’ll probably make more.” Not bad for a man who came from such humble beginnings.
He Wanted to Be Superman
You might be surprised, but if there was one role Charles Bronson really wanted to play – it was Superman! In the ’70s, the actor auditioned to star as the Man of Steel in the film Superman. At the time, Charles was in his mid-50s, so props for having the confidence to try out along with so many youngsters.
Eventually, Bronson wasn’t cast for the role. But the rejection wasn’t due to his age. According to filmmakers, the casting directors turned him down because he was “too earthy.” Oh right, we forgot that Superman was an alien.
Death Wish 3 Was the End of It
Charles Bronson didn’t like to discuss the deeper meanings behind the films he did (did we mention that he hated interviews?). But even though Bronson avoided talking to people, he was still very loyal to those he worked with.
But that isn’t to say he didn’t clash with his co-workers from time to time. For example, he called off the partnership he had with director Michael Winner after Death Wish 3 was released. He was stunned to see the final cut. Apparently, those extra gory shots really threw him off. The third movie was the end of their partnership.
He…Stretched the Truth
Despite being thought of as a loyal and tight-lipped kind of guy, Bronson did occasionally talk to interviewers about his rough childhood. He would often mention things like fistfights and knife throwing, and clashes that got him arrested.
But later on in his career, these stories were revealed to be quite false, or at the very least, an exaggeration. Charles had never been to jail. He was just adding some fire to the mythos surrounding his rugged, mysterious, on-screen persona.
His Third Wife
After Charles Bronson’s second wife, Jill Ireland, passed away due to breast cancer, many assumed that the actor would never fall in love again. But after eight years, he married for the third and final time in his life.
In 1990, he tied the knot with Kim Weeks, a woman who had previously met Charles through her work while working with his then-wife Jill Ireland on audiobooks. Bronson and Weeks were married for five years, up until the late actor’s final days.
A Fan Left Him a Strange Gift
Hollywood has some crazy fan stories, and we’ve all heard of groupies leaving their on-screen heroes’ bizarre gifts as tokens of their obsession. However, what happened to Charles Bronson might be the weirdest one yet.
In the 1990s, Bronson was told that a woman whom he had never met in his life, and who had been a huge fan of his, left him her house in her will. Overall, she was worth over $1 million. Her family ended up suing Bronson and the case was settled out of court.
Who Inherited Charles Bronson’s Money?
Throughout the actor’s life, Charles Bronson managed to raise a family of seven children. He was very happy to have a big family of his own and to be able to provide them with a far better and more stable childhood than he had.
Three of his kids were stepchildren of his second wife, Jill Ireland. Another two were by his first wife, Harriet Tendler. Another one was his biological child with Jill Ireland, and another was adopted during their marriage.
A Box Office Failure
During the second half of his career, Charles Bronson grew increasingly mad over the fact that he was no longer getting good roles. Instead, he felt like he was typecast in low quality, violent B-movie roles.
Finally, he managed to break the rut by appearing in 1991’s The Indian Runner, directed by Sean Penn. Many film critics were surprised to see Bronson give such a beautiful, delicate performance. However, despite the good reviews, the movie was a flop, and it marked Bronson’s final acting gig.
He Shared an Award With Sean Connery
Despite being very successful, both critically and commercially, in America and around the world, Charles Bronson didn’t receive many nominations or awards. The poor guy was largely ignored during award ceremonies.
Throughout his career, he took home three awards and was nominated twice. One award was Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, another was a nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award (in 1961), and another was the respectable Henrietta Award at the Golden Globes for the title of World Film Favorite. But he had to share that award with Sean Connery.
Buchinsky the Artist
Even though Charles was known to be tough and rugged, he had a sensitive side to him. The actor loved art and spent all his life painting. As noted by film critic and journalist Roger Ebert, Charles enjoyed discussing his paintings way more than he enjoyed talking about his acting achievements.
But the actor was afraid that his paintings would sell solely because he was a movie star. For that reason, he hid his identity, hiding under the name “Buchinsky.” And it worked! According to the actor, he sold several paintings under that clandestine name.
When Did Charles Bronson Die?
In 1998, Charles Bronson had to undergo a hip replacement. Right after the operation, he retired from acting. But it wasn’t only the hip that bothered him, he was also suffering smoking-related health problems. Eventually, Bronson died at the age of 81 on August 30, 2003.
The causes of his death were “respiratory failure” and “metastatic lung cancer.” All in all, Charles Bronson’s legacy lives on and can be found, in part, in the shining star he has on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which he received in 1980. It’s located at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard.