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Charles Bronson: American Samurai

His popularity in the 1970s was unparalleled, even while competing at the box office with the decade’s Blaxploitation films. When the other action film stars faded or died off and a new crop of stars emerged, such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone, there was still Bronson.

Older and more wizened, Bronson holds an appeal that remains among the most unique in film history. Following the screening of one of Bronson’s most popular films, an anonymous 33-year-old California man told a NY Times essayist, “I go to a movie to see Bronson, and not so much for the story. His movies are pretty much the same, but what I like to watch is how he plays his character. He’s kind of tough and rugged, an individualist. He does things his way.”

What makes Bronson’s attraction for moviegoers ironic is how he was nearly forgotten in his own country for a long time, like many an overlooked American blues musician. When British Invasion artists The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin sang the praises of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon, that’s when a whole new and young audience of American listeners discovered their countrymen’s music.

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Charles Bronson similarly had hit a glass ceiling of middling success at home until he begrudgingly went to Europe to make films. He then became an international superstar via several tailor-made vehicles, revamped his image, and returned to the States bigger than ever — albeit in his fifties.

He was also no longer the Charles Bronson that American audiences had been used to seeing on their movie screens and television sets. The chiseled physique was a little more rugged, accompanied by a thinly drooping mustache. The slitted eyes were a little more snake-like, along with the rarely seen but now slowly revealed smile, usually at the point of imminent violence. It was a visage in keeping with what could only be called an American Samurai.

Then Came Bronson

Charles Dennis Buchinsky’s grade school class picture.

If ever a person appeared an improbable candidate for film stardom, but one whose rags-to-riches story would make an excellent film, it would be that of Charles Bronson. Born Charles Dennis Bunchinski (the family would later drop the first “n” pronouncing the name BOO-SHIN-SKI) on November 3, 1921, in the coal-mining town of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania (better known as “Scooptown” to its inhabitants), the young Charlie was one of fifteen children born to a Lithuanian-American mother and Russian immigrant father who died of Black Lung when Charlie was only ten. Life was rough without Walter–originally Valteris–but bad as it was, Charlie still embellished his existence, stating in interviews that he was practically an infant when he worked in the coal mine while, in truth, he was sixteen. He also said that he had to wear his sister’s hand-me-down dress to school, which also proved to be a bit of creative embroidery. He would alternately state that the love he received from his mother is what kept him going, or, depending on the mood he was in, would say, “There was no love in my home. I was one of fifteen children and the only physical contact I had with my mother was when she took me between her knees to pull the lice out of my hair.”

Once he graduated high school, he joined the Army Air Corp. first as a truck driver and later, just before World War II ended, a tail gunner on a B-29. He would later claim to have personally shot down undocumented amounts of Kamikaze pilots.

Buchinsky as he looked in the Army Air Corp circa 1944

This propensity for overstatement, according to frequent costar Lee Marvin, was part of the rarely-seen charm that lay beneath Bronson’s well-chiseled exterior. “There’s a little gleam,” Marvin once said, “way back behind the eyes.”

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After the war, Buchinsky was only certain he did not want to return to Scooptown. He had an innate artistic gift that he’d expressed since childhood by sketching on anything and everything around him. He decided to study art on the G.I. Bill and just as suddenly switched to drama when he happened to see a play one night.

 

Bronson shows off some of his artwork in 1957. Left to right: an image of a Scooptown miner, a self-portrait, and a painting of his mother bathing young Charlie.

“Acting is the easiest thing I’ve done,” he once explained, “I guess that’s why I stuck with it.” He shared a room with Jack Klugman while the two fledgling actors worked as barkers on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. In the late 1940s, he continued his acting classes despite being constantly derided for his voice and speech patterns. More insightful teachers encouraged him, taking note of his presence, impressive physique … and that little gleam way back behind his eyes.

Bronson reunited on a film location with the pilot of his B-29, Ken Trow.

While odd-jobbing and taking classes in Philadelphia, Bronson met fellow acting student Harriet Tendler and in short order, they courted, married, and traveled to California, where Harriet agreed to put her ambitions on hold as the young couple conspired to make Charlie a star. He continued his studies at the Pasadena Playhouse where a teacher saw the young man’s promise and got him an audition for the Gary Cooper Navy comedy, U.S.S. Teakettle (1951). It was an inauspicious debut but it got him more work playing thugs, Indians, soldiers, and other nefarious musclemen. A new agent decided that amid the Cold War, his birth name was holding him back and convinced his client to change his name to Bronson in 1954.

Bronson with his first wife, Harriett Tendler, shortly after their wedding.

More work in film and TV followed, including two short-lived TV series (Man with a Camera and The Travels of Jamie McPheeters) and an Emmy nomination, as well as a daughter, Suzanne, and a son, Tony. Bronson painted to relieve his restlessness at seeing contemporaries gain greater status despite his lengthy resume. His time would come but it would be the result of the longest apprenticeship in cinema history.

A rare color image from the memorable Twilight Zone episode “Two” with Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), which aired September 15, 1961.

By the early 1960s, his frustration grew despite meaty, yet still supporting roles in such testosterone-driven projects as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). He also showed his versatility with unlikely supporting roles in The Sandpiper (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966).

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By 1967, Bronson had divorced and taken up with Jill Ireland, the blonde actress wife of his friend and Great Escape costar, David McCallum. The Hollywood legend is that when he first met the young couple, in the presence of his own first wife, Harriet, Bronson told McCallum, “I think I’m going to steal your wife.” They married in 1968 and in due time she successfully advised Bronson to take several film offers he never would have agreed to do on his own.

Husband and wife Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland enjoying a casual night out.

These projects would impress Bronson for the huge money he finally earned and make an idol of him with international audiences, who saw what American moviegoers had yet to see: The little gleam way back behind the eyes.

American Samurai

The groundwork laid by Charles Bronson’s earlier films proved to be the catalyst for his later success. French film star Alain Delon was such a fan of Bronson’s performances in the Roger Corman quickie Machine Gun Kelly (1958), that he suggested him as a costar ten years later in the French film Adieu, Ami (Farewell, Friend). The quirky film pitted the two actors as mercenaries, forced by circumstance to work together to survive in a high-security vault. A smash hit, it began a string of remarkably successful European projects for Bronson.

Bronson pictured with Dirty Dozen (1967) producer Ken Hyman. The inscription reads: “To Ken–Your ONLY friend–Charlie.

Having turned down all three of Italian director Sergio Leone’s stylized “Spaghetti” westerns, Bronson finally gave in and accepted a role in Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Leone called him “the greatest actor I ever worked with” and the film proved a sensation in international cinema. It broke box office records all over the continent, cemented Bronson’s superstar status, and earned him the nickname, “Il Brutto” –The Ugly One– in Italy. In France his moniker was almost poetic: “Le Sacre Monstre,” which translates to The Sacred Monster.

Unfortunately, Leone’s quirky epic was also the only one of his westerns to bomb at the U.S. box office when its American distributor edited the film beyond comprehension. Undeterred, Bronson’s European output continued unabated with the immensely popular worldwide thrillers Rider on the Rain (1968), Cold Sweat (1970), and Someone Behind the Door (1971). The rest of the world’s film audiences had discovered through these perfectly tailored vehicles a screen persona to which his own country remained largely oblivious. He was strong, stoic, set with an unwavering ethical moral fiber, and capable of frightening violence when provoked–and in these films he was always provoked. Bronson was in essence an American Samurai to every country in the world except America.

Original dramatic poster art with Marlene Jobert for Rider In the Rain (1970)

The U.S. did finally catch up  when the uncut version of Once Upon Time in the West was re-released in 1970 and the Motion Picture Exhibitor’s Association nominated Bronson for a best supporting acting nomination.

By that time, however, Charles Bronson had already been voted the single most popular film star in the world.

NEXT WEEK: PART TWO OF THE CHARLES BRONSON STORY

 

 

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