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CHARLES BRONSON, AMERICAN SAMURAI PART II: Death Wish and Beyond

Charles Bronson’s international popularity in the early 70s seemed unstoppable; everywhere that is except in his native land. He was still working in projects largely financed or directed by Europeans, but the subject matter was becoming more westernized in what seemed an attempt to woo American audiences. In Charles Bronson, American Samurai Part 2, we take an in-depth look at the actor’s rise to major stardom in America, and at the unforgettable films that would eventually cement his status as a screen legend–Ed. 

 

With the Hollywood film industry seemingly in freefall and audiences open to more styles of filmmaking, studio execs did what they always had in the past, exploit sex and violence. Charles Bronson would not be their ‘go-to guy’ for sex but when it came to violence, he was eventually welcomed with open arms. He starred in such international hits as Red Sun (1971) with Toshiro Mifune, Alain Delon, and Ursula Andress, as well as the title character in the American-Indian revenge film, Chato’s Land (1971), wearing little more than loincloth throughout most of the picture.

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Then came the hugely successful hitman action film, The Mechanic (1972) followed by The Valachi Papers (1972), in which Bronson believably aged from teenager to his mid-sixties (with little make-up) playing notorious mob informant Joe Valachi. These films were all internationally financed but were set mostly in the U.S. The audiences were catching on, and when Bronson was asked why he felt he was becoming so popular, he reasoned, “A dozen years ago or so mine was the kind of face nobody wanted to see in the movies. At least not the good guy’s face. But times have changed. I seem to have the right face at the right time.”

 

Following the vengeful melon farmer he portrayed in Mr. Majestyk (1974), he made the film that would forever stamp his career as the urban vigilante. Controversial Death Wish (1974) put him in America’s top ten box office list at number 7 and the remainder of his films would be, like himself, American-made.

The immense success of Death Wish would garner several sequels and cause a major schism of debate among critics as well as audiences. It touched an untapped nerve and resonated viscerally with society at large, especially in the high crime area of New York in the 1970s. An unrelated incident in 1984, dubbed mugging victim Bernard Goetz “The Subway Vigilante,” akin to Bronson’s character in Death Wish. The mainstream success of the film may have been best summed up by New York Daily News critic Rex Reed, who wrote: “People who are tired of being frightened, endangered and ripped-off daily are going to love Charles Bronson in Death Wish as much as I do.”

 

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Now that he had finally established himself as a box office draw in his own country, albeit in his fifties, Charles Bronson’s cinematic output may seem run-of-the-mill on the surface, but closer examination shows how intrinsically different his choices had become. In Breakout (1975) he plans and participates in an elaborate escape from a Mexican prison for wrongly accused Robert Duvall. There is much action of course but there is also a very different Charles Bronson performance, who plays his character as a charming and roguish con man. His next film remains to many fans his best, in which he teams up with fight promoter James Coburn in the Depression-era Hard Times (1975), as an older street fighter who takes on younger fighters for the right price. The production value of his next film may be the most impressive yet. Breakheart Pass (1975) cast him as a man of mystery in the old west among a group of strangers on a train in which the inhabitants are being murdered, one by one, not unlike an Agatha Christie whodunit.

If these previous projects were not enough, he challenged his fans even further with his next film. “Someday I’d like a part where I can lean my elbow against a mantelpiece and have a cocktail,” Bronson once said. “I don’t look like someone who leans on a mantelpiece with a cocktail in my hand, you know. I look like the kind of guy who has a bottle of beer in my hand.” However, in From Noon ‘Till Three (1975), Bronson was able to do just that as old west outlaw Graham Dorsey romancing a beautiful widow played by Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland. The quirky little comedy even made some cogent statements on the nature of celebrity.

For the remainder of the decade, Charles Bronson was a major American film star and took full advantage of his hard-earned success. His growing family now included Jill’s children with David McCallum as well as their own daughter, Zuleika. The couple also adopted daughter Katrina Holden when her mother, Jill’s assistant, succumbed to cancer. The Bronson brood became famous for their traveling entourage of assistants and massive luggage wherever Charles was filming one of his major productions.

Most critics reacted lukewarmly to these A-list productions, to which Bronson responded, “I don’t make movies for critics. They don’t pay anyhow.” His fans agreed with him, making Bronson the number four box office champ of 1975 and number ten in 1976.

 

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The offbeat romantic western comedy From Noon ’Til Three (1976) had Bronson finally wearing a tux and sipping a cocktail as he seduces widow Jill Ireland.

When Charles Bronson showed up for the first day of shooting for the Cold War thriller Telefon (1977), veteran director Don Siegel suggested he shave his mustache so he might look more like his character should as a Russian KGB agent. Bronson gave the director a long, slow smile and said “No mustache, No Bronson.”

Such was the extent the Bronson brand had controlled the actor’s psyche. He was no longer a top ten box office star but he nonetheless maintained a loyal following and catered to what he knew they wanted to see.There were occasionally hopeful projects, such as playing Wild Bill Hickok in the strange western fantasy film, White Buffalo (1977) or the fact-based action film Death Hunt with Lee Marvin (1981). Sadly, most of the remaining Bronson vehicles had self-explanatory titles in which the actor looked just tired and bored. These cranked-out titles included Love & Bullets (1979) Borderline (1980), 10 to Midnight (1983), The Evil That Men Do (‘84), Murphy’s Law (1986), Messenger of Death (1988), and Assassination (1987).

The last film was a bittersweet experience as it would be the last time he would appear onscreen with his wife and most frequent costar, Jill Ireland after a dozen films together. Ireland had survived a very public bout with breast cancer as well as the overdose of her son, Jason McCallum, all of which she wrote about in two bestselling memoirs. Sadly, the cancer returned and on May 18, 1990, Ireland succumbed to it. The very private Bronson was forced to admit, “One of the difficult parts of being a public person married to someone who was seriously ill is that people asked, ‘So, how’s your wife?’ I found it difficult. They were strangers.”

The Bronsons relaxing at their Malibu home.

 

A TV-movie that Bronson tried to keep from the airwaves was broadcast with Jill Clayburgh as Ireland and Lance Henriksen as Bronson. Bronson himself had ventured into the realm of TV-movies with the HBO drama Act of Vengeance (1986), playing real-life United Mine Worker’s president, Jock Yablonski. He gives one of his best performances in this now largely forgotten early cable project, even going so far as to shave his mustache for the first time since Hard Times over a decade earlier.

As for his final years, it would be comforting to say that after a string of cheaply made Death Wish sequels Bronson’s last screen appearance was in actor Sean Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991). Bronson had a small role (also sans mustache) as the father of the two lead characters and had one particularly touching telephone scene in which his last words were, “Good night, son.”

It would have made for a poignant cinematic epitaph for the actor but instead, he made Death Wish V (1994). He had also made a semi-return to television in a series of forgettable TV movies playing the patriarch to a “Family of Cops” (’95-’99). In the film was a young actress named Kim Weeks, who would become the third and final Mrs. Bronson in 1998.

 

 

Following hip replacement surgery, Bronson retired from acting and remained fairly secluded, until it was reported that he had developed Alzheimer’s Disease. A bout of pneumonia officially ended his life on August 30, 2003, at age 81.

The Vermont burial site of Charles Bronson and the poem engraved on his grave monument after his passing in 2002.

 

His legacy in popular culture is rather quirky, such as The Simpsons writers who made Charles Bronson an endless source of humor, parodying him at every opportunity. A popular Japanese Manga artist, Yoshiyuki Okamura, changed his name to “Buronson” in his honor and grew a similar mustache. There’s also Hungarian actor Robert Bronzi who bears a remarkable resemblance to Bronson and makes low-budget ripoffs of Bronson’s films. Strangest of all has to be notorious UK convict Michael Peterson. He wrote several extremely popular memoirs as his alter ego Charles Bronson, for the most obvious of reasons.

British photographer Sam Haskins put it best with this anecdote: “A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said, ‘I love your pictures — they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner. You must have a terrific stove.’”

Movies have never been about the camera, either. It has always been about the talent that made moviegoing a lasting experience, such as Scooptown’s own, Charles Bronson.

Rorschach: In 1987 DC Comics published the groundbreaking series The Watchmen, called by Time Magazine one of the 100 greatest books of all time. Artist Dave Gibbons printed the model sheet for Rorschach and in the notes wrote: “QUESTION (RORSCHACH) MURDERER? PSYCHOPATH OR SAINT? QUINTESSENTIAL ‘DITKO’ UTTERLY ALONE IMPLACABLE RUTHLESS ‘WILD CARD’ BRONSON ‘LONELY’ SEES WORLD AS IMMORAL AND FLABBY IN NEED OF A MORAL CODE

 

 

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Read Part 1 of CHARLES BRONSON, AMERICAN SAMURAI HERE.

Bronson fans might want to check out Mario Van Peebles’ latest western in a classic mold, OUTLAW POSSE, opening March 1. Select theater tickets HERE.

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