Charles Bronson – The lone wolf and his long road to fame

In the early 1950s, aspiring actor Charles Buchinsky had to experience firsthand that in the heyday of the McCarthy era, a surname like his could bring extreme professional disadvantage. So he decided to be inspired by the street names in Los Angeles for a new last name. In Bronson Avenue he found a namesake. Charles Buchinsky became Charles Bronson. However, the name change did not result in an immediate breakthrough to superstardom. On the contrary, the road to fame was still to prove a very long one for Charles Bronson.

Charles Bronson on his way to becoming an actor

Charles Bronson Portrait

The most famous mustache in Hollywood: Charles Bronson in "Murphy's Law". Copyright: Capelight Pictures

Charles Bronson was born on 3. November 1921 in Ehrenfeld, a mining settlement in Pennsylvania, the eleventh of 15 children of a Lithuanian immigrant family. In this was hardly spoken English, which made it difficult for little Charles to establish contact with other children. Nevertheless, he made it through high school and began, following the example of his early deceased father, to toil in the mine. Service for the Fatherland became the way out of an unloved job in 1943. He became a gunner on a B-29 bomber and as such saw more of the world.

After his service, he began to study art – although art never let him go. As a long-established star, he exhibited some of his paintings under his birth name. More importantly, he met actress Harriet Tendler during his studies. Both married in 1949 and increasingly moved in local artistic circles. Here, more and more people approached Charles Bronson and suggested an acting career to the edgy character.

From first tentative steps to Hollywood's Indian actor

From then on, he went to some plays – and liked what he saw there. On top of that, the pay was right. An important driving force for Bronson's career. However, his still broken English slowed down his theater career. Which is why he was advised to try film. Accordingly, Bronson moved to Los Angeles with his wife and managed to land his first roles. He debuted in 1951 in "You're in the Navy Now". As a result, he had many tiny bully roles, most of which were not even listed in the credits of the flicks.

His first artistic success was his role as Igor in "The Cabinet of Professor Bondi" in 1953. Here Bronson could break out finally once from its up to now established Raufbold image. But the big roles continued to be absent. After all, he made a career as an Indian actor. "Massai", "The Lone Eagle" (both 1954) or "Hell of a Thousand Torments" (1957) are to be mentioned. In 1954 he changed his surname and began to orient himself more towards TV. Here he played small supporting roles in countless series and paid only rare visits to the film – for example in 1958 for a leading role in the B-movie "The Predator" by Roger Corman.

The serial actor Charles Bronson sniffs blockbuster air

In 1958 he finally landed his first starring role in a TV series. "The man with the camera" brought it to two seasons and offered Charles Bronson again the opportunity to expand his repertoire. As a result, he again increasingly caught the eye of Hollywood casting directors. The films "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), "Broken Chains" (1963) and "The Dirty Dozen" ( 1967), each with astonishingly big roles for Bronson, did well at the box office.

Charles Bronson in Murphy's Law

The cool pose with the gun at the ready Bronson mastered not only in "Murphy's Law". Copyright: Capelight Pictures

The problem: The movies became a hit WITH Charles Bronson, not BECAUSE of him. Especially the cinematic tail comparison with the cool and charismatic Steve McQueen in "The Magnificent Seven" and "Broken Chains" lost the acting craftsman Bronson, who was also often reduced to his impressive physique, by a landslide.

Charles Bronson and his time in Europe

During the filming of "Broken Chains", Charles Bronson began an affair with the English actress Jill Ireland. She married Charles Bronson in 1968 and advised the frustrated actor to put out his feelers in the direction of Europe. Bronson had categorically excluded this so far. Europe was considered to be a kind of residual ramp for actors who had not made it in Hollywood. But Bronson also saw the great exception: Clint Eastwood had risen to superstardom thanks to "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). A role that, had it been up to director Sergio Leone, Charles Bronson should have played!

But now Charles Bronson was ready for Europe. His first film, "You Can Start Praying" (1968), alongside France's superstar Alain Delon, was a huge hit. Immediately afterwards, Sergio Leone got his way and was able to use Charles Bronson in his gigantic Western epic "Play Me the Song of Death". And how he did it! He literally tailored Bronson's role to his muscular body. With minimal facial expressions, Bronson achieved the maximum effect in the film. This was not the only reason why the Western hit Europe hard. And in America? There the hit itched nobody.

Play Me the Song of Death with Charles Bronson

"Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod" was a huge hit in Europe. Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Bronson now strung one hit after the next in Europe. Flicks like "The One Who Came in Out of the Rain" (1970) presented a completely new Charles Bronson, even earning Golden Globes, but still no one in the U.S. wanted to know anything about him.

The breakthrough to worldwide superstardom

In 1972 Charles Bronson met the director Michael Winner. The filmed with Bronson "Chatos Land" and "Cold Breeze" (both 1972). These finally aroused the curiosity of distributors in the USA again. Charles Bronson was on the winning track. Almost at the same time as Winner, he met the producer Dino de Laurentiis. He made Italian versions of big US hits with Bronson. In 1972, for example, "The Valachi Papers", which was clearly riding the bow wave of "The Godfather". And hit the box office big time.

It was Laurentiis who agreed to produce the controversial script for "Death Wish" aka "A Man Sees Red", which was rejected by many producers. Michael Winner acted as director. Charles Bronson as "Hero". And the superhit was ready. The countless discussions about the film made it a huge box office hit. And Charles Bronson had achieved what he had dreamed of for so long: in 1974, at the age of 53, he was finally THE superstar in the USA.

Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey

The role of Paul Kersey in "A Man Sees Red" made Bronson famous in America as well. Copyright: Studiocanal

In the following Charles Bronson could choose his projects. "The Man Without Nerves" (1975), "A Man of Steel" (1954) or "Telephone" (1977) worked brilliantly at the box office. But Charles Bronson faced several major problems. He was very quickly pinned down to one type of role and made no great effort to break out of it and develop further. He proved to be partly not very choosy about his projects and looked more at the money to be made than the quality of the scripts. Last but not least, he was considered difficult on the set. The long road to success had made him bitter. He often withdrew, spoke little.

The real creatives of Hollywood began to shun him and he very often worked with the same directors. Many of them rather craftsmen who learned to put up with his whims. Bronson himself was not bothered by these problems. He lovingly took care of his family and wanted to offer them a life he never had. Eight of them (three children from Jill Ireland's first marriage, two children from Charles Bronson's first marriage and a daughter together) were living the Bronson family life to the full. In 1983 Ireland and Bronson adopted another daughter.

Cold Breeze aka The Mechanic action scene

Where Bronson was on it, there was always Bronson in it. As in "Cold Breeze". Copyright: Eurovideo

*Dumb Stupid* – The Cannon Era of Charles Bronson

At the beginning of the 80s, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus made sure that Bronson did not have to worry about his problems. The two Israelis were looking for exclusive stars for their independent studio Cannon and were accordingly prepared to dig deep into their pockets for them. Bronson did not fully commit to Cannon, but committed to several collaborations.

Charles Bronson in the TV movie Punishment

Movies like "Punishment" let Bronson's fame fade more and more. Copyright: Splendid/WVG

The first, "Death Wish 2," simply pumped up its predecessor for more sex and violence and hit the box office decently in 1982. "Death Wish 3" (1985) had a similar experience. Further Cannon works such as "Death Wish 4", "A Man Like Dynamite" or "Murphy's Law" could not repeat this success, but ran like hot cakes in the increasingly strong video stores.

The lone wolf says goodbye

In the Cannon era, Charles Bronson took time off again and again. He stood by his cancer-stricken wife Jill Ireland, whom he had incidentally supplied with roles in his films again and again. This one lost her long fight against the disease in 1990. A year later, Charles Bronson gave one of his most sensitive performances ever in Sean Penn's directorial debut "Indian Runner". But Bronson, who is now 70 years old, could not take the new momentum with him.

In 1994 he ended his cinema career with "Death Wish 5". A massive box office disaster. For TV he made three more movies around the "Family of Cops" and also said goodbye here in 1999. Privately, the actor experienced some more happiness when he remarried in 1998. But just as the star disappeared from all the screens, his own memory of his great times also disappeared. Charles Bronson had Alzheimer's disease in the late 1990s. On 30. August 2003, probably the most famous mustache of action cinema died as a result of pneumonia.