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He was a man of seeming contradictions: a rough and tough coal miner from Pennsylvania who served as a tail-gunner in World War II but then studied art on the G.I. Bill when he returned to the U.S. before enrolling at the at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Best known for his macho film roles – Death Wish, The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape – he was also a successful painter, one who couldn’t bear to part with the paintings he sold. (He is said to have bought them all back.) He told film critic Roger Ebert in a 1974 interview that as a kid he drew on butcher paper, shopping bags and with soap on school windows. Drawing came naturally to him.
So did playing violent thugs, vigilantes and muscular strongmen. But Bronson was, in fact, a quiet man – with a creased smile that could be menacing or gentle – who appreciated family life and peaceful venues like the rural horse farm near his burial place in Vermont, at the foot of Mt. Ascutney.
Charles Bronson – born Charles Buchinsky, the 11th of 15 children – was 81 when he died, 10 years ago today, in Los Angeles. He suffered from Alzheimer’s and had contracted pneumonia.
The swarthy good looks of the Lithuanian-American made him a natural to play characters from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds: Italian (The Valachi Papers), Indian (Drum Beat), Polish (The Great Escape), French (Rider on the Rain), Irish-Mexican (The Magnificent Seven) and even Japanese (Red Sun).
He became a star in France in Adieu l’Ami (Farewell, Friend) and then in Europe (with the Sergio Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West), and by 1972, when he was in his 40s, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association declared him the number one box office attraction outside of the United States.
"One of the ironies," he said, "is that I made my breakthrough in movies shot in Europe that the Japanese thought were American movies and that the Americans thought were foreign."
Here are some disparate pieces of information about Bronson:
• He got his first movie role in You're in the Navy Now because he could belch on cue.
• He sent actor Dick Van Dyke a lemon cake every Christmas.
• He was introduced to Jill Ireland, his second wife, by her then-husband, David McCallum, during filming of The Great Escape.
• The voice of the sarcastic store clerk in The Simpsons (1989) is based on Bronson.
• He turned down Sergio Leone’s invitation to star in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Clint Eastwood took the role.
• Bronson was fluent in four languages – English, Russian, Lithuanian and Greek – and was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."