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Charles Bronson: Man of Many Faces

by Legacy Staff

Charles Bronson was a man of seeming contradiction.

Charles Bronson (1921 – 2003) 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.

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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.

Born Charles Buchinsky, the eleventh of 15 children in a Lithuanian-American family, Bronson had the swarthy good looks that got him cast as 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 additional facts about Bronson:

  • • He earned his first movie role (You’re in the Navy Now ) because he could belch on cue.
  • • Every Christmas, he sent actor Dick Van Dyke a lemon cake.
  • • 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.
  • • After he turned down Sergio Leone’s invitation to star in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Clint Eastwood took the role.
  • • Fluent in four languages — English, Russian, Lithuanian, and Greek — he 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.”

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