Remembering Charles Bronson | wprnPublicRadio.com
Remembering Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson, an emblematic figure in American cinema, had a life as intriguing and resilient as the characters he portrayed on screen. Born Charles Dennis Buchinsky on November 3, 1921, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, he was the 11th of 15 children in a Lithuanian immigrant family. Bronson’s early life was marked by poverty and hardship. His childhood in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania was steeped in labor; he followed in his family’s footsteps, working in the mines. These early experiences, filled with toil and struggle, shaped his rugged on-screen persona.
Bronson’s journey into acting was a serendipitous one. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, where he received a Purple Heart, he began exploring art. Utilizing the GI Bill, he enrolled in art classes at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Here, Bronson discovered his passion for acting, a field that allowed him to channel his raw, natural charisma and rugged good looks. His distinctive, weathered appearance, due to his tough upbringing and military service, set him apart in Hollywood.
Minor roles marked Bronson’s early career in Hollywood. In the 1950s, he began to appear in TV shows and films, often typecast as a supporting actor in gangster or cowboy roles. His notable works during this period included “House of Wax” (1953) and “Jubal” (1956). Despite these appearances, stardom eluded him in the United States. However, his roles caught the attention of European filmmakers, particularly in Italy and France, leading to a significant turning point in his career.
The late 1960s saw Bronson’s emergence as a leading star in Europe. He found substantial success in Italy with the “spaghetti westerns” and in France, where he was highly regarded for his stoic and tough persona. His European films, such as “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), directed by Sergio Leone, showcased his ability to carry a film as the leading man. This European success was crucial in propelling Bronson to international stardom and reshaping his career trajectory.
Bronson’s return to American cinema was marked by a series of tough-guy roles that capitalized on his image from European cinema. He found his niche in action and crime films, where his brooding intensity and physicality were used well. This period saw him in memorable roles such as “The Mechanic” (1972) and “Hard Times” (1975). However, the 1974 film “Death Wish” would become his defining role and mark the zenith of his career.
“Death Wish” was a game-changer for Bronson. He portrayed Paul Kersey, an architect who becomes a vigilante after his family is brutally attacked. The film’s gritty portrayal of crime and vigilantism struck a chord with audiences and became a box-office hit. It propelled Bronson to superstar status in Hollywood and spawned sequels. The role of Kersey became synonymous with Bronson, cementing his image as a tough, no-nonsense action hero.
Bronson’s meteoric rise through “Death Wish” had a profound impact on his career and on the action genre. He became a symbol of the tough, silent hero, a persona that resonated with audiences worldwide. His impact on cinema was not just limited to his roles; he influenced a generation of action stars and films. Despite his later years being marked by less memorable films, Bronson’s legacy as an icon of American cinema remains undeniable. His journey from the coal mines of Pennsylvania to international stardom is a testament to his enduring appeal and the universal allure of the quintessential action hero.