He’s best known for being the anti-hero in the Death Wish movies, a member of the Magnificent Seven, and one of the greatest tough-guy actors in Hollywood history, but long before he was pumping bullets at baddies on celluloid, Charles Bronson pumped bullets at baddies in the skies as an Army gunner during World War II.
In true rags-to-riches fashion, Bronson was born as Charles Dennis Buchinsky in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Allegheny mountains, where mining coal was the only viable occupation. The son of a Lithuanian immigrant father and the 11th of 15 children in the family, bronson had to start working the coal mines at age 10 when his father died, earning the measly sum of $1 for every ton of coal mined. According to legend, Buchinsky’s family was so poor that at one point he had to wear one of his sister’s dresses to school because he didn’t have anything clean left to wear — not exactly what you’d expect from a future macho superstar actor. On the other hand, from a young age he proved to a tough, quiet, self-reliant type, traits that would serve him well in the movies later in life, and he became the first member of his family to graduate from high school despite the fact that he didn’t learn English until he was a teen.
Buchinsky enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces in 1943, serving as an aircraft gunner in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron. In 1945 he became a Superfortress crewman with the 39th Bombardment Group, based on Guam, and was assigned to a B-29 bomber, flying on 25 missions. Eventually he was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received during his service and left the military in 1946.
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After his return, Buchinsky used the GI Bill to study art, then decided to move on to acting, not so much for the glamour as for the money, which looked plenty good to a kid from rural Pennsylvania. His first film role (uncredited) was in a military production, fittingly enough, as he played a Sailor in You’re in the Navy Now (1951), and he made his first major impression as Vincent Price’s mute, hulking henchman Igor in the original House of Wax (1953).
If it weren’t for U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and America’s “Red Scare” during the 50s, we might be remembering the name Charles Buchinsky today, but during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings in 1954, Buchinsky permanently changed his last name to Bronson on his agent’s advice, since the Eastern European surname “Buchinsky” could be perceived as Russian. The bit parts kept coming, but Bronson’s big breakthrough came in two classic John Sturges films: the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he played one of the seven gunfighters protecting a Mexican village from marauding bandits, and the World War II action adventure The Great Escape, in which he co-starred with Steve McQueen and James Coburn as a Polish POW who has to overcome his claustrophobia to escape a Nazi concentration camp via underground tunnel (as it turns out, Bronson had a bit of claustrophobia himself thanks to his early mining days).
From there Bronson moved on to a variety of roles, including being a boxing trainer for fellow vet Elvis Presley in Kid Galahad (1962) and a memorable appearance in the World War II thriller The Dirty Dozen (1967) alongside Lee Marvin and Telly Savalas, before making a name for himself in Italian exploitation cinema and starring in Sergio Leone’s Western epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). During this time he gained a reputation among European audiences as “Il Brutto” (“The Ugly One”) and the “monstre sacré” (“holy monster”) — these were complimentary nicknames, by the way.
Bronson finally got his long-overdue attention as a star back in the States when he appeared in the first of several Death Wish movies in 1974, playing a mild-mannered architect driven to violent extremes when his family is attacked by hoodlums. It was in these movies that his persona — quiet, impassive, sometimes wry, deadly in any showdown — was etched into moviegoers’ minds, and lasted until the end of his career. Bronson died August 30, 2003 of pneumonia while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 81.
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