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Today in history... movie buffs mourn loss of Bronson

12:00am & News

Cast as the 'tough guy' star of memorable movies such as "The Magnificent Seven", "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Great Escape", actor Charles Bronson died on August 30th, 2003.

The 11th of 15 children, Charles Dennis Buchinsky was born in 1921 to Lithuanian immigrant parents in Ehrenfield, a coal mining area of the Allegheny Mountains north of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His family were so poor that at times he was sent to school wearing his sister's dress because there was no other clothing.

As a child he spoke Lithuanian and Russian, only learning to speak fluent English as a teenager. When he was 10 his father died and he went to work in the mine, initially as an errand boy in the mining office and then, when he was strong enough, down the mine itself. In later life he said he had earned a dollar for each ton of coal he mined.

It was World War II which rescued him from life as a dirt poor miner, enlisting for military service in the US Army Air Forces in 1943. As part of his service he was an aerial gunner on board a Boeing B-29 Superfortress in the Pacific campaign, flying 25 missions and awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.

When the war ended he was determined not to return to the mines, partly because of increasing claustrophobia, and instead did various odd jobs and joined a theatrical group in Philadelphia, giving him his first taste of acting. He later shared a New York apartment with actor Jack Klugman, best remembered for his TV role as Quincy M.E., when both were trying for a career on the stage.

In 1950 he married his first wife, Harriet Tendler, another would-be actor, and the couple moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in the movies. A number of small movie and TV roles followed, including a Vincent Price's mute henchman Igor in the horror film "House of Wax".

In the mid-1950s, with anti-Communist feeling running high in America, he changed his name from Buchinsky to Bronson, fearing his Russian-sounding name would damage his career. He reportedly took his inspiration from the Bronson Gate at the Paramount Pictures studios. As the '50s progressed Bronson was in regular demand for his craggy good looks and strong physique, finally getting a lead role in TV detective series "Man With a Camera", which ran from 1958 to 1960.

He also had his first lead role in a movie in 1958, starring in Roger Corman's "Machine Gun Kelly", but his real break came in 1960 when he was cast in the John Sturges western "The Magnificent Seven". It was this role which borough international fame for Bronson. Two years later Sturges cast him in "The Great Escape", playing claustrophobic "Tunnel King" Danny Velinski, a role which mirrored his early real life in the coal mines.

A number of key roles followed, including "The Dirty Dozen", with Bronson almost always cast as the implacable 'tough guy', usually of Eastern European origin. Having divorced in 1965, he was married again in '68 to English actress Jill Ireland, who he had met on the set of "The Great Escape" when she was married to another of its stars, David McCallum.

After they married, Ireland often played Bronson's leading lady, the couple staring together in 14 films. They had seven children between them, from their previous marriages and their own. Maintaining a close family life was very important to the Bronsons and the whole family would often pack up and travel to wherever they were filming when not at home on their farm in Vermont.

The peak of his acting career came in the mid-1970s, when Bronson was ranked fourth in Hollywood for his box office drawing power. He also starred in several European-made films, including "Once Upon a Time in the West", whose director Sergio Leone described him as "the greatest actor I ever worked with".

Another of his best-known films, "Death Wish", came in 1974, the 52-year-old Bronson playing architect Paul Kersey, who is transformed into a crime-fighting vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter assaulted. It was part of a long-running collaboration with English director Michael Winner and spawned five sequels, all starring Bronson.

His marriage to Jill Ireland lasted until her death from cancer in 1990. Eight years later he married for a third time to long-time family friend Kim Weeks. By the late 1990s Bronson's health was deteriorating and he retired from acting in 1998 after undergoing a hip replacement operation. Later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and was receiving treatment for pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital when he passed away in 2003 at the age of 81.

For film fans Bronson leaves behind a legacy of great films and his imposing screen presence belied his considerable talents as an actor.

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