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From the Archives: Charles Bronson, 81; International Star Known for His Rugged Presence on Screen

Charles Bronson in 1997.
(CBS)

Charles Bronson, the taciturn actor who became an international action star in Europe in the late 1960s and achieved major box office success in America in the mid-'70s as the vengeance-seeking vigilante in “Death Wish,” has died. He was 81.

Bronson, who reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died Saturday of pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Originally cast in small parts as ethnic heavies in the early 1950s, Bronson emerged a decade later as a strong supporting actor in a trio of hit films with ensemble casts: “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen.”

With his strong, Slavic face and squinty eyes, Bronson lacked traditional movie star good looks. But the muscular actor projected a rugged individualism and a no-nonsense quality on screen that director John Huston once likened “to a hand grenade with the pin pulled.”

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Stardom, however, eluded Bronson until his late 40s, when he went to Europe to co-star as Alain Delon’s tough American soldier-of-fortune partner in the 1968 British-French-produced thriller “Adieu l’Ami” (“Farewell Friend”). The film became a major hit in France.

Bronson followed it up the same year playing a mysterious drifter in the Sergio Leone western “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which turned him into a top star in Europe. A string of other European-made films followed.

The Italians called him “Il Brutto” — the Ugly One. In France, where he had become the No. 1 box office draw, he was known as “Le monstre sacre.” And in Spain, the rough-hewn Bronson was named No. 1 male sex symbol, edging out the charismatic bullfighter El Cordobes.

By 1972, a Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. poll named Bronson the No. 1 box office attraction in the world outside of the United States.

The same year marked the release of “The Valachi Papers,” an Italian-made film in which Bronson played Mafia informer Joseph Valachi. It was the actor’s first major success starring in a movie aimed at American audiences.

But the breakout role that established his box office appeal in the U.S. did not come until “Death Wish” in 1974.

Character Was Popular

In the film — a revenge fantasy deemed morally abhorrent by many — Bronson played a Manhattan consultant whose wife is murdered and whose daughter is brutally raped by a trio of muggers who invade their apartment. Bronson’s mild-mannered character takes the law into his own hands by using himself as bait to lure the criminals and then killing them with a hidden gun.

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Charles Champlin, then the Los Angeles Times movie critic, blasted “Death Wish” for being a “despicable motion picture which seems certain to make a lot of money.”

Indeed, audiences around the country often applauded and cheered whenever Bronson let one of the film’s menacing thugs have it.

Noting that the picture spoke to a national fear of and frustration over street crime, Champlin wrote that the film “is nasty and demagogic stuff, an appeal to brute emotions and against reason.”

Of the negative reviews for “Death Wish,” Bronson responded: “We don’t make movies for critics, since they don’t pay to see them anyhow.”

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“Death Wish” spawned four far-less successful sequels over the next 20 years. But in the wake of starring in one of the biggest-grossing films of 1974, Bronson was firmly established as star in his own country.

In 1974, Michael Winner, the British director of Bronson in “Death Wish,” “The Mechanic” and “The Stone Killer,” offered his view of the middle-aged actor’s on-screen appeal to the New York Times.

“The key to Bronson is the repressed fury, the constant feeling that if you don’t watch the screen every minute, you’ll miss the eruption,” he said. “But coupled with the intense masculine dynamism, there’s also a great tenderness in Bronson. Women respond sexually to that combination of danger and tenderness in him.”

As for Bronson?

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“Don’t ask me to explain a mystique,” he told the New York Times in 1974. “I’m just enjoying all this while it lasts. I’m basically doing the same thing I was doing 20 years ago.”

Among the actor’s later films are “Hard Times,” “Breakout,” “St. Ives,” “From Noon Till Three,” “Death Hunt,” Telefon,” “Love and Bullets” and “Murphy’s Law,” as well as TV movies, including “Raid on Entebbe” and “Act of Vengeance.”

Preferred Strong Heroes

In a 1977 Washington Post interview, Bronson said he liked “to do stories about people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. When you see weakness in a hero -- you are doing something to his identity. You take something away from the kids, the next generation; you steal away giving them anything to look up to.”

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Although his late-blooming stardom allowed him to buy a 33-room mansion in Bel-Air as well as a large farm in Vermont, the onetime Pennsylvania coal miner never lost sight of his roots. His acting idol was Wallace Beery because, Bronson said, “his face showed the hard times.”

Born Charles Buchinsky on Nov. 3, 1921, Bronson was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant coal miner and an American-born Slav mother.

The 11th in a family of 15 children, he grew up in Scooptown, a tough section of the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Ehrenfield. Scooptown was the kind of place where, Bronson once recalled, “you had nothing to lose because you’d already lost it all.”

Bronson was 10 when his father died. The boy joined his brothers in the coal mines at 16, working the night shift while continuing to go to school during the day and earning $1 for every ton of coal he dug. If working on his knees and breathing coal dust in a subterranean world of darkness weren’t enough, he grew even tougher with frequent fist fights. For fun, he’d hop freight trains.

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“I have a temper,” he once admitted. “I am not a Caspar Milquetoast, but most of the time I’m mild. I can afford to be because I don’t have the fears that most men have about masculinity or macho-ness.”

Drafted into the Army in 1943, he drove a mess truck in Arizona before serving as a B-29 tail gunner in the Pacific.

After his discharge, Bronson had no intention of returning to the mines. He moved to Philadelphia, where he enrolled in an art school on the GI Bill and held down a succession of odd jobs. While working out in a gym, he met members of the local Plays and Players theater group, who invited him to work on scenery. He soon found he preferred acting, progressing from walk-ons to speaking parts.

When the theater closed for the summer of 1947, he found work renting deck chairs on the Atlantic City boardwalk before working on an amusement pier, where he met co-worker and aspiring actor Jack Klugman. He and Klugman later shared a room while trying to land acting jobs in New York City.

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In 1949, Bronson moved to Los Angeles, where he enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse, bent on improving his diction.

By then, he told Newsweek in 1972, “I was already identified as a character [actor] by my ridiculous speech.... At that time all the leading men were Cary Grant types .... I didn’t look or sound like the guy who got the girl.”

Film Debut in 1951

Within less than a year at the Playhouse, Bronson made his movie debut: a small role as a sailer who boxes in an inter-ship tournament in Henry Hathaway’s “You’re in the Navy Now,” a 1951 World War II naval comic melodrama starring Gary Cooper.

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From bit parts, he progressed to more substantial roles, including a part in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy “Pat and Mike” and Vincent Price’s mad assistant, Igor, in the 3-D horror film “The House of Wax.”

“Drum Beat,” a 1954 Alan Ladd western in which Bronson was the leader of a renegade group of Indians, marked the first time he was credited as “Charles Bronson”; he is said to have changed his last name because of the unpopularity of Slavic names during the McCarthy era.

In 1957, Bronson, who also worked extensively on television in the ‘50s, began playing leads in a number of B movies. The most successful was Roger Corman’s “Machine Gun Kelly,” a 1958 gangster film that earned Bronson favorable reviews and became a minor sensation in Europe.

The same year, he starred in an ABC-TV dramatic series, “Man With a Camera,” in which he played a former World War II combat photographer working as a freelance photographer. But the series was canceled after 26 episodes.

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A role in director John Sturges’ 1959 war film “Never So Few,” starring Frank Sinatra, led Sturges to cast Bronson in two of his most memorable screen roles: as one of the seven hired guns who defend a Mexican village in “The Magnificent Seven” and as the claustrophobic “Tunnel King” in “The Great Escape.”

But, despite the popularity of both films, neither role proved to be a breakout to stardom for Bronson. In 1963, the same year “The Great Escape” hit theaters, he was back on television, playing a semi-regular role in the ABC western series, “The Travels of Jamie McPheeters.”

Before heading to Europe in 1968, he appeared in “Four for Texas,” “The Battle of the Bulge,” “The Sandpiper” and “This Property Is Condemned.”

Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in 1971.
Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland in 1971.
(AP Photo )

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While shooting “The Great Escape” in what was then West Germany, Bronson became good friends with actor David McCallum and his British-born wife, actress Jill Ireland. When Ireland suffered a miscarriage during shooting, Bronson joined McCallum in visiting her in a hospital in Munich.

“Before we’d met, all he’d been to me was a face on the screen and a rather intimidating one at that,” Ireland later said. “But suddenly, up close, I saw in this man such unbelievable tenderness, such depth of feeling for my plight.”

Ireland divorced McCallum and married Bronson in 1968.

“I had never come across anyone like Charlie before,” Ireland once said. “He was savage and primitive — he said and did things no Englishman would ever do.”

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She appeared in 11 films with her husband, and they remained married until she died from cancer in 1990 at age 54.

Bronson, whose first marriage to Harriet Tendler ended in divorce, married his third wife, actress Kim Weeks, in 1998.

He is survived by his wife, six children and two grandchildren.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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news.obits@latimes.com

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