Monday, March 3, 2014

Mr. Majestic: Charles Bronson

"He was always in a corner playing with a ball...He wasn't speaking to anyone.  
He was a very mysterious man."
     - Claudia Cardinale on Once Upon a Time in the West
co-star Charles Bronson

By many accounts, Charles Dennis Buchinsky, later known as Charles Bronson, was not a happy man.  Stories abound of his stony and standoffish demeanor that saw him dispute Elvis' karate skills, argue and nearly come to blows with Dirty Dozen co-star and fellow badass Lee Marvin to refusing to shake hands with director Walter Hill after the Hard Times helmer criticized the acting performance of Jill Ireland, Bronson's wife.  Socially, he was said to be fine one on one or in small groups but would go silent in a large one.  When he did talk, one of his most discussed topics was a rough childhood where he was the 11th of 15 children of Lithuanian and Russian parents in coal country Pennsylvania.  Bronson's father died when he was only 10 years old and he soon went to work for the local coal company and eventually into the mines before enlisting in the Air Force where he served as an aerial gunner during World War II. 

After the war, Bronson headed out west where he started acting and by 1960, made a splash in John Sturges' seminal western, The Magnificent Seven.  Standing out among a cast that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn is no small feat but Bronson's portrayal of half Mexican, half Irish gunfighter with a caring paternal side Bernardo O'Reily is one of the millions of highlights the film has to offer.  Throughout the 60's, memorable roles in ensemble pictures like The Great Escape, Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen and Once Upon a Time in the West followed.  Usually as a quiet soldier with a smart mouth.  West helped launch him as a leading man in European films and by the 1970's, Bronson was one of the world's biggest movie stars.  His mysterious integrity and coiled fury transcended languages and cultural barriers.  Bronson churned out films regularly and each made a profit.  By the mid 70's he was being paid $20,000 a day plus spending cash and a slice of the grosses.  1974's vigilante revenge thriller Death Wish was a huge American hit for Bronson and spawned 4 sequels over the ensuing 20 years.  Now married to Jill Ireland, whom he met in 1962 while working on The Great Escape when she was married to co-star David McCallum.  Apparently Bronson told McCallum he was going to marry his wife and 6 years later, Bronson kept his word.  The two co-starred in 14 films before her death in 1990.  Bronson and Ireland headed a family of 7 children and took the brood to whatever location a film dictated.

Bronson worked with a who's who of tough guy movie fare directors like Robert Aldrich, John Sturges, Terence Young, Don Siegel, Michael Winner, Sergio Leone, J. Lee Thompson and Walter Hill.  Some of my favorite performances from The Chuck include his work with Sturges in Seven as well as a claustrophobic POW nicknamed The Tunnel King in The Great EscapeBattle of the Bulge finds him as a bored yet rough and ready soldier with the badass moniker Wolenski .  His turn as a betrayed, blowhard yet dimwitted bandit in Red Sun is tons of fun in the Shanghai Noon vein while this column owes it's name to his portrayal as Vince Majestyk in Mr. Majestyk where Bronson plays a charming and easygoing yet tough and fed up melon farmer fighting gangsters.  Arguably my favorite Bronson flick is Hard Times, a Depression era, New Orleans set street fighting tale from 1975.  In it, ol' Granite face plays Chaney, a mysterious drifter who breezes into town and punches his way through the underground fighting circuit.  Magnificent Seven and Great Escape co-star James Coburn plays his big mouthed, born loser manager Speed with scheming, lovable loser and fox like glee.  In his 50's but still showing off a sinewy and striated physique in shirtless fight scenes, Bronson had an impressive muscular build in an era where not many actors were physically imposing.  He's said to have kept in shape through boxing, push ups, isometrics, weight lifting, jump roping, running, archery, squeezing a tennis ball and climbing a knotted rope using only his upper body.

Off screen, Bronson loved to paint and sold many works under the name Buchinsky.  While he claimed to be more interested in his own thoughts than those of others, didn't like to talk about himself much and purposely tried to make himself unapproachable, Bronson's macho yet cool façade made him one of the great onscreen personalities.  Happy Macho Monday, Charlie.

"This ain't ova!"

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