Thursday, September 18, 2014

Charles Bronson Thursday

Last week I received a belated birthday present from a dear friend I've known since the 4th grade.  His dad is a big John Wayne fan and that translated to him being able to keep up with my interest in the masculine, loner, doer types of the 60's.  One of his nicknames is Hilts a la The Cooler King aka Steve McQueen while I'm Danny, The Tunnel King aka Charles Bronson from the all-male cast, stick it to The Man, World War II prison camp classic The Great Escape.  The painting by Seattle's Jim Blanchard will be a nice addition to my wall of stuff in the new apartment's Den/Dammage Pit West.  The gift coincided with me reading James Garner's (Charm In Peace) memoirs, The Garner Files where he briefly describes his encounters with the granite faced action star.  This comes on the heels of rereading the musings of other luminaries of the time like director John Sturges, assistant director Robert Relyea and producer Walter Mirisch over the summer.

From the written words of James Garner and Jon Winokur's The Garner Files, 2011:

Garner describes his Great Escape co-star as a pain in the ass with a chip on his shoulder.  The two nearly came to blows over a poker game but years later had a surprisingly pleasant dinner together along with their wives.  Garner wasn't sure if Bronson held a grudge but he sure did.

Assistant Director turned producer turned production executive Robert Relyea wrote of Bronson often in his 2008 book, Not So Quiet on the Set: My Life In Movies During Hollywood's Macho Era, as Relyea worked with Sturges who in turn cast Bronson in Never So Few, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  Relyea was also on the set of Kid Galahad, an Elvis Presley starring vehicle featuring Bronson as his boxing trainer:

Describes Bronson as a physical specimen seemingly burdened by a permanent chip on his shoulder and prone to sulk and suspicion.  Not mean spirited naturally but at some point put up his guard around people and never let it down.  Relyea mentions Bronson never backing down from a challenge, especially when he's the only one who believes he's been challenged.  During Kid, Bronson warned a co-star "I'll punch your fucking lights out if you don't get out of my face" and contested Elvis' karate skills leading Bronson to break his hand trying to split a board after an impromptu karate demonstration by Presley.  The two partied together often in Mexico on Magnificent Seven and Relyea let Bronson use his German hotel room during Escape not knowing it was to meet with the married Jill Ireland who would eventually become Bronson's wife.

Executive producer of Kid Galahad, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape along with titles like West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night and The Pink Panther, Walter Mirisch writes briefly of Bronson in his 2008 memoir I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History:

Noticed Bronson in 1953's House of Wax and made sure to keep and eye on him, claims it was his idea to bring him on to The Magnificent Seven years later.  Mirisch's company also produced the Bronson starring vehicle Mr. Majestyk in 1974 after being unable to secure Steve McQueen.  By that time Bronson had graduated from supporting roles and was a bonafide star in Europe and Asia.  Budgeted at $2 million with $400,000 and 10% of the gross going to its star.  No mentions of Bronson being a pain in the ass or having a chip on his shoulder here though Mirisch does make a fleeting comment about friction between the star and director Richard Fleischer.

A man who can be given much credit for Bronson's rise in Hollywood is Dammaged Goods Hall of Famer John Sturges, director of Bad Day at Black Rock, Escape From Fort Bravo, Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Ice Station Zebra.  Sturges worked with Bronson multiple times when Charlie was up and coming and once when the former coal miner had hit the big time.  From Glenn Lovell's 2008 study Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges:

Bronson's 2nd on screen performance was a 2-day bit part in Sturges' The People Against O'Hara in 1951. For 1960's Seven, Bronson seemed pitch perfect for the habitually mad at the world Bernardo O'Reilly but Sturges wasn't interested in him playing type.  Instead, the character gets the biggest emotional arc as a hired gun adopted by the village children with a tender soul and need for family.  On set, Bronson hung out with co-star Steve McQueen as they went both kept busy looking for chicks.  For 1963's The Great Escape, a co-star describes Bronson as perpetually pissed off, chewing tobacco and shirtless to show off his muscular physique and impress any would be conquests.  His frequent tales of a poor upbringing eating weed soup were cut off by Sturges who told him those days were over and that he was on his way to becoming a star.  That proved true but by 1973's Chino, Sturges' career was on the decline while Bronson had just been deemed the Number-One Star in the world by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  Armed with director and script approval, Bronson would frequently take two and half hour lunches with wine flowing on location.  In full prima donna mode, Bronson would emerge from his RV when he felt like it and hold up production regularly.

What is it about these seemingly insecure, opinionated and cantankerous alpha males like Bronson, McQueen, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas that cemented them into silver screen legends?  While they might have come off as assholes to some, they weren't fucking assholes judging by the fact that Bronson was married to Jill Ireland for decades and brought his 7 children to every movie location to keep the family close.  Once McQueen trusted you, he was your friend and you were not his lackey while Douglas' hard headed attitude and disdain for the status quo helped break the Black List in the 50's.  That charismatic, seemingly selfish yet determined mindset backed by the thought that any of them could deck you if necessary gave us a litany of macho, "get the job done" types that went dormant in the 70's but was resurrected in the 80's with driven descendants Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme who capitalized on their accents, hyper developed bodies and self belief to create their own sub-genre of film.  Like Frank Sinatra, they did it their way.

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