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Charles Bronson: True Stories Of The Hollywood Tough Guy

Icons | November 3, 2019

Charles Bronson in 'Once Upon A Time In The West' (1968). Source: IMDB.

So many actors throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s tried to exude a tough guy machismo, but Charles Bronson was the only guy was actually tough. He didn’t just grow up as the son of a coal miner, he was a child who was a coal miner. Bronson only got out of the mines thanks to World War II. 

Bronson became one of Hollywood's go-to tough guys in westerns and action movies, appearing in The Great Escape (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), and Death Wish (1974), among many others. Before hitting the big screen, he was a regular on TV, having appeared in episodes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Have Gun Will Travel. He also starred as Mike Kovac in Man With a Camera, which ran for two seasons (1958-60) on ABC.

Throughout his life, he never had the demeanor of an actor, he didn’t like to talk about himself and when he did talk about his process he seemed to consider it to be much more of a job than anything else. Charles Bronson was an American classic, pensive, private and stoic. He was also one hell of a great actor. 

He Was Very Poor Growing Up

source: wikipedia

Growing up in the coal mining town of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, known as Scooptown, Bronson was the 11th of 15 children living in a company house owned by the Pennsylvania Coal and Coke Company. Money was so tight in the Buchinsky family that he often had to wear hand me downs from his sisters when he went to school. He explained:

This would have been the summer before I started school. I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice. Times were poor. I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids just older than me in the family were girls, sometimes I had to wear my sisters' hand-me-downs. I remember going to school in a dress. And my socks, when I got home sometimes I'd have to take them off and give them to my brother to wear into the mines.

Even though he was working in the mines as a child, he was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. At the time he was reportedly earning one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined. 

He Grew Up In A Mining Town

source: United Artists

Bronson spent his entire young life in “Scooptown,” a mining town that didn’t have anything but the houses where the workers lived and the mines where they worked. In an interview he noted that any time someone made a movie about coal miners they glamorized it, and made the towns look like actual towns, not the horrific places that he felt them to be. He said:

I remember the old company towns. There was no neon, except for the company store. Nothing was green. The water was full of sulphur. There was nothing to put a hose to. There were unpaved streets covered with rock and slag. You had the rock dumps always exploding. They were always on fire, down inside, and if it rained for a long enough time, the water would seep down to the fires and turn to steam and the dump would explode.

Getting Drafted Into The Military Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Him

source: warner bros.

It may sound strange, but Charles Bronson couldn’t wait to be drafted into the military. Not only was America feeling extremely patriotic throughout World War II, but Bronson absolutely hated working in the mines and he wanted to get out any way possible. He told Roger Ebert:

When I worked, the rate was a dollar a ton. You spent one whole day preparing so you could spend the next day getting it out. The miners felt bound together; they knew how much they could get out, how much they could do. And they worked. With the new machines, it's easier. Not more pleasant, but easier. But in those days, that was pure work. It wasn't a man on a dock with a forklift or any of that bullsh*t. It was pure work.

Bronson said that when his draft card was pulled in 1943 he was ecstatic. Not only was he getting out of the mines, but for the first time his life he was going to get three square meals and a place to sleep. He said:

I was well fed, I was well dressed for the first time in my life, and I was able to improve my English. In Ehrenfeld, we were all jammed together. All the fathers were foreign-born. Welsh, Irish, Polish, Sicilian. I was Lithuanian and Russian. We were so jammed together we picked up each other's accents. And we spoke some broken English. When I got into the service, people used to think I was from a foreign country.

While serving in the Air Force he was a part of the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron, and in 1945 as a Boeing B-29 Superfortress aerial gunner with the Guam-based 61st Bombardment Squadron. After flying 25 missions he was awarded a Purple Heart. 

He Got Into Acting After The War

source: ABC

After coming home from the war, Bronson was faced with the stark reality of having to find a job. Would he go back to the coal mine? Or would he search for more lucrative work? Bronson worked as a onion picker in upstate New York, he was a baker in Philadelphia, and he took art classes while trying to act in New York City. According to Bronson, he didn’t see acting as a way to become a star, he just felt that it was a good way to make some money. He explained:

It seemed like an easy way to make money. A friend took me to a play, and I thought I might as well try it myself. I had nothing to lose. I hung around New York and did a little stock-company stuff I wasn't really sure at that time if l even wanted to be an actor. I got no encouragement. I was living in my own mind, generating my own adrenaline. Nobody took any notice of me. I was in plays I don't even remember. Nobody remembers. I was in something by Moliere - I don't even know what it was called.

After doing stage work he found small onscreen roles in films like House of Wax and You're in the Navy Now in the early ‘50s. By 1958 he was the lead in ABC's detective series Man with a Camera, and from there it was off to the races in terms of acting. He continued to act until he physically couldn’t do it anymore, with his final role occurring in 1999. 

Bronson Was Considered To Be One Of The Best Paid Actors Of His Era

source: United Artists

It’s hard to overstate how many films and television shows Charles Bronson appeared in. If the money was right he took the project, and he ended up working internationally quite a bit. By the time he started working on Death Wish he was reportedly among the best paid actors of his generation. In an attempt to get to the bottom of this claim Roger Ebert asked producer Walter Mirisch how much money the guy was actually making. Mirisch said:

Some of the other guys might make more per picture but Charles makes more pictures. And they never lose money. On [Mr. Majestyk] Charlie is making twenty thousand dollars a day for a six-day week, plus ten percent of the net, plus twenty-five hundred a week walking-around money. On his next picture, he'll probably make more.

A Woman Left Him $300k When She Died. They Never Actually Met

source: columbia pictures

It’s not out of the question for celebrities to receive strange gifts from their fans, but a lump sum of cash is rare. When Audrey Knauer passed away in 1997 she left Bronson her entire $300,000 estate in her handwritten will. She reportedly wrote:

Under no circumstances is my mother, Helen, to inherit anything from me – blood, body parts, financial assets, etc. I bequeath to Charles Bronson, the talented character actor, and what he doesn’t want, he can pass thru (sic) to the Louisville Free Public Library.

Knauer’s family argued that she wasn’t in her right mind when she wrote the will, and that Bronson shouldn’t receive any of the superfan’s money. The Louisville Free Public Library hoped that they would receive the windfall from Knauer so they turned down the star’s offer of $10,000 in hopes that they’d just get the whole thing. When Bronson and Knauer’s family settled out of court, the library got bupkes. 

Charles Bronson Didn’t Feel He Had A Process

source: paramount

Thanks to his young life as a child laborer, money and work were the backbone of everything he did - even acting. When it came to getting in front of the camera he didn’t approach it as a way to work out some kind of artistry, he was just trying to do a job. While talking to Roger Ebert about Death Wish he explained what went through his head while he was working:

I never talk about the philosophy of a picture. Winner is an intelligent man, and I like him. But I don't ever talk to him about the philosophy of a picture. It has never come up. And I wouldn't talk about it to you. I don't expound. I don't like to overtalk a thing.

Arthur Ornitz, the cinematographer for Death Wish, noted how professional Bronson was on set, paralleling to someone who’s working in an office

He's remote. He's a professional, he's here all the time, well prepared. But he sits over in a corner and never talks to anybody. Usually I'll kid around with a guy, have a few drinks. I think there's a little timidity there. He's a coal miner.

Tags: Charles Bronson | Rare Facts And Stories About History

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.