Charles Dennis Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 to Lithuanian immigrants in the coal region of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.
His father’s last name was Bunchinski, who adjusted his surname to Buchinsky to sound more “American.”
Then his father died when Charles was only ten years old. His family became so poor that, at one time, Charles reportedly had to wear one of his sister’s dresses to school because of his lack of clothing.
Charles was one of fifteen children and spoke Russian and Lithuanian growing up. He did not learn to speak English until he was a teenager, becoming the first member of his family to graduate high school.
Then Charles followed in the footsteps of his father and went to work in the coal mines. He earned one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined.
World War II
In 1943, Charles enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as an aerial gunner in the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron.
In 1945, he became a Boeing B-29 Superfortress crewman with the 39th Bombardment Group based on Guam and earned a Purple Heart for wounds he received during his service.
After the end of World War II, Charles worked at many odd jobs until joining a theatrical group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
While trying to make it as an acter, Charles moved to New York City and shared an apartment with Jack Klugman of Odd Couple and Quincy fame.
Then in 1950, he married Harriet Tendler, an aspiring actress he had met in Philadelphia and moved to Hollywood.
Harriet would later write in her memoir that she “was an 18 year old virgin when she met the 26 year old Charlie Buchinsky at a Philadelphia acting school in 1947. Two years later, with the grudging consent of her father, a successful Jewish dairy farmer, she wed the Catholic Lithuanian and former coal miner; supporting them both while Charlie pursued their acting dream. On their first date, he had four cents in his pocket – and went on as Charles Bronson to become one of the highest paid actors in the country.”
The couple would go on to have two children.
In Hollywood, Charles attended acting classes and took any small role he could find.
In 1951, he appeared as an uncredited sailor in the film “You’re in the Navy Now.”
In 1952, Charles boxed in a ring with Roy Rogers in Rogers’ show Knockout.
He appeared on an episode of The Red Skelton Show as a boxer in a skit with Skelton playing “Cauliflower McPugg”.
Also in 1952, Charles made his first film appearances as Charles Buchinski in “Pat and Mike” where he played Hank Tasling, and the film “My Six Convicts” as Jocko.
In 1953, Charles played the role of Igor, Vincent Price’s mute henchman in the film “House of Wax.”
He also played Private Edwards in the film “Miss Sadie Thompson.”
Then in 1954, Charles made a strong impact in Drum Beat as a murderous Modoc warrior, Captain Jack, who relishes wearing the tunics of soldiers he has killed. Eventually captured, Captain Jack is sent to the gallows.
During the McCarthy hearings and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings, Charles changed his surname from Buchinsky to Bronson at the suggestion of his agent, who feared that an Eastern European surname might damage his career as Buchinsky sounded too Russian.
Charles reportedly took his inspiration from the famous Bronson Gate entrance at Paramount Studios, situated on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Bronson Street.
Charles made several appearances on television in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1958, he was cast in his first lead role in Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly. Charles also scored the lead in his own ABC’s detective series Man with a Camera (from 1958 to 1960), in which he portrayed Mike Kovac, a former combat photographer freelancing in New York City.
In 1960, Charles garnered attention in John Sturges’ film “The Magnificent Seven,” in which he was cast as one of seven gunfighters taking up the cause of the defenseless. Charles Bronson received $50,000 for this role, which made him a favorite actor in the Soviet Union.
Two years later, Sturges cast Charles for another Hollywood production of The Great Escape, as a claustrophobic Polish prisoner of war nicknamed “The Tunnel King” (coincidentally, Bronson was really claustrophobic because of his childhood work in a mine).
Then in 1961, Charles was nominated for an Emmy Award for his supporting role in an episode entitled “Memory in White” of CBS’s General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald W. Reagan.
In 1962, Charles met British actress Jill Ireland when she was married to Scottish actor David McCallum. At the time, Charles reportedly told David, “I’m going to marry your wife.”
Charles Bronson indeed ended up marrying Jill Ireland on October 5, 1968. The couple raised seven children; two by his previous marriage, three by her marriage to David McCallum (one of whom was adopted) and two of their own (another one of whom was adopted).
Jill often played his leading lady, and they ended up starring in fourteen films together.
In 1963, Bronson co-starred in the NBC Western series Empire. In the 1963–64 television season he portrayed Linc, the stubborn wagonmaster in the ABC western series, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. In the 1965–1966 season, he guest-starred in an episode of The Legend of Jesse James. In 1965, Bronson was cast as a demolitions expert in an episode of ABC’s Combat!.
In the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen, Charles Bronson played an Army death row convict conscripted into a suicide mission.
Charles Bronson also made a serious name for himself in European films. In 1968, he starred as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. The director, Sergio Leone, once called him “the greatest actor I ever worked with”, and had wanted to cast Bronson for the lead in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. Bronson turned him down and the role launched Clint Eastwood to film stardom.
In 1970, Bronson starred in the French film Rider on the Rain, which won a Hollywood Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The following year, this overseas fame earned him a special Golden Globe Henrietta Award for “World Film Favorite – Male” together with Sean Connery.
In 1972, Charles began a string of successful action films for United Artists, beginning with Chato’s Land, although he had done several films for UA before this in the 1960s (The Magnificent Seven, etc.).
Then Charles Bronson’s most memorable role came when he was over the age of 50, in the 1974 film Death Wish, the most popular film of his long association with director Michael Winner.
He played Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect. When his wife is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted, Kersey becomes a crime-fighting vigilante by night. This successful movie spawned various sequels over the next two decades, in all of which Bronson appeared. After the highly publicized 1984 case of Bernhard Goetz, Bronson recommended that people not imitate his character.
Charles Bronson reached his pinnacle in box-office drawing power in 1975, when he was ranked 4th, behind only Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and Al Pacino.
In 1981, Charles was considered for the role of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, but director John Carpenter thought he was too tough looking and too old for the part, and decided to cast Kurt Russell instead.
In the years between 1976 and 1994, Charles Bronson commanded high salaries to star in numerous films made by smaller production companies, most notably Cannon Films, for whom some of his last films were made.
On May 18, 1990, after a long battle with breast cancer, his 54 year old wife Jill Ireland died at their home in Malibu, California.
Charles Bronson’s last starring role in a theatrically released film was 1994’s Death Wish V: The Face of Death.
In December 1998, Charles Bronson was married a third time to Kim Weeks, a former employee of Dove Audio who had helped record Ireland in the production of her audiobooks.
Charles Bronson’s own health deteriorated, and he retired from acting after undergoing hip-replacement surgery.
He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his final years.
Charles Bronson died of pneumonia at age 81 on August 30, 2003 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Now WE know em