''Death Wish'' star Charles Bronson dies. The tough-guy character actor, who became one of the most popular stars of the '70s, was 81

By Gary Susman
Updated September 01, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Charles Bronson
Credit: Charles Bronson: Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMA Press/NewsCom

Charles Bronson, the stone-faced former coal miner who played supporting roles in some of the most memorable action movies of the 1960s, then became one of the world’s most popular stars in his violent thrillers of the 1970s, died Saturday at age 81, his publicist announced. Best known for the ”Death Wish” franchise, Bronson had been battling pneumonia for four weeks before he succumbed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Born Charles Buchinsky in the mining town of Ehrenfeld, Pa., Bronson spent his early years excavating coal, before World War II pulled him out of the mines. After his service, he used the GI Bill to study, discovered acting, and was in turn discovered by Hollywood, making his film debut in 1951’s ”You’re in the Navy Now.” In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, he changed his name to the less Russian-sounding Bronson, inspired by the Bronson Avenue gate at the Paramount studio lot. Dozens of bit parts and B-movies followed before stardom finally found him as one of the title gunmen in 1960’s ”The Magnificent Seven.”

Bronson would go on to costar in some of the biggest Westerns and war epics of the decade, including ”The Great Escape” (1963), ”The Sandpiper” (1965), ”Battle of the Bulge” (1965), and ”The Dirty Dozen” (1967). Like fellow macho squinter Clint Eastwood, however, Bronson would have to go to Europe — in particular, to director Sergio Leone — to find success as a leading man abroad before he found it at home. He starred in several more action films in Europe (most notably, Leone’s 1968 classic spaghetti Western ”Once Upon a Time in the West”), and in 1972, he won a Golden Globe as the most popular male star in the world.

He had to wait until he was 52 to become a similarly big star in America, with the 1974 release of ”Death Wish.” In that film, he played architect Paul Kersey, who becomes a bloodthirsty vigilante after a group of thugs kill his wife and rape his daughter. The controversial film was an enormous hit that spawned four perfunctory sequels over the next 20 years and established the Bronson action-hero persona: a grim, methodical dispatcher of bad guys who shoots first and asks questions later. In movies like ”Breakheart Pass” (1976), ”Love and Bullets” (1979), ”The Evil That Men Do” (1984), ”Assassination” (1987), and ”Messenger of Death” (1988), the stories became more violent and the weaponry more elaborate, even as the star became less spry.

Bronson’s second wife, English actress Jill Ireland, costarred in 18 of his movies before her death in 1990. His role as a stern father in Sean Penn’s 1991 directing debut, ”The Indian Runner,” suggested another direction, but the rest of his career was devoted to his usual action fare in films and TV movies. His typecasting was determined by his face, he suggested, in his famous remark: ”I guess I look like a rock quarry that someone has dynamited.”