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Bronson Gets A Shot At A Role To Die For

February 13, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Television may not have perfect pitch, but thanks to its unquenchable thirst for material, it has total recall. If you wait in place long enough, almost anything you've ever seen anywhere will pass in front of you again.

The other weekend I watched, for still another time, Rene Clement's sophisticated and suspenseful thriller from 1970, "Rider on the Rain," with Marlene Jobert and Charles Bronson--Bronson as a mysterious watcher, who may be good or may be evil but who turns out, for once, to be gruffly good.

It struck me, as it has before, that although he is most often cast in films of violent action, in which the action yells louder than the words, Bronson is an actor of more subtle and sympathetic gifts when he is given a chance to show them.

On a recent morning, I watched some of the earlier stretches of the original "Death Wish," a film I thoroughly disliked for its social gospel of a man's right to take the law into his own hands--shooting first, not asking questions later.

Catching up with it again at the point in the story I did, I was reminded that the script took pains to establish the good, quiet man the Bronson character was before his wife and daughter were brutalized, and before the seeming impotence of the law got to him.

It didn't make the rest of the film more palatable, and the sequels have gotten ever more violent, over Bronson's protests. But there had been a glimpse, at least, of the character, not as remorseless vigilante but as a decent, unviolent man, pushed beyond his limits.

(Under his multipicture contract with Cannon Films, Bronson says, there could even be a "Death Wish V," and not much he can do about it.)

Next month, in an HBO film/docudrama called "Act of Vengeance," Bronson will play the murdered mine union official Joseph Yablonski, in a role that takes him back to his own early days in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town when he as a teen-ager went to work in the mines, like his father and his brothers.

He thinks too much has been made of that part of his life, and he talks about it reluctantly. But it is true that he was one of nine boys and six girls in a Lithuanian family. Seven of the boys worked in the mines. He has two surviving brothers and five sisters.

His memories of the 70-year-old mine are of the contortionist digging in small spaces, the wet, the blasting, the rats, the ominous creakings and splinterings in the silence. "It was soft coal, but it would bend your pick," Bronson said at lunch a few weeks ago.

He joined the Air Force and became a B-29 tail gunner, a cramped job for which the mine was good training. There were rats in the planes, too, scurrying around the insulation, Bronson remembers.

After the war he borrowed $10 from a brother and took $10 of his own and headed to Philadelphia, intending to be an artist--not an actor.

He found a $5-a-week room in South Philadelphia and landed the first of a series of jobs (apprentice bricklayer, bakery worker) while studying nights at art school and exercising on weekends at a police gym to hang on to his miner's muscles. At the gym, he met an actor who encouraged him to try acting.

"I didn't appear to myself as a romantic lead," Bronson says. He helped with the sets and did small roles. "I figured I would be a character actor. I didn't have a great ear, so I studied phonetics." He spent a year with an acting group called Plays and Players and realized he was hooked. Then, because the Pasadena Playhouse had a strong national reputation, Bronson came West.

Minor roles in films and television came quickly and he piled up credits in the early '50s as Charles Buchinski ("Pat and Mike," "House of Wax"). He became Bronson in 1954 and did "Machine Gun Kelly," "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape," along with innumerable other roles, often as a bad guy.

But, like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, he had to go to Europe to make it really big. He turned down two Sergio Leone films but finally accepted "Once Upon a Time in the West" in 1968, which became an international hit. The Italians called Bronson "Il Brutto."

In Europe he made not only "Rider on the Rain" but a film called "Goodbye Friends," with Alain Delon, never released in the United States, he says, plus "Cold Sweat" with James Mason, Liv Ullmann and Jill Ireland (now Mrs. Bronson) and "Red Sun" with Delon and Ursula Andress.

He and his wife, Jill, have six children and live principally on a farm in Vermont. She is a recovered cancer patient and has written an encouraging book about her experience. She has lately co-produced with Pancho Kohner "Murphy's Law," which stars Bronson and has just completed photography.

"Death Wish," which came out in 1974, was fateful careerwise for him, although Bronson has done many other films, including the atmospheric fight film "Hard Times," a stylish private-eye caper called "Mr. Ives" from a novel by Oliver Bleeck/Ross Thomas and "Mr. Majestyk," about a melon-grower imperiled and fighting back, from the book by Elmore Leonard.

"Every script that comes my way is violent," Bronson says, sadly. "I don't know what you do, except go for the ones that have something to say, like the Yablonski. I get murdered in that one," he says with some satisfaction, as if it revealed another side of his talent.

A London newspaper recently ran a banner headline over a feature about him, saying "Charles Bronson Is a Pussycat," a quote from Jill.

"That's not true," Bronson says, with an innocent smile. "But I'm with the gentle people, that's true. I don't know who the hell cares, but it's true."

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