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Charles Bronson, 81; International Star Known for His Rugged Presence on Screen

September 01, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Charles Bronson, the taciturn actor who became an international action star in Europe in the late 1960s and achieved major box office success in America in the mid-'70s as the vengeance-seeking vigilante in "Death Wish," has died. He was 81.

Bronson, who reportedly suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died Saturday of pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Originally cast in small parts as ethnic heavies in the early 1950s, Bronson emerged a decade later as a strong supporting actor in a trio of hit films with ensemble casts: "The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen."

With his strong, Slavic face and squinty eyes, Bronson lacked traditional movie star good looks. But the muscular actor projected a rugged individualism and a no-nonsense quality on screen that director John Huston once likened "to a hand grenade with the pin pulled."

Stardom, however, eluded Bronson until his late 40s, when he went to Europe to co-star as Alain Delon's tough American soldier-of-fortune partner in the 1968 British-French-produced thriller "Adieu l'Ami" ("Farewell Friend"). The film became a major hit in France.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Bronson obituary -- The obituary for Charles Bronson in Monday's California section misspelled the Italian nickname for Bronson -- "Il Brutto," the Ugly One -- as "Il Bruto." It also said Bronson was known in France as "Le Sacre Monstre" -- the Holy Monster. The correct term is "Le monstre sacre," which means a famous, larger-than-life person whose physical appearance may not meet conventional standards of beauty.

Bronson followed it up the same year playing a mysterious drifter in the Sergio Leone western "Once Upon a Time in the West," which turned him into a top star in Europe. A string of other European-made films followed.

The Italians called him "Il Bruto" -- the Ugly One. In France, where he had become the No. 1 box office draw, he was known as "Le Sacre Monstre"--the Holy Monster. And in Spain, the rough-hewn Bronson was named No. 1 male sex symbol, edging out the charismatic bullfighter El Cordobes.

By 1972, a Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. poll named Bronson the No. 1 box office attraction in the world outside of the United States.

The same year marked the release of "The Valachi Papers," an Italian-made film in which Bronson played Mafia informer Joseph Valachi. It was the actor's first major success starring in a movie aimed at American audiences.

But the breakout role that established his box office appeal in the U.S. did not come until "Death Wish" in 1974.

Character Was Popular

In the film -- a revenge fantasy deemed morally abhorrent by many -- Bronson played a Manhattan consultant whose wife is murdered and whose daughter is brutally raped by a trio of muggers who invade their apartment. Bronson's mild-mannered character takes the law into his own hands by using himself as bait to lure the criminals and then killing them with a hidden gun.

Charles Champlin, then the Los Angeles Times movie critic, blasted "Death Wish" for being a "despicable motion picture which seems certain to make a lot of money."

Indeed, audiences around the country often applauded and cheered whenever Bronson let one of the film's menacing thugs have it.

Noting that the picture spoke to a national fear of and frustration over street crime, Champlin wrote that the film "is nasty and demagogic stuff, an appeal to brute emotions and against reason."

Of the negative reviews for "Death Wish," Bronson responded: "We don't make movies for critics, since they don't pay to see them anyhow."

"Death Wish" spawned four far-less successful sequels over the next 20 years. But in the wake of starring in one of the biggest-grossing films of 1974, Bronson was firmly established as star in his own country.

In 1974, Michael Winner, the British director of Bronson in "Death Wish," "The Mechanic" and "The Stone Killer," offered his view of the middle-aged actor's on-screen appeal to the New York Times.

"The key to Bronson is the repressed fury, the constant feeling that if you don't watch the screen every minute, you'll miss the eruption," he said. "But coupled with the intense masculine dynamism, there's also a great tenderness in Bronson. Women respond sexually to that combination of danger and tenderness in him."

As for Bronson?

"Don't ask me to explain a mystique," he told the New York Times in 1974. "I'm just enjoying all this while it lasts. I'm basically doing the same thing I was doing 20 years ago."

Among the actor's later films are "Hard Times," "Breakout," "St. Ives," "From Noon Till Three," "Death Hunt," Telefon," "Love and Bullets" and "Murphy's Law," as well as TV movies, including "Raid on Entebbe" and "Act of Vengeance."

Preferred Strong Heroes

In a 1977 Washington Post interview, Bronson said he liked "to do stories about people's strengths rather than their weaknesses. When you see weakness in a hero -- you are doing something to his identity. You take something away from the kids, the next generation; you steal away giving them anything to look up to."

Although his late-blooming stardom allowed him to buy a 33-room mansion in Bel-Air as well as a large farm in Vermont, the onetime Pennsylvania coal miner never lost sight of his roots. His acting idol was Wallace Beery because, Bronson said, "his face showed the hard times."

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