Charles Bronson’s Early Career: Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson, (Biography By Brian D’Ambrosio, Available 2011)
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Circa 1976, Charles Bronson was one of the most popular and most in demand of the current film stars, and also had a unique track record for the diversity of his film roles. His range of characters borders on the awesome. In his last seven assignments he has been seen as an Apache Indian in “Chato’s Land,” a plainclothes cop in “The Stone Killer,” a melon farmer in “Mr. Majestyk,” a professional killer in “The Mechanic,” an architect in “Death Wish,” a helicopter pilot in “Breakout” and a streetfighter in “Hard Times.”
In Alistair MacLean’s “Breakheart Pass”, Bronson had one of his most complex and mysterious screen assignments. He played Deaken, a man with a long criminal record of card cheating, embezzlement, perhaps murder and sabotage. On the other h a n d , he also has a distinguished civil war record and arcane link with the U.S. government Viewers really don’t know what and who he is until the end of the film. “Breakheart Pass” stars Academy Award-winner Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna and Jill Ireland. “Breakheart Pass” was Bronson’s tenth film opposite his actress-wife Jill. Frank Gilroy’s “From Noon Till Three” was to be their llth and they recently appeared in “Breakout” and “Hard Times.” It was also the point in which Bronson’s bankability visibly waned. With “Breakheart Pass,” Bronson chalked up his 56th motion picture. Horatio Alger would have considered Bronson’s life story too incredible for fiction. He was born eleventh of fifteen children (the seventh son) in grinding poverty to parents of Russian-Lithuanian origins in a Pennsylvania coal mine company town. In his own clean clothes instead of the hand-me-downs he claimed to have worn, Bronson stood at the top of the film world. In 1976, he still payed his dues to the Miner’s Union. A former coal miner himself, he was working two shifts a day in the shafts for a pittance. He had plucked a hole in the salary ceiling usually assigned to superstars.
He did not attain this preeminent position overnight. Bronson escaped from the mines when he was drafted into the Army. “It was a revelation to me,” he once said, “for the first time in my life I had my vice.” He drifted around the country working as a construction worker, a short order cook, a truck driver, a baker, even as a bingo hawker on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. A friend took him to see a play in a theatre for the first time in his life. It was “Anna Lucasta” and he found the experience a bore until he learned that the leading actor got $75 a week. He said he remembered thinking “75 bucks a week for two hours’ work a night.” The next day he was auditioning as an actor for a Philadelphia little theater group and he got the part. He has been an actor ever since. At first he worked in stock companies and off-Broadway in New York. Then he decided he needed some professional training and an actor-friend suggested the school at the Pasadena Playhouse. He arrived in Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus and his first work there was a pitchman trying to sell novelties to commuters hurrying to catch their trains at the Pacific Electric Station.
He studied for a year at the Pasadena Playhouse before he won a part in a feature film, edging out 200 other contenders, because, he said, he could burp on cue (a lark). The film was Henry Hathaway’s “You’re In The Navy Now” starring Gary Cooper. Two other players making their screen debuts in the same picture were Lee Marvin and Jack Webb. Charles was billed by his baptismal name, Charles Buchinsky but he was noticed by the critics. (Bosley Crowther wrote in his review in the New York Times, “Charles Buchinsky deserves particular mention.”)
Buchinsky continued to be his billing for his first 11 films. Then, advised by an associate that a Russian-sounding name would not enhance his prospects in Hollywood’s postwar political climate, he took the name of Charles Bronson.
In his review of Delmer Daves’ “Drum Beat” starring Alan Ladd, New York Times critic Abe Weiler noted “As Captain Jack, Charles Bronson (formerly Charles Buchinsky) it probably the most muscular Indian ever to have brandished a rifle before a camera.”
The transformation had begun.
Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson, available November 2011.