By Brian D’Ambrosio
Arguably the most rugged, rough-hewn actor with rural, coal-mining roots has to be Charles Bronson of Scooptown, PA. Bronson´s character was shaped by the deplorable childhood he spent in the town of Ehrenfeld, Cambria County, which was called Scooptown in its mining heyday. The rough road he traveled the first two decades of his life was etched in his unforgettable face—the tough, virile face that millions of fans came to admire and respect.
Immigrant Coal-Mining Childhood
In 1974, at the ripe age of 52, Bronson was the world´s number-one box office attraction when he starred in the hit film Death Wish. But before his rise to stardom in tough action films, Bronson endured a loveless childhood of extreme poverty filled with backbreaking labor. The 11th of 15 children born to an illiterate Russian immigrant coal miner named Bunchinsky, Bronson grew up in a company-built town of about 80 houses, set at the foot of a sootcolored hill pitted with mine tunnels. The tiny cold-water shack that his family of 17 lived in was so small that family members had to sleep in shifts. The coal car tracks that ran out of the mine´s mouth passed just a few yards from the Bronson home.
As a youngster, Bronson said he had to wear the hand-me-down clothing of his older sisters (many of Bronson´s stories have been exposed as exaggerations or deliberate fibs told to secure his status as the meanest, toughest actor on the planet). Young Charles said he often went out to play wearing a dress. When he turned six, he graduated to wearing boy´s clothes, and by the age of 16, he was doing backbreaking men´s work in the coal mines beneath Scooptown. “Do you know what it is like to work in the coal mines?” Bronson once asked an interviewer. “No, you don´t! Very few people know what it´s like. Nobody really knows unless you´re part of it . . . what it is like to live down there underneath the surface of the world, in that total blackness, living on your knees, breathing that dust, and to be unable to shake it off even when you do go home. “It took me years to get it out of my pores,” Bronson said. “Maybe I´ll never get it out of my system! During my years as a miner, I was just a kid, but I was convinced that I was the lowliest of all forms of man. I wasn´t born with a spoon in my mouth. More like a shovel. A number-two shovel that you use in the mines.”
His mother and father, crushed by hard work and poverty, had little time or energy for their 15 children. “There was no love in my home,” he said (though family members and locals said otherwise). “The only physical contact he recalls having with his mother occurred when she put him between her knees to pull lice out of his hair. “I really never knew my father too well, and I´m not even sure if I loved him or hated him,” Bronson confessed once. “All I can remember about him is that when he arrived home from work, my mother would yell to us kids, ´Here comes your father!´ and we´d all run and hide.”
From Coal Mines To Tinseltown
When his father died from black lung disease, the Bronson family was left with debts it couldn´t repay, and 13- year-old Charles was, he said, sold to two Polish farmers who needed a farmhand. “My mother gave me a little of the money and then pocketed the rest,” recalled Bronson. “Her final words were, ´Charles, you are a good son.´ I left between the two farmers, who walked on either side of me like policemen.” After walking for two days,
Bronson said that he and the farmers reached their destination on the shores of the Erie Canal. At the farm, Bronson worked from dawn to dusk, slept on straw in the barn, and was given only a few vegetables to eat for his meals. When he could no longer endure the situation, he claimed he escaped and returned to his mother´s house in Scooptown, where he spent the next five years digging coal in the mines. He might have spent the rest of his life there if the army hadn´t drafted him in 1943.
During his service as a tailgunner aboard a B-29 bomber, Bronson discovered the outside world. When the war ended, he hitchhiked around the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia. In 1948, he joined some actors from a Philadelphia acting group, and his career was born. After moving to California two years later, he landed his first minor role in the 1951 film You´re in the Navy Now. From this, he would go on to appear in more than 90 films.
Although he is most famous as the vigilante star of the five Death Wish movies, which began in 1974, his best work may have been in smaller character roles he portrayed in such films as Breakheart Pass, The Battle of the Bulge, Once upon a Time in the West, The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven. In one of his finest performances in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, he played an expert in tunnel mining who must overcome his intense claustrophobia if his gang´s mass breakout from a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp is to succeed. The tunnel in the film reminded Bronson of the coal mines of his youth. “Everything about those days in the mines came back when I did The Great Escape,” he said. By earning $1 million a picture before it was common, Bronson saw his life change dramatically from his destitute beginnings in Scooptown. Perhaps because his own childhood was so barren, Bronson was a devoted father to his six children, two with his first wife and four that he shared with his second wife, actress Jill Ireland. He provided his family with the kind of home in California that he never had as a young boy, and wherever his film making took him, Ireland, his wife of 32 years, and the children came along.
Charles Bronson died on August 30, 2003, at the age of 81. Throughout his movie career, his rock-hard exterior may have projected a tough, unfeeling, perhaps even dangerous man, and the silence he is known for onscreen only enhanced this image. But underneath it all, Charles Bronson, who began his life in and around the coal mines of Scooptown, was a deeply sensitive and gentle man.
Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson, available November 2011.