Thanks to his roles in movies such as The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Death Wish, Charles Bronson earned a reputation as a hard-bitten macho guy on screen. In reality, though, he was a thoughtful and private person, a painter and a family man. But despite Bronson bearing little resemblance to many of the characters that he portrayed, his own life could actually have made a fascinating action drama, too. You see, the star not only overcame a traumatic childhood, but he also fought in World War II – and earned a Purple Heart into the bargain.
Yes, Bronson’s image as a hard man was earned largely through his big-screen performances. He was usually typecast as a vigilante type seeking revenge – owing, perhaps, to his ability to portray cold anger well. And, in fact, a number of his movies were violent enough to cause public stirs. Death Wish in particular was considered to be an outright dangerous film.
At the very least, Death Wish provoked quite the furor. The New York Times’ film reviewer Vincent Canby went so far as to denounce the action flick in two separate articles, branding it “a despicable movie – one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” Even the man who had written the book upon which Death Wish was based, author Brian Garfield, spoke out against the adaptation.
But seeing as how his tough-guy persona was the one audiences wanted to see, the quiet and mild Bronson started trying to play it up in interviews. He told the media, for instance, that he enjoyed knife-throwing and had been in fights; the actor even claimed that he had previously been arrested. When journalists looked into the truth of these assertions, however, they found no evidence to back them up.
And there was at least one hint that Bronson wasn’t as angry a man as he appeared on film. In a 1974 interview with the star, Roger Ebert recalled something that Death Wish director Michael Winner had apparently once said about Bronson. Winner had reportedly remarked, “After we’ve been on a picture a few weeks, the crew starts asking, ‘When does it happen? When does [Bronson] blow up?’ Actually, I’ve never seen him blow up. But he seems to contain such a capacity for it that people tend to brace for it.”
Perhaps, though, Bronson’s brooding on-screen manner was a leftover from his tough childhood. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1921 as the 11th child of a brood of 15 to a Lithuanian family that had once shared the last name Bu?inskis. By the time young Charles arrived, however, this moniker had become the more American-sounding “Buchinsky.”
And Bronson came about his screen name during a time of political upheaval. In the ’50s, you see, actors could be blacklisted if they were thought to have the slightest Communist sympathies, leaving Bronson – then Buchinsky – worried that his foreign-sounding name would make him a target. He therefore reportedly chose his new moniker from a street sign that his friend and fellow star Steve McQueen pointed out.
Yet Bronson later appeared to hark back to his roots in 1986 TV movie Act of Vengeance. And despite the title, here he didn’t portray a violent vigilante; instead, he assumed the role of a union representative for coal miners who goes up against a corrupt chief. What’s more, the film was based on a true story with a real person at its center: Jock Yablonski.
In actuality, Yablonski was murdered after trying to ensure better working conditions for the miners whom he represented. And the role may have been very close to the actor’s heart. You see, Bronson and other members of his family had all suffered extreme hardship when working as miners.
Yes, the Buchinskys were an – incredibly poor – Ehrenfeld mining family. And while the clan first lived in a house owned by Pennsylvania’s Coal and Coke Company, they were ultimately thrown out when the miners stopped working due to a strike. The family therefore had nowhere else to go but to the house of another miner, where at least nine people were already in residence.
“I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice. Times were poor,” Bronson told Ebert in his 1974 interview. “I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids older than me in the family were girls, sometimes I had to wear my sisters’ hand-me-downs. I remember going to school in a dress. And my socks… when I got home, sometimes I’d have to take them off and give them to my brother to wear into the mines.”
But things got even harder as time went on, as when Bronson was just ten years old, his father passed away. Mining had taken its toll on Bronson’s dad by giving him black lung disease, and the young boy heard his parent coughing and wheezing for a period before he passed away.
Black lung disease wasn’t properly understood until the 1950s – much too late, unfortunately, for Bronson’s father. And it wasn’t until 1969 that the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which ensured better working standards and adequate compensation for coal miners.
But despite his knowledge of his father’s plight, a young Bronson – who didn’t even speak English at the time – went on to himself work in the coal mines. Before he even became a teenager, let alone a grown man, then, he was in an incredibly dangerous job. And Bronson had also taken up smoking by that point, he later claimed.
Meanwhile, when speaking to Ebert, Bronson painted a vivid picture of his childhood environs. “I remember the old company towns. There was no neon except for the company store. Nothing was green. The water was full of sulphur. There was nothing to put a hose to. There were unpaved streets covered with rock and slag,” he said.
Living in a coal-mining town was apparently a very dangerous way of life as well. “You had the rock dumps always exploding. They were always on fire down inside. [And] if it rained for a long enough time, the water would seep down to the fires, turn to steam and the dump would explode,” Bronson told Ebert. To add insult to – potentially literal – injury, mining didn’t even pay well.
“It was piecework; you didn’t get paid by the hour, you got paid by the ton. You felt you were the hardest-working people in the world,” Bronson explained to Ebert. “When I worked, the rate was a dollar a ton. You spent one whole day preparing so you could spend the next day getting it out. The miners felt bound together; they knew how much they could get out, how much they could do. And they worked.”
Nevertheless, Bronson apparently distrusted the people behind the scenes of the mining industry. “People are aware of how hard coal mining is,” he told The Washington Post in 1986 while promoting Act of Vengeance. “But they don’t know the manipulation that goes on behind closed doors [and] the ways in which the health, safety and welfare of the miner and his family are affected.”
And perhaps the star’s dislike of the powers that be may have spread to the whole town of Ehrenfeld. In any case, a number of locals appeared to have mixed feelings towards the actor after his death. “Someone asked for permission to have a sign put up at the entrance of [the] town about a year ago, and [the] borough council voted against it,” Albert Keller, council president, told the Associated Press in 2003. “They said [that] Charlie didn’t do a damn thing for this town.”
According to Bronson, though, he had at least done his time down the local mines. In 1972 he told the New York Daily News, “I volunteered every day for taking out the stumps – that pillar of coal standing between the two tunnels already dug out. There was never more than 3 and a half feet to stand, [and] cave-ins were common.”
That particular claim has since been disputed, however. And that appears to not be the only aspect of Bronson’s life that has been spun into a tall tale. At one point, you see, the media reported a story that the actor’s mom had sold him when he was a youngster; in reality, though, she’d just sent him to a farm for the summer.
And Bronson didn’t help matters by implying in the interview that his mother was neglectful. He added to the Daily News, “I worked from dawn til dusk, [and] I realized [the farmers] weren’t going to pay me anything. I never heard from my mother – she never answered my letters, so I just left. There was no way they could keep me there. They didn’t even try. Maybe I scared them.”
In truth, we know very little about Bronson’s family – perhaps in part because they declined to give interviews after Bronson became famous. And because a number of the claims that the actor has made have proved to be contentious, it’s possible we’ll never know the real facts about certain elements of his life story. Nevertheless, certain details concerning the star’s war service are both provable and public.
Yes, Bronson served in World War II. And, in fact, being drafted came as a relief since it gave him an escape from the mines. In 1974 the actor told Roger Ebert, “I was well fed, I was well dressed for the first time in my life, and I was able to improve my English.”
“In Ehrenfeld, we were all jammed together,” Bronson went on. “All the fathers were foreign-born – Welsh, Irish, Polish, Sicilian. I was Lithuanian and Russian. We were so jammed together [that] we picked up each other’s accents. And we spoke some broken English. When I got into the service, people used to think I was from a foreign country.”
The exact details of Bronson’s war record, however, became a matter of some debate after the actor passed away in 2003. The official story was that he joined the Air Force in 1943 and went on to become part of the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron. After that, the future star traveled to Guam to be an aerial gunner with the 61st Bombardment Squadron.
And Brian D’Ambrosio’s 2012 book Menacing Face Worth Millions: A Life of Charles Bronson gives further insight by way of Bronson’s enlistment form. There, it is revealed that he had signed up to the army in the Pensylvania town of Altoona, was white and had no partner or children. In addition, he had attended high school for four years.
But what did the former miner actually do in the army? Well, when The New York Times published an obituary for Bronson in 2003, the newspaper suggested that perhaps either he or his agents had exaggerated matters. “His press releases would say he had been a tail gunner during World War II,” the obit read. “But one reporter found that Bronson was assigned to the 760th Mess Squadron in Kingman, Arizona, and that he drove a delivery truck during the war.”
Yet again, though, those claims were just misinformation. And after people who had served with Bronson during World War II spoke up about his real actions, The New York Times and other newspapers had to issue apologies. D’Ambrosio later collected some information about the actor and the war for his book.
“Notwithstanding Bronson’s propensity of embellishing his machismo for the benefit of publicity and public consumption, the status and extent of his war record bears out the integrity of his comments,” D’Ambrosio wrote. So, the former miner had indeed flown planes in Guam – and he’d even won a Purple Heart for his actions into the bargain.
“[Bronson] flew more than 25 missions and even sustained a small scar from a bullet wound on his shoulder,” D’Ambrosio added. “He did drive the mess supply truck in Arizona – but only while awaiting assignment. [And] he was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds sustained during battle.”
Nevertheless, D’Ambrosio admitted in his book that “records of the [World War II] period are scarce,” continuing, “Aside from superficial details, nearly nothing is known about Bronson’s life during those years.” But the facts did bear some aspects out; Bronson certainly did achieve acts of heroism and earned himself a Purple Heart.
And once the war ended, Bronson knew that he would not return to the mines. Instead, he took a series of different jobs, working as a baker, a bricklayer and an onion-picker among other pursuits. Then ultimately Bronson drifted to Atlantic City, where he met some actors and asked them to hire him as a scenery painter, as he was also good at art.
Yet the actors not only agreed to Bronson’s offer, but they also let him perform alongside them. And after the former miner caught the acting bug, he then embarked on a new career. By 1951 he’d won a role in Gary Cooper’s You’re in the Navy Now, although the actor later claimed he was cast purely because he could burp on cue. The rest, of course, is history.
And in his biography, D’Ambrosio suggests that joining the military changed the star. Indeed, it seems that his experiences during the war helped mold Bronson into the man whom audiences both knew and loved. “Except for the brief summer work stint when he was 13, [the army] was Bronson’s first entry into the world outside Ehrenfeld,” the author wrote.
It turns out, for example, that WWII may have assisted in shaping Bronson from angry youth to mature adult. According to D’Ambrosio, when the young miner first joined the army, his feelings of frustration saw him end up partaking in “fights and anti-social behavior.” Luckily, though, Bronson was ultimately able to settle into military life.
“In the army, [Bronson] met people from different regions, experiences and attitudes, [thus] broadening his experiences,” D’Ambrosio noted. “He saw parts of the world he didn’t even know existed, or he wouldn’t have cared to try pinpointing on a map.” And as a child, the future star may not have had access to that sort of education.
“It was the beginning of an inward journey when [Bronson] began to realize that he was not just a meaningless fragment in an alien universe but connected to places and things greater than his home life,” D’Ambrosio wrote of the former miner’s army career. “He discovered that there was something truly missing from his life: freedom.”
And perhaps Bronson considered the lessons that he had learned in the military before his death in 2003 at the age of 81. He may have even imparted words of wisdom to his family, which was comprised in part of four children, two stepsons and two grandkids at the time of his passing. In any case, it appeared that he had reflected on the impact of his movie roles, as he suggested to The Washington Post in 1977.
Yes, when speaking to the newspaper, Bronson revealed that he wanted to “do stories about people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.” Why? Well, the actor added, “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.” Maybe, then, this is why Bronson cultivated his own reputation as a tough guy.