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Curtains down on `Majestyk' actor

A crusader and coal miner-turned-actor Charles Bronson died recently due to a severe attack of pneumonia. RANDOR GUY reminisces...

"Once Upon A Time In The West" ... making an impact.

A STRUGGLING actor, who began doing `also seen' roles and minor uncredited parts, he had a typical Continental name revealing his European origin. (His family had migrated from Lithuania to work in the coalmines of America). He was understandably unhappy that his name Buchinski was not only mispronounced by the Hollywood guys, but was also mis-spelt with an `i' or `y'! Thinking hard to change his name to sound more American, one day while walking down Hollywood he noticed the Paramount Studios gate, which read, `Bronson Gate'! That was it! And lo, Charles Buchinski became Charles Bronson!

In Italy, where he made films they called him `The Ugly Man'! In France he was known as `The Sacred Monument', because he reminded the French of a craggy mountain sculpture like the Mount Rushmore Monument in America.

Sacred because of the `family obligation' roles he played in his famous "Death Wish" movie series and other films in which he destroyed the evil-doers single-handedly for the cruel wrongs done to his wife, and his family. Indeed he became famous as a mini icon of American Cinema for this kind of justifiable revenge roles. A one-man crusade.

As a kid, he hardly spoke English, and after he had managed to go through school the family expected him to follow them into coal mining but his mind was set elsewhere. Drawn on to theatre, he went into theatre production doing small jobs in New York. Bitten by the acting bug, he headed West taking the famous Twentieth Century - Santa Fe Super Chief trains and hit Los Angeles in 1949 when he was 27.

Here, he underwent training in acting and then did bit roles (uncredited) in movies like "The People Against O'Hara" (1951), and "You're in the Navy Now" (1952).

His first role of importance was as the dumb granite-faced `gofer' (a familiar Hollywood expression, one who goes for this and goes for that) of the mentally sick sculptor who covers corpses with hot wax played by the `horror master' Vincent Price in "House of Wax" (1953) (one of the early 3-D movies, it attracted enormous attention because of the new visual format and its special effects).

The Hollywood remake of the celebrated Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's classic, "Seven Samurai" (1954) by John Sturges as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) brought him to the forefront of attention. His performance was so impressive that he scored over established stars like Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Robert Vaughan. More recognition came his way with the hit film, "The Dirty Dozen" (1967).

The Italian master Sergio Leone (1922-1989), the creator of a distinctive genre of the Western, called `spaghetti westerns' cast him in his mammoth movie, "Once Upon A Time In The West'' (1967). Leone created history with his fistful of films, "A Fistful Of Dollars'' (1964)... "For A Few Dollars More '' (1965) and "The Good, The Bad And the Ugly ''. "Once Upon... " had the major Hollywood star Henry Fonda, and yet Bronson created great impact.

Winter of 1971. New York. Musician turned writer Brian Garfield had gone to a party with his actress wife Sharon Willson. When he came out late at night he noticed that the window of his 10-year old convertible had been slashed.

No real damage had been caused but a thought flashed in his mind that if he had seen the culprit he would have killed him even though he never had a gun and was a mild mannered man.

This idea of an ordinary man taking up the cudgels and killing anti-social elements began to grow in Garfield's fertile mind and soon his novel, "Death Wish" came to life. Much to the writer's surprise, the novel proved a best seller and soon Hollywood producers acquired it. The script was first offered to Henry Fonda who rejected it as he found it totally repulsive! So did Gregory Peck! And then came Charles Bronson who was then fifty-two! The rest, as they say, is history...

"Death Wish" (1974) was a smash hit and Bronson became one of the top stars of Hollywood acquiring a cult status as a one-man army on the horizon to wipe out America of thugs, hooligans and muggers. Critics attacked the movie as too violent and reactionary, but ordinary men and women heaped praise on it."Death Wish'' had an impact on Indian filmmakers too, and such type of justifiable revenge based `curry' versions began to be made with some of them making it big at the box-office. As it often happens, the success of "Death Wish" led to four more sequels but those films did not do well like the first film.

Bronson went on to make as many as 90-plus movies in his long career, but advancing age and also his indifference and arrogance towards his fans and fellow-workers led to a decline in its popularity and cult status.

During the making of "The Stone Killer" (1973) on a New York street, an elderly lady noticed the crowds and cops and found out the reason.

Quickly she went home to change and picking up her autograph book and camera she came back and accosted Bronson seated in the chair and took pictures. At once, the `Death Wish' star exploded in rage and violently pushed the lady and snatched her camera. Fuming, he asked the nearby cop to remove the film from the camera and throw it out. Passers-by, curious onlookers and of course the poor lady were shocked by the conduct of the star.

This incident received wide publicity in the Press and Bronson received many brickbats. But he did not care. His conduct was in sharp contrast to other superstars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Wayne and Gregory Peck and such gentlemen actors.

Sadly, during the last few years of his life, Bronson fell a victim to Alzheimer's Disease but he made statements that he was fit as a fiddle! His marriage to actress Jill Ireland (1936-1990) was the happiest period of his life and when she died of cancer he was heartbroken. Bronson (born 1922) died on August 30, 2003 due to a severe attack of pneumonia.

Surprisingly, he once told his Hollywood friends, "I have always played roles with guns and gore, but what I would like to do is a man in a mansion leaning on the mantle piece with a cocktail glass in his hands!"

As it often happens, in life, such a role did not come his way! Obviously, it seems even stars cannot be choosers!

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