These eyes were watching me one afternoon from across the dining room of the Capri Motel in La Junta, Colorado

These eyes were watching me one afternoon from across the dining room of the Capri Motel in La Junta, Colorado

Charles Bronson is said to be the world’s most popular movie star. Not America’s. He will grant you Robert Redford in America. But in the world it is Charles Bronson. There is a sign in Japan, his publicist says, that displays Bronson’s name a block long (one does not ask how high).

Bronson’s eyes are a cat’s eyes, watchful and guarded. They are the eyes of a man of fifty-one who once was a coal-town juvenile delinquent, spoke broken English, and embraced the draft in 1943 as away to escape from the mines. These eyes were watching me one afternoon from across the dining room of the Capri Motel in La Junta, Colorado. They pretended not to, but they did.
Their owner knew that I was in La Junta to interview him. What other mission would have drawn me to the cantaloupe capital of Colorado, where Bronson was shooting “Mr. Majestyk,” a movie about a melon farmer with union troubles? He had no great eagerness to be interviewed. He seemed to be sizing me up, with a sort of survivor’s instinct.

It is conventional to say of movie stars that they are very private people, but Bronson has contructed a privacy so complete that it seems out of keeping with his occupation as a performer. He exudes an aura of privacy; I did not feel like approaching him. He sat at the head of a table with his wife of six years, Jill Ireland, at his left hand. Their children ranged around them: three by Jill’s previous marriage to David McCallum, two from Bronson’s first marriage, and their daughter, a perfect little blonde born in 1971.

Bronson finally sighed and handed his daughter to his wife. He came to be interviewed, after all. He does not mean to be difficult, but it is in his nature. He does not volunteer information, does not elaborate, and has no theories about his films (“I’m only a product like a cake of soap, to be sold as well as possible”).

To make everything harder, Time magazine had printed a hostile review only that week of Bronson’s latest movie, “The Stone Killer.” The writer, Jay Cocks, dismissed it as another “Charles Bronson-Michael Winner picture.” To Bronson, that was a personal attack. “First it was a novel, then it was a screenplay, and there was a cinematographer involved and a lot of other people. That makes it personal, when he picks on just two people, and that gets me mad.” An ominous pause “One way or another,” he said, “sooner or later, l’ll get that man. Not physically, but I’ll get him.”

There is that about Charles Bronson, and it is unsettling. He really does seem to possess the capacity for violence. It is there in his eyes, and in his muscular forearms, and in the way he walks. Other actors can seem violent in their roles; Lee Marvin, certainly, and Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood. But they don’t seem violent in person. Bronson does. Maybe that’s because he has been there, and violence isn’t strange to him: back when he was Charles Buchinsky from the coalfields of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, he did time twice, once for assault and battery and once for robbing a store. There were hard times early on in Ehrenfeld, and in the Air Corps, and working in mob gambling joints in Atlantic City. Director Michael Winner once told me: “After we’ve been on a picture a few weeks, the crew starts coming around and asking, When does it happen? When does he 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.”

The breath of menace blows over as Time is forgotten, and in a moment Bronson is talking about his favorite pastime, which is painting. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I was always drawing things. I’d get butcher paper or grocery bags and draw on them. And at school I was the one who got to draw on the windows with soap. Turkeys for Thanksgiving, that kind of thing. It seemed I just knew how to draw I could draw anything in one continuous line without lifting the crayon from the paper. I had a show of my stuff in Beverly Hills and it sold out in two weeks – and it wasn’t because my name was Charles Bronson, because I signed them Buchinsky.”

He will talk about his painting, but not about his acting. In action pictures like Winner’s, he says there’s not that much time for acting. “I supply a presence. There are never any long dialogue scenes to establish a character. He has to be completely established at the beginning of the movie, and ready to work. Now on this picture, ‘Mr. Majestyk,’ there’s something I haven’t done for a while — acting. It has that, too, besides the action.”

This sounds like modesty, but one senses it is not; it is just Bronson’s description of what he does. He seems to consider himself a professional who can get the job done without investing a lot of ego in it. And apart from his pride of craft, the job is important not because it produces great movies but because it permits him to provide an extraordinarily comfortable life for his family.

He points out that as the eleventh of fifteen children of an illiterate

coal miner who died when Bronson was ten, as a coal miner himself between the ages of sixteen and twenty, and as mailman, baker and onion picker at various other times, he has had great good fortune to arrive at his current condition: He is allegedly the highest-paid movie actor in the world. That is a claim more than one actor is usually making at any given time, and so later I put the question point-blank to producer Walter Mirisch, who was paying him. Is he?

“Some of the other guys might make more per picture,” Mirisch said, “but Charles makes more pictures. And they never lose money.” How much does Charlie make? I asked “On this picture,” Mirisch, sounding like the afternoon market report from Hornblower and Weeks-Hemphill, Noyes, “Charlie is making twenty thousand dollars a day for a six-day week, plus ten percent of the net, plus twenty-five hundred a week walking-around money. On his next picture, he’ll probably make more.”

I saw Bronson again several months later in New York, where he was working once more with Winner (who also directed him in “Chato’s Land,” “The Stone Killer,” and “The Mechanic”). The new movie was “Death Wish,” about a middle-aged New York architect who is repelled by violence until his own daughter is raped and his wife murdered. Then the architect becomes an instrument of vengeance. He goes out into the streets posing as an easy mark, and when muggers attack, he kills them.

“Death Wish” was being shot in New York in late, cold February, and for openers I observed that the character seemed to have the same philosophy that’s been present in all of Bronson’s work with Winner: He is a killer (licensed or not) with great sense of self, pride in his work, and few words.

Bronson had nothing to say about that “I never talk about the philosophy of a picture,” he said. “Winner is an intelligent man, and I like him. But I don’t ever talk to him about the philosophy of a picture. It has never come up. And I wouldn’t talk about it to you. I don’t expound. I don’t like to overtalk a thing.”

We are in the dining room of a Riverside Drive apartment that is supposed to be the architect’s home in the movie. Bronson is drinking one of the two or three dozen cups of coffee he will have during the day and, having rejected philosophy, seems content to remain quiet.

Could it be, I say, that it’s harder to play a role if you talk it out beforehand?

“I’m not talking in terms of playing a role,” Bronson said. “I’m talking in terms of conversation. It has nothing to do with a role at all. It’s just that I don’t like to talk very much.”

He lit a cigarette, kept it in his mouth, exhaled through his nose, and squinted his eyes against the smoke. Another silence fell. All conversation with Bronson has a tendency to stop. His natural state of conversation is silence.


“Because I’m entertained more by my own thoughts than by the thoughts of others. I don’t mind answering questions. But in an exchange of conversation, I wind up being a pair of ears.”

On the set, I learned, he doesn’t pal around. He stays apart. Occasionally he will talk with Winner, or with a friend like his makeup man, Phil Rhodes. Rarely to anyone else. Arthur Ornitz, the cinematographer, says. “He’s remote. He’s a professional, he’s here all the time, well prepared. But he sits over in a corner and never talks to anybody. Usually I’ll kid around with a guy, have a few drinks. I think there’s a little timidity there. He’s a coal miner.”

Later in the day, Bronson is sitting alone again. I don’t know whether to approach him; he seems absorbed by his own thoughts, but after a time he yields. “you can talk to me now. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t want to talk. I’d be somewhere else.”

I was wondering about that.

“I had a very bad experience on the plane in from California yesterday. There was a man on the plane, sitting across from me, and they were showing an old Greer Garson movie. He said, Hey, why aren’t you in that? The picture was made before I even became an actor. I said, Why aren’t you? I think I made him understand how stupid his question was.

“When I’m in public, I even try to hide. I keep as quiet as possible so that I’m not noticed. Not that I hide behind doorways or anything ridiculous like that, but I hide by not making waves. I also try to make myself seem as unapproachable as possible.”

More silence. Phil Rhodes, the make-up man, is leafing through a copy of Cosmopolitan. Suddenly he whoops and holds up a centerfold of Jim Brown.

“Will you look at this,” he says.

“Would you ever do anything like that, Charlie?”

“Are you kidding?” Bronson said. “What a bunch of crap. Look at that. Old Jim. People are so hung up on sex.”

And, inexplicably, that sets Bronson talking “I’ve been trying to make it with girls for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I remember my first time. I was five and a half years old, and she was six. This was in 1928 or 1929. It happened at about the worst time in my life. We had been thrown out of our house . . .”

The house was in Ehrenfeld, known as Scooptown, and it was a company house owned by the Pennsylvania Coal and Coke Company. When the miners went out on strike, they were evicted from their homes, and the Buchinsky family went to live in the basement of a house occupied by another miner and his eight children. “This would have been the summer before I started school,” Bronson says. “I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice. Times were poor. I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids just 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, anyway, this was a Fourth of July picnic, and there was this girl, six years old. I gave her some strawberry pop. I gave her the pop because I didn’t want it; I had taken up chewing tobacco and I liked that better. I didn’t start smoking until I was nine. But I gave her the pop, and then we . . . hell, I never lost my virginity. I never had any virginity.”

He remembers Ehrenfeld well, and has written a screenplay with his wife about life in the mining towns. He worked in the mines from 1939 to 1943, and getting drafted, he says, was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him: “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. All the fathers were foreign-born. Welsh, Irish, Polish, Sicilian. I was Lithuanian and Russian. We were so jammed together 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.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *