Sturges must have been impressed by McQueen and Bronson, as he asked them to appear in his very next film
It must be said that the charismatic actor truly experienced very hardscrabble beginnings. When noted film critic Roger Ebert visited the wintry New York City set of Death Wish — the film that ultimately made Bronson a star in America — in Jan. 1974, the actor consented to a rare interview.
Extremely private and reserved off camera, Bronson admitted how rough his childhood was. “I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice,” he recalled. “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” [Bronson had 14 siblings].
Once Bronson graduated from high school, he found work as a coal miner. A fear of claustrophobia soon manifested itself, which continued to be a perennial thorn in his side for years to come and was sagaciously captured on film in The Great Escape.
During the heat of World War II in 1943, he was drafted and became a B-29 tail gunner in the Pacific, certainly not helping his claustrophobia. While others might have groaned at the prospect of leaving home and venturing into enemy territory, the star had overall good memories of his years in the service.
In fact, he called it the luckiest stroke of luck that could have befell him, remembering that “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. 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.”
Earning a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle, the tough guy was adrift for several years following the war’s conclusion. Eventually deciding to head to New York City and try his hand at acting, Bronson picked up a variety of odd jobs while trying to make ends meet.
Sharing a tiny, derelict apartment with none other than Jack Klugman, best known as Oscar Madison on the television version of The Odd Couple, Bronson remembered in a 1993 interview with CNN Showbiz Today that one Christmas he and Klugman decided to deliver mail in a Puerto Rican section of town. When they would return to their apartment after an exhausting day, “Klugman would have blisters on his toes. He would take his socks off and put them on the radiator so they could dry. You talk about stink.”
Bronson was always honest and never sugarcoated why he decided to go into acting. In his conversations with Ebert, he unequivocally stated that “it seemed like an easy way to make money. A friend took me to a play, and I thought I might as well try it myself. I had nothing to lose.
“I hung around New York and did a little stock-company stuff. I wasn’t really sure at that time if I even wanted to be an actor. I got no encouragement. I was living in my own mind, generating my own adrenaline. Nobody took any notice of me. I was in plays I don’t even remember.”
His first film arrived in early 1951 with an uncredited bit role in You’re in the Navy Now, a comedy war flick starring Gary Cooper, another actor who relied on silence and a commanding presence instead of endless pages of dialogue.
Tracy and Hepburn’s Pat and Mike and Vincent Price’s House of Wax are the two movies released during Bronson’s formative years that classic movie buffs will likely recall. Incidentally, Bronson first got notice as Price’s deaf mute sidekick in the latter, still a cult classic to this day.
The muscular actor remained a mainstay of television and film throughout the ’50s, particularly in westerns as one of the bad guy’s henchmen. In a 1956 episode of the classic western Gunsmoke entitled “The Killer”, Bronson got much screen time as a weaselly desperado who stooped so low as to murder a cowboy he met on the trail while in the process of shaking his blanket out for bedbugs.
Nineteen fifty-eight found Bronson finally achieving top billing, albeit in several quickie B-movies. Machine Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman, is probably the most notable. He even landed the title role of Man with a Camera, a half-hour drama that ran on ABC for 29 episodes beginning in October of that same year.
In 1959 Bronson teamed up with Steve McQueen for the first time in John Sturges’s war epic Never So Few, starring Frank Sinatra. Loren Janes, one of the greatest movie stuntmen of all time, doubled all three actors.
In an interview with author Marshall Terrill for Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, Janes called the trio “the three devils.” They were always having fun, looking for the next big prank. One memorable incident that nearly cost the stuntman’s life occurred while he was trying to sleep one night in his trailer.
After falling asleep for several hours, Jane
s awoke to the sound of giggling. Turns out, the actors had rigged a dangerous amount of firecrackers and cherry bombs together and were planning on opening Janes’s door and throwing them inside.
Sensing that he might be in some serious trouble, Janes quietly slipped out through a small panel door in the rear. No sooner had he gotten outside that he heard a tremendous boom. His ceiling was torn off, his mattress had gaping holes in it, the trailer caught on fire, and it sounded like World War III had broken out with the loud, machine gun-like noise constantly sounding off.
Their laughter suddenly turned into terror as they realized the stuntmen was inside somewhere. Janes snuck up behind them and watched the awesome sight of Sinatra, McQueen and Bronson scrambling around, shouting his name, and searching in vain. The stuntman finally burst into guffaws, which caused the trio to start chasing him around the set. They all eventually apologized to Janes, and he continued to double McQueen and Bronson for years to come.
Sturges must have been impressed by McQueen and Bronson, as he asked them to appear in his very next film, The Magnificent Seven. The western, a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that soon became a genre classic, starred Yul Brynner of The King and I fame. Rounding out the cast were James Coburn and Robert Vaughan.
Portraying Bernardo O’Reilly, one of the gunfighters accompanying Brynner, Bronson had his fair share of memorable moments in the movie, including unbuttoning his shirt during one of the early scenes where the seven cross a creek leading into Mexico and his ultimate death scene, made all the more poignant by several children he had befriended who mourned his loss.
However, it was McQueen who immediately benefited from the movie, becoming a box office sensation almost overnight due to his constant scene stealing and natural grace in front of the camera.
It would take Bronson nearly another decade before his career took off, albeit in Europe, with Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. The craggy-faced actor would have to wait another six years until Death Wish vaulted him into superstar status with American audiences. He was 52 years old at the time.
Leone considered Bronson for the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, but the former coal miner thought the script was the worst he’d seen in years. Of course, Clint Eastwood took the part and eventually left network television and hot-tempered ramrod Rowdy Yates of Rawhide for good and became a screen icon.
Two”, a critically-acclaimed episode of The Twilight Zone, aired on CBS in Sept. 1961. In it, Bronson was pitted against the beautiful Elizabeth Montgomery as survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Montgomery’s then-husband, Gig Young, acted with Bronson in Kid Galahad one month later.
Among Bronson’s many well-known costars in the ’60s, one who certainly stands out is Elvis Presley. Bronson portrayed Presley’s boxing trainer in Kid Galahad, one of Presley’s better acting vehicles.
The Memphis Mafia was by Presley’s side throughout the shoot, and longtime member and bodyguard Sonny West spoke about Bronson and Presley’s relationship in his finally-setting-the-record-straight memoir, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business.
“Elvis got his nose a little bent out of shape by Bronson,” West revealed. “As he did on all of his pictures, between takes Elvis often demonstrated his karate moves for the cast and crew. While the others at least acted impressed, Bronson never joined in the applause. That rankled Elvis big-time.
“‘That muscle-bound sonofab — ch wouldn’t know something good if it hit him right in the face’”, Elvis angrily remarked to his buddies. Yet West considered Bronson to be a true professional who never bad-mouthed Elvis. “Both of them were able to give the impression that the two had a tremendous chemistry on screen,” West concluded.