Charles Bronson is an American original. He is one of the earliest and most popular tough guys. His lengthy career and dozens of film credits make him a critical figure in the development of the action-adventure film. His steely-eyed stare and his signature moustache are themselves cultural icons. Although Bronson's career began on the stage and he once had his own television series, Bronson is probably best known for his role as Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series of films.
Born into grinding poverty as Charles Buchinski, the eleventh of fourteen children, Bronson spent many of his formative years in the coal mining town of Ehrenfield, Pennsylvania. After working to help support his family in the mines and after serving his country as a tail gunner on a B-9 bomber in World War II, Bronson moved to Atlantic City. It was on the Jersey Shore that Bronson developed a taste for acting while he roomed with fellow star-to-be Jack Klugman. Dreams of a career on the stage took Bronson to New York, Philadelphia, and then to Pasadena, where he was spotted in 1950 playing the lead in the play Command Decision.
From early on, Bronson was regularly cast in roles that fit his arduous background. The postwar American penchant for war films and westerns was well suited for an actor with Bronson's history and image. Often times he was cast in the role of a gritty gunslinger or rugged military man. Chief among such roles were his performances in Machine Gun Kelly, The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, and as Natalie Wood's punch-happy boyfriend in This Property is Condemned.
Like many other American cultural phenomena, Bronson's career did not hit the big time until he won over European audiences. Though he had been working steadily stateside, Bronson's film career got its biggest boost in the late 1960s, when he began working in Europe. It was on the continent that his particular brand of American charisma gained its first massive audience. His triumphs in Europe rejuvenated Hollywood's interest in Bronson and movie offers began rolling in. His return to Hollywood was sealed with his role in the thriller Rider on the Rain, which helped him win a Golden Globe award for most popular actor.
Bronson's film career culminated in 1974 with the release of Death Wish, a movie about a mild mannered architect out to avenge the murder of his wife. The movie has been credited with spawning an entire genre of vigilante action films that draw on the frustrations of the white middle class over urban crime and violence. Four sequels would follow, each filmed in the first half of the 1980s when middle class paranoia about drugs and crime was perhaps at an all-time peak. Hollywood has often sought to replicate the sort of success Paramount Pictures had with Death Wish. Dozens of films featuring ordinary-man-turned-vigilante were churned out in the wake of this film. Key among the early entrants into this subgenre was the Walking Tall series of films. Perhaps the last and culminating film among these angry-white-male films was the Michael Douglas flick, Falling Down, which caused a great deal of controversy over its racially charged depiction of whites, blacks, and Asians.
Charles Bronson is one of the few Hollywood actors who can legitimately claim success in five decades. The evolution of his characters in the 1970s mark Bronson as one of the few actors to successfully make the leap from westerns and war movies, into the modern, urban-oriented action-adventure era. Though he is largely considered a tough guy, he has played many other roles. Frequently lost in popular memory was Bronson's television series Man With A Camera, which ran for two years in the late 1950s. Bronson has also starred in several comedies, a musical, and some children's fare. In the 1990s Bronson has returned to the small screen and has had co-starring roles opposite Christopher Reeves, Daniel Baldwin, and Dana Delany in several made-for-TV productions, including Family of Cops.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.