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Tributes to star 'scarred by poverty'.

Byline: Martha Linden

British film director Michael Winner yesterday paid tribute to US star Charles Bronson who has died aged 81.

Mr Winner, who directed Bronson in six films, including the first three of the Death Wish series, said he was a 'consummate actor' who had been a delight to work with.

'He was a very, very close friend for more than 30 years and a very under-rated actor,' he said.

He said Bronson had been a 'complex' man who had been scarred by his earlier life as a Pennsylvanian coal miner.

Mr Winner was speaking following the announcement of Bronson's death from pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, with his wife at his bedside. He had been in hospital for weeks.

He drifted into films playing villains and became a hard-faced action star.

At the height of his career, Bronson was hugely popular in Europe -the French knew him as 'le sacre monstre' (the sacred monster), the Italians as 'Il Brutto' (the brute). In 1971, he was presented with a Golden Globe as 'the most popular actor in the world'.

Like Clint Eastwood, whose spaghetti westerns won him stardom, Bronson had to make European films to prove his worth as a star. He left a featured-role career in Hollywood to play leads in films made in France, Italy and Spain. His blunt manner, powerful build and air of danger made him the most popular actor in those countries.

At age 50, he returned to Hollywood a star. In a 1971 interview, he theorised on why the journey had taken him so long.

'Maybe I'm too masculine. Casting directors cast in their own, or an idealised, image. Maybe I don't look like anybody's ideal,' he said. His early life gave no indication of his later fame. He was born Charles Bunchinsky on November 3, 1921 -not 1922, as studio biographies claimed -in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. He was the 11th of 15 children of a coal miner and his wife, both Lithuanian immigrants.

Young Charles learned the art of survival in the tough district of Scooptown, 'where you had nothing to lose because you lost it already'. The Buchinskys lived crowded in a shack, the children wearing hand-me-downs. At the age of six, Charles was embarrassed to attend school in his sister's dress.

Bronson's father died when he was 10, and at 16 Charles followed his brothers into the mines. He was paid a dollar per ton of coal and volunteered for perilous jobs because the pay was better. He spent time in jail for assault and robbery.

He might have stayed in the mines for the rest of his life except for the Second World War.

Drafted in 1943, he served with the US Army Air Corps in the Pacific, reportedly as a tail gunner on a B-29. Having seen the outside world, he vowed not to return to the squalor of Scooptown.

He was attracted to acting not, he claimed, because of any artistic urge -he was impressed by the money movie stars could earn. He joined the Philadelphia Play and Players Troupe, painting scenery and acting a few minor roles.

At the Pasadena Playhouse school, Bronson improved his diction, supporting himself by selling Christmas cards and toys on street corners. Studio scouts saw him at the Playhouse and he was cast in the 1951 service comedy You're In The Navy Now, starring Gary Cooper. In 1954 he changed his last name, fearing communist-wary American audiences would shun his movies because of his Russian-sounding name.

Bronson's first starring role came in 1958 with an eight-day exploitation film, Machine Gun Kelly. His status grew with impressive performances in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Battle Of The Bulge, The Sandpiper and The DirtyDozen. But real stardom eluded him.

Alain Delon, like many French actors, had admired Machine Gun Kelly, and he invited Bronson to co-star with him in a BritishFrench film, Adieu, L'Ami ('Farewell, Friend'). It made Bronson a European favourite.

Among his films abroad was a hit spaghetti western, Once Upon A Time In The West. Finally Hollywood took notice. He starred in films including The Valachi Papers, Chato's Land, Breakout, Telefon, Love and Bullets, Death Hunt, Assassination, and Messenger of Death.

His most controversial film came in 1974 with Death Wish, directed by Mr Winner.

He played an affluent, liberal architect whose life was shattered when young thugs killed his wife and raped his daughter. He vowed to rid the city of such vermin which brought cheers from crime-weary audiences.

In 1987 Bronson defended the Death Wish series saying: 'I think they provide satisfaction for people who are victimised by crime and look in vain for authorities to protect them. But I don't think people try to imitate that kind of thing.'

Bronson is survived by his third wife Kim, six children and two grandchildren.


Charles Bronson in a scene from Death Wish
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 2, 2003
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