On this day in 2003, the actor Charles Bronson, best known for his tough-guy roles in such films as The Dirty Dozen and the Death Wish franchise, dies at the age of 81 in Los Angeles.
Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, to Lithuanian immigrants. The 11th of 15 children, he worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines as a teenager and later served in the Army during World War II. After the war, he worked a series of odd jobs and took acting lessons. He had an uncredited part in the 1951 film You’re in the Navy Now, starring Gary Cooper, and a small part (credited as Charles Buchinsky) in 1952’s Pat and Mike, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. In the mid-1950s, he changed his name to Bronson because he believed it wasn’t smart for an actor to have a Russian-sounding last name at a time when there was a strong anti-Communist sentiment in America.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Bronson was cast as a tough character in a slew of TV shows and such films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), a Western directed by John Sturges that co-starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen; The Great Escape (1963), a World War II drama also directed by Sturges and co-starring McQueen; The Dirty Dozen (1967), another World War II-era story featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone that co-starred Henry Fonda.
The craggy-faced Bronson achieved fame in Europe–in Italy he was known as Il Brutto or “The Ugly One”–before he became a full-fledged Hollywood star in the 1970s. In 1974’s action thriller Death Wish, Bronson played the New York City architect Paul Kersey, who becomes a vigilante and goes after street criminals following attacks on his wife and daughter. Although the film was criticized for its graphic violence, it was a box-office success and spawned four sequels from 1982 to 1994. Bronson’s last starring movie role came in 1994’s Death Wish V: The Face of Death.