Charles Bronson was an American war hero who became one of Hollywood’s top actors for five decades. Famous for his “tough guy” image, he often played a gunfighter or vigilante in film franchises such as the Death Wish series, in which he played a revenge-seeking ex-architect.
In later life, his family revealed the star had Alzheimer’s. In the UK, the condition affects around 850,000 people and has become the most common type of dementia. The neurological disease impacts on brain functions, including the memory.
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, but factors such as a family history of the condition, a previous severe head injury, or increasing age, may be contributory factors. Bronson’s family went public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2001, when the star was 80 years old.
Bronson had faced a number of struggles in his life – not least of which was growing up in the impoverished coal mining region of the Allegheny Mountains, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Born in November 1921, he was the 11th of 15 children born to Valteris and Mary Bučinskis, who were of Lithuanian descent.
The youngster spoke Lithuanian and Russian as a child, learning to speak English as he grew older. In an interview in 1974, Bronson recalled living in the basement of a house in Ehrenfeld, known as Scooptown, with another mining family and their eight children.
Bronson’s father shaved the children’s heads to avoid an outbreak of lice and they wore hand-me-downs. The young Charles even had to wear his older sisters’ clothing at times, because there was no money for new clothes.
His father, a coal miner, couldn’t read or write. He died when Bronson was 10 and the youngster had to begin working in the mines to help support his family, both in the office and also in the mine, earning a dollar per ton of coal that he mined.
He still managed to attend school, where he had a talent for art. Despite his family’s hardships and having to work as a child, he graduated from South Fork High School in 1939, at the age of 18, making him the first member of his family to do so. This was a major achievement, particularly since English wasn’t his first language.
During the second world war, Bronson enlisted in the United States Army Air Force, serving with the 760th Flexible Gunnery Training Squadron in Arizona. Initially, he served as a driver, before being deployed to the Pacific as a tail-gunner on a B-29 bomber.
He became a Superfortress crewman in 1945. The B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine heavy bomber designed by Boeing in 1942, which was used primarily by the US military during the second world war.
Bronson later described joining up as the “luckiest thing” that had ever happened to him, because for the first time in his life, he was well-fed and had proper clothing.
He flew on 25 combat missions against the Japanese home islands, but was then wounded in battle. He received an honourable discharge in 1946 and subsequently was awarded a Purple Heart military award.
On leaving the military services, Bronson was able to study art, thanks to the GI Bill which enabled ex-military personnel to receive tuition and fees. He joined the Plays and Players amateur theatre group to paint the scenery, but he was more drawn to acting, so he enrolled at The Pasadena Playhouse (California’s official state theatre) to learn his craft.
His first film role was in the 1951 Gary Cooper comedy, You’re in the Navy Now, in which he played a brawling sailor.
In 1954, he changed his surname to Bronson on the advice of his agent, as it was an era of US Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Reds under the bed” scare against Communism. It was felt the star needed a more American-sounding name, as his real name may jeopardise his career.
Bronson starred in the Korean War drama, Target Zero, and the Glenn Ford Western, Jubal.
During the 1960s, he progressed to the role of leading man and starred in many notable films, including the iconic movies The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and the Dirty Dozen.
His career went from strength to strength during the 1970s and he was a major star across Europe, as well as in the US. He became known for his high-action films, such as The Mechanic and Breakout, but it was playing an architect-turned-vigilante in the Death Wish franchise that became his most famous and iconic role.
Directed by Michael Winner, Death Wish introduced the character of Paul Kersey, a family man in New York whose life is turned upside-down after his wife is murdered and his daughter assaulted. He turns vigilante and hunts down the perpetrators, making him a hero with cinema audiences.
The original movie spawned four sequels over the next two decades, all starring Bronson, the final one being Death Wish V: The Face of Death in 1994.
Bronson retained his reputation as an action hero throughout his career, even when he was in his late 60s and early 70s. He remained a major box office pull throughout the 1980s, right up until his final film, Family of Cops 3: Under Suspicion, in 1999.
In his last film, made when he was 78, he played police chief Paul Fein, who dealt with capturing the criminals, as well as with his own family problems. Throughout his career, Bronson attributed his popularity to the fact that “audiences like to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.”
His own life hadn’t been easy in later years, as he had nursed his beloved wife of 22 years, Jill Ireland, following a terminal cancer diagnosis, which claimed her life in 1990. Her death deeply affected him, and he turned to making movies again in the aftermath.
Bronson’s own health issues began to emerge soon after his film career ended. His family revealed his condition in 2001, when close friends said he remained composed as he fought against the Alzheimer’s that had slowed him down significantly.
He dealt with the condition in a “quiet but dignified” way, according to his loved ones. After his diagnosis was made public, Bronson’s sister, Catherine Pidgeon, gave an interview, in which she said his family had known there was something wrong for around 12 months, because Bronson “hadn’t been himself.”
She said he had begun to speak very slowly, and his words were sometimes slurred. However, even in the later stages of the disease, he recognised his family and they were able to spend Christmas together, but his demeanour had changed from being “energetic and quick-witted” to appearing sometimes “dazed”, according to a close friend.
His wife Kim, who married Bronson in 1998, was devoted to the star in his final years and continually sat at his bedside, until his death from pneumonia on 30th August 2003. The actor has left a wonderful legacy of 50 years of action movies that have inspired generations of modern stars and a whole genre of films.
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