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5 Things You Didn't Know About Charles Bronson

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Getty Images

A New York Times profile of Charles Bronson once noted that "Bronson looks like as if at any moment he's about to hit someone." It's tough to think of a better way to summarize Bronson's five-decade film career than that. Since the forthcoming July/August issue of mental_floss contains a picture of Bronson, we thought he would make a good second installment for our new series "Five Things You Didn't Know About" Here's what you might not have known about one of film's most menacing presences:

1. He Changed His Name for Joe McCarthy (Well, Sort Of)

The man we all recognize as Charles Bronson was actually born Charles Buchinsky in the coal-mining town of Ehrnenfield, PA. It would be a gross understatement to say he was from a large family; Bronson was the 11th of 15 children born to a pair of Lithuanian immigrants. The family was so incredibly poor that when Bronson was six years old the only school outfit his mom could muster for him was one of his sister's old dresses. (The ensuing teasing would turn anyone into a world-class tough guy pretty quickly.) By age 16, Bronson was working in the mines himself.

So why did Charles Buchinsky originally become Charles Bronson? He'd broken into the film world as Charles Buchinsky with roles in films like the Gary Cooper vehicle You're in the Navy Now and House of Wax, where he played Vincent Price's deaf-mute henchman Igor. However, when Senator Joe McCarthy cranked up the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, Buchinsky thought he might be wise to settle on a name that sounded less Eastern European and thus less potentially Communist, so Charles Buchinsky became Charles Bronson.

2. He Indirectly Helped Launch Clint Eastwood's Career

Legendary Italian director Sergio Leone was an early fan of Bronson's, and the director relentlessly tried to get the stoic tough guy to appear in his films. When Leone started production on A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in the "Dollars trilogy" and the first to feature the "Man with No Name" character, he tried to get Bronson to take the lead role. Bronson thought the script was terrible and refused. Eventually, Leone offered the role to Clint Eastwood, a decision that worked out fairly well.

Bronson wasn't through turning Leone, down, though. Leone allegedly offered Bronson the role of the sadistic mercenary Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Bronson had to back out due to his commitment to The Dirty Dozen. (Instead, Lee Van Cleef unforgettably played the role.) Eventually, though, the two men worked together when Bronson turned in one of his best performances as a haunted harmonica-playing gunfighter in Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West.

3. He Conquered Europe First

Although Bronson's film career began in 1951, he wouldn't become a huge star in the U.S. for another couple of decades. While Bronson was in several beloved high-profile films during the 1960s, many of them (like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and The Magnificent Seven) employed ensemble casts featuring much bigger names, like Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin.

In Europe, though, Bronson was a gigantic star. His adoring Italian fans called him "Il Brutto," or "The Ugly One," while the French referred to Bronson as the "monstre sacre," or "holy monster." In addition to turning in one of his strongest performances in the Italian film Once Upon a Time in the West, he also starred in the French thriller Rider on the Rain, which tore up European box offices and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Bronson was still making American movies in the interim, including 1972's The Mechanic, a film I highly recommend as possibly the most bizarre American action movie ever made. (To boil it down: Charles Bronson is an existentialist Mob hitman. Yes, really.) He didn't become a huge star in the U.S. until well after his 50th birthday, when he headlined 1974's Death Wish in what would become his trademark role, the architect-turned-vigilante Paul Kersey.

4. He Didn't Really Have a Death Wish

Bronson's physique, terse nature, and choice of roles led people to believe that he was a legitimately tough customer, and the actor did nothing to change their opinions. As the New York Times mentioned in Bronson's 2003 obituary, the actor like to regale journalists with tales of his arrests for assault and battery, the fistfights and brawls he'd gotten into, and his devotion to his knife-throwing hobby.

When journalists dug a little deeper into these claims, though, they found out the tough guy was just spinning yarns. Although he was notoriously reserved and private, the actor was apparently a gentle, devoted family man. Bronson had never been in jail, and he wasn't really into knife throwing. Instead, he had a decidedly less threatening hobby: painting.

Actually, in a roundabout way, painting was what got Bronson into acting. After returning from a stint as a tail gunner in World War II, Bronson bounced around the country working various jobs. While he was working renting chairs on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, he met a group of actors from Philadelphia and coaxed them into letting him help paint their sets. Bronson eventually spent so much time around the theater that he ended up doing a little acting and decided it beat painting.

Of course, his choice of roles, coupled with the march of the Death Wish series from its excellent, provocative first installment through four progressively more ridiculous sequels cemented Bronson's image as an ultraviolent tough guy, leading to parodies like this terrific one from The Simpsons:

5. He Didn't Lack Confidence with the Ladies

When Bronson was playing the claustrophobic "tunnel king" Danny in The Great Escape, he got to work with the Scottish actor David McCallum. After meeting McCallum's wife, actress Jill Ireland, Bronson flatly told his coworker, "I'm going to marry your wife." From anyone else, that would sound like an idle boast, but not from Bronson. McCallum and Ireland soon divorced. Bronson and Ireland married in 1968 and remained hitched until her death in 1990.

See Also: 5 Things You Didn't Know About John Cazale


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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]