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5 Things You Didn't Know About Charles Bronson

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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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5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads

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Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.

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