At the height of a long career, Charles Bronson (1921-2003) embodied the palpable grit and realism that characterized the film industry in the 1970s. Bronson’s unconventional looks and stoic demeanor made him a perfect foil for street crooks in the Death Wish series and as a stern American export in foreign film territories, where Bronson’s popularity soared. Take a look at some facts about the man to ponder the next time he’s glaring at you from your television screen.

1. HE STARTED SMOKING AT AGE 9.

Born Charles Buchinsky in 1921, Bronson was an addition to a large family: He was number 11 out of 15 kids. The brood struggled to make ends meet, with poverty so pervasive that Bronson sometimes had to wear his sister’s dresses to school, had his head shaved to stave off lice, and felt obligated to begin working in the nearby coal mines at the age of 10. That early stress might be why Bronson took up smoking at 9 years old. (He had, he said, been fond of chewing tobacco before then.)

2. HE EARNED HIS FIRST ACTING ROLE BY BURPING.

Bronson had always been interested in the arts. After serving in the Army during World War II, he found himself in Atlantic City doing odd jobs. One acting troupe invited him to paint scenery for them; Bronson found he enjoyed performing more. His first film role, in 1951’s You’re in the Navy Now, was landed, he said, because he was the only actor who could burp on demand.

3. COMMUNISM (AND STEVE MCQUEEN) FORCED A NAME CHANGE.

When Bronson (né Buchinsky) was starting out, Senator Joseph McCarthy was preoccupied with rooting out Communists in Hollywood. Fearing his Lithuanian name would provide ammunition for accusations, he took on the name Bronson after driving with friend Steve McQueen, who pointed to a “Bronson” street sign and shouted to him that it would be perfect.

4. HE WAS ROOMMATES WITH JACK KLUGMAN.

Before Jack Klugman became famous for being the disheveled Oscar in the television adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, he was playing opposite a prototype Felix in real life: Bronson. The two shared an apartment in New York in the late 1940s. Klugman once recalled that Bronson was neat and a “damn good ironer.”

5. HE WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE FOR DEATH WISH.

After studios began circling an adaptation of author Brian Garfield’s novel Death Wish in 1972, director Michael Winner started his search for the actor who could convincingly portray Paul Kersey, a pacifist-turned-vigilante who begins gunning down criminals after a violent assault against his wife. Henry Fonda was approached but found the subject matter “repulsive.” When Winner solicited Bronson, the actor told him, “I’d like to do it.”

“The movie?” Winner said.

“No, shoot muggers,” Bronson answered.

Released in 1974, Death Wish was a smash hit, grossing an impressive $22 million. At one New York theater, it took in over $70,000 in a single week, outperforming The Godfather at the same venue.

6. HE WAS AFRAID OF FIRE. AND GERMS.

While shooting Death Wish in New York in early 1974, Bronson insisted that he and his family be put up in a suite on the second floor. He refused to be booked in a room any higher up, fearing he wouldn’t be able to get out in case of a fire. Bronson also avoided fans that swarmed his car during shooting, declining autograph requests or any hand-shaking for fear he’d be exposed to germs.

7. HE WASN’T A BIG TALKER.

Bronson’s monosyllabic screen presence wasn’t much of a stretch. As journalists found out, the actor preferred to say as little as possible. When Roger Ebert was dispatched to interview Bronson in 1974, he found a man who would rather be anywhere else. “I don't ever talk … about the philosophy of a picture,” he said. “It has never come up. And I wouldn't talk about it to you. I don't expound. I don't like to overtalk a thing … Because I'm entertained more by my own thoughts than by the thoughts of others."

8. HE WAS HUGE IN ITALY.

While Bronson was a bona fide movie star in the States for a portion of his career, he was a megastar in other countries. Italian moviegoers called him “Il Brutto” (The Ugly One) and in France he was one of cinema's “monstres sacrés” His movies would often earn more in other territories than they would in North America. In Japan, a publicist once said, his name appeared on a sign over a block long.

9. LANCE HENRIKSEN PLAYED HIM IN A TV MOVIE.

After Bronson’s wife, actress Jill Ireland, died in 1990, a film based on her memoirs was produced. Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story starred Jill Clayburgh as Ireland and Lance Henriksen (Aliens) as Bronson. The NBC project upset the actor, who threatened legal action to prevent it from being made. “While Henriksen doesn’t resemble Bronson at all,” wrote Entertainment Weekly, “he nonetheless summons up Bronson’s tough-guy inscrutability.”

Additional Sources:
Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films, by Paul Talbot
Bronson’s Loose Again: On the Set With Charles Bronson
, by Paul Talbot