The eyes could be Oriental. The lips Italian or French. The nose possibly Polish. Put together, a little haphazardly, the disparate features merge into the cruel, arresting face that has made Charles Bronson, at 53, an international leading man who is said to earn more money today than any other actor.
Bronson is now acquiring something else of value that has tantalizingly eluded him: stardom in his own country. The reason is his powerhouse role in the summer shocker, Death Wish—just released and already outgrossing The Godfather in some movie houses.
With his leathery looks and samurai body, Bronson has become a leading sex symbol in Japan and Spain and is a film idol in the rest of Europe, Latin America and Israel. He is so popular in Tokyo that a billboard of his face stretching three stories high and a city block long was erected this year.
The place where Bronson was decidedly not that kind of celebrity was right here at home. American critics generally have panned his slash-bang movies (The Mechanic, The Stone Killer) and while he was well-known for pictures like The Valachi Papers, he was never taken seriously.
Death Wish is his first genuine critical and commercial success here—due to his exciting if one-dimensional performance, a $1 million promotion budget and stormy reviews which have praised the movie as "heart-stopping" and damned it as "fascist."
Bronson plays an upper-middle-class architect who—after the murder of his wife and sexual attack on his daughter by three thugs—becomes a one-man vigilante killer stalking muggers in the streets of New York. So credible is Bronson's anguish—and so fed up are city dwellers with street crime—that audiences break into applause every time he pulls the trigger.
The 11th of 15 children born to an illiterate Russian-immigrant coal miner named Buchinsky in Ehrenfeld, Pa., Bronson savors his success as only those who have experienced rock-bottom poverty can. His family was so poor that he remembers being sent off to school in his sister's hand-me-down dresses. His father died when Bronson was 10, and three years later his desperate mother literally sold him to a farmer in upstate New York. But Bronson ran away and, after working at odd farm jobs, found his way back home to Ehrenfeld. "I can't remember if they were glad to see me," he says. "They just grabbed me and asked if I had any money."
After working five years in the coal mines, Bronson drifted through jobs like picking onions, baking bread, hawking Bingo games—and did two short stretches in jail, one for robbing a country store, the other for assault and battery. Eventually, he wound up in Philadelphia and took up acting with a group called Plays and Players, because it paid twice as much as he was then making. "The first time I read for a part," remembers Bronson, "I pronounced 'heroine,' 'her-oy-an' and the director screamed, 'You'll never, never become an actor.' "
Bronson kept at it. He moved to the West Coast, worked on his speech at the Pasadena Playhouse and slowly began to win parts as a respectable character actor in tough-guy films like The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen. Then in 1968, restless and angry at watching other actors become stars, Bronson began commuting to Europe to make films. His first one in Paris, a gangster movie called Adieu L'Ami with Alain Delon, was an instant hit. He went to Italy, Spain and Arizona for a Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, and then back to France for a suspense melodrama called Rider on the Rain. (It was the only foreign film in which he spoke the native language, phonetically. In all the others his voice was dubbed.) Since 1968, Bronson has turned out 15 shoot-'em-ups, three in the last year.
His popularity reached a peak two years ago when he tied Sean Connery in a 60-country poll for the world's most popular male star. Today, Bronson's price per film has skyrocketed to $1 million, and his picture contracts have fattened to the size of telephone books. For Death Wish he demanded, and was cheerfully granted, such star perks as a five-bedroom suite at New York's Pierre Hotel and two Cadillac limousines at his disposal. His total wealth is a closely guarded secret, but he has made more than $4 million in the last 15 months.
Even now, Bronson has no illusions about what he calls "my ridiculous speech." What has put him on top is a raw screen presence that compensates for his limited acting range. "He conveys a sense of danger," says makeup man Phil Rhodes. "He is like a hand grenade with the pin pulled."
Bronson has a reputation for being a loner, and on the set of Death Wish he isolated himself from the rest of the cast. "I don't have any friends," Bronson says, "and I don't want any. My children are my friends."
Six years ago—after divorcing his wife of 16 years—Bronson married the English actress Jill Ireland. They devote most of their free time to raising their six children—three by her marriage to actor David McCallum, two from his first marriage and their own 3-year-old daughter.
When working, Bronson always takes his family with him. Between pictures, the Bronsons shuttle between a 33-room Bel Air mansion and a 1791 Vermont farmhouse set on 260 acres, where Bronson rides trail bikes with his sons, goes antique hunting with his wife and dabbles at painting.
Bronson is already thinking of retiring. But before he does he would like to break out of the tough-guy stereotype. "Some day," he says, "I would like to have a part where I can lean my elbow against a mantelpiece and have a cocktail."