Tender as Nails

updated 09/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 01:00AM

CHARLES BRONSON
1921-2003

Director John Huston once summed him up as "a grenade with the pin pulled," and at times that description fit Charles Bronson in real life as well as onscreen. "I am not a Caspar Milquetoast," he told The Washington Post in 1985, citing the time he was visiting Rome and felt a gun in his side. "A guy in broken English asked me for money. I says, 'You give me money.' He turned around and he walked away."

That tough-guy persona—packaged in a weather-beaten face with slow-burning eyes—served him well in such action classics as The Dirty Dozen and Death Wish. But Bronson, who died at 81 of pneumonia in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, had a different side. He shunned hunting and red meat, adored painting and raised a family of seven with his second wife, Jill Ireland, including their two children together, two from his previous marriage and three from hers. "That's the irony," says longtime friend and publicist Lori Jonas. "He played such a tough guy. Yet he was such a loving father." A good neighbor too. "He was such a quiet, gentle man," says Dick Van Dyke, who received a lemon cake every Christmas from Bronson, who lived nearby in Malibu for 16 years. "We'll miss him."

Born to Lithuanian immigrant parents, Casimir Buchinsky (he would change his name in the 1950s because he didn't want to sound Russian) was one of 15 children of an Ehrenfeld, Pa., coal-mining family. At age 10 he lost his father to black lung disease; four siblings also died when he was still young. The family was so poor that Bronson recalled wearing one of his sister's dresses to school at age 6.

Drafted in 1943, Bronson was often later described as a tail gunner, but in reality he drove a truck with an Army mess squadron in Kingman, Ariz. After the war, he made his way to Philadelphia and studied art on the G.I. Bill. He was working out at a gym when some members of a local acting troupe invited him to work on sets. He caught the acting bug, won some bit parts and moved to New York City, where he shared a $14-a-week room with Jack Klugman. Who was Felix and who was Oscar? "He was Felix," Klugman told PEOPLE in 1998. "He was the best ironer in the world. It was so incongruous to see him, with all those muscles popping out of his shoulder, ironing."

In 1949 he moved to L.A., where a role in a Pasadena Playhouse production led to his film debut, We're in the Navy Now (Bronson said he got the part because he could belch on cue). Years of roles as tough guys followed. "At that time all the leading men were Cary Grant types," he later told Newsweek. Bronson's squinty-eyed manliness offered something different. "I supply a presence," he once said.

He and actress Harriet Tendler wed in 1952 and had two children, Suzanne, now 48, and Tony, 42. But while filming The Great Escape in the 1960s, Bronson befriended his costar David McCallum—and fell in love with McCallum's wife, actress Jill Ireland. The feeling was mutual. "Suddenly, up close, I saw in this man such unbelievable tenderness," Ireland later said. The two divorced their spouses and married in 1968. They made 11 films together and had two daughters, Katrina, 35, and Zuleika, 32. Bronson was also close to his stepchildren Paul 45, Val, 39, and Jason, who died of a drug overdose at 27 in 1989. Jason's death was not to be the family's last tragedy. The following year Ireland lost a six-year fight with breast cancer. Three years later, Bronson told CNN, he still couldn't bear to erase her memory from their 260-acre estate in Vermont. "All her stuff is still there," he said. "Her clothes and makeup—the whole thing."

At the end of his life, though, Bronson had managed to find happiness again. Married in 1998 to actress Kim Weeks, he was still working until 1999, when he made the TV movie Family of Cops III. "He seemed to have come to a very peaceful time in his life," says actress Sally Kellerman, a friend since the 1960s. "There was a lightness in him."

Kyle Smith
Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles

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