LOS ANGELES — Charles Bronson, the Pennsylvania coal miner who drifted into films as a villain and became a hard-faced action star, notably in the popular "Death Wish" vengeance movies, has died. He was 81.
Bronson died Saturday of pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife at his bedside, publicist Lori Jonas said. He had been in the hospital for weeks, Jonas said.
During the height of his career, Bronson was hugely popular in Europe; the French knew him as "le sacre monstre" (the sacred monster), the Italians as "Il Brutto" (the brute). In 1971, he was presented a Golden Globe as "the most popular actor in the world."
Like Clint Eastwood, whose spaghetti westerns won him stardom, Bronson had to make European films to prove his worth as a star. He left a featured-role career in Hollywood to play leads in films made in France, Italy and Spain. His blunt manner, powerful build and air of danger made him the most popular actor in those countries.
At age 50, he returned to Hollywood a star.
In a 1971 interview, he theorized on why the journey had taken him so long:
"Maybe I'm too masculine. Casting directors cast in their own, or an idealized image. Maybe I don't look like anybody's ideal."
His early life gave no indication of his later fame. He was born Charles Bunchinsky on Nov. 3, 1921 (not 1922, as studio biographies claimed), in Ehrenfeld, Pa. He was the 11th of 15 children of a coal miner and his wife, both Lithuanian immigrants.
Young Charles learned the art of survival in the tough district of Scooptown, "where you had nothing to lose because you lost it already." The Bunchinskys lived crowded in a shack, the children wearing hand-me-downs from older siblings. At the age of 6, Charles was embarrassed to attend school in his sister's dress.
Charles at 16 followed his brothers into the mines (the elder Bunchinsky died when the boy was 10). He was paid $1 per ton of coal and volunteered for perilous jobs because the pay was better. Like other toughs in Scooptown, he raised some hell and landed in jail for assault and robbery.
He might have stayed in the mines for the rest of his life except for World War II.