A couple weeks ago I was watching an old western movie on television when a young actor caught my eye.
I thought I recognized him, so I fast-forwarded through to the credits, and sure enough, the character -- he appeared to be about 18 -- was listed as Charles Buchinsky.
I remembered the name, and thus confirmed my first impression that the callow young actor was a young Charles Bronson. He’s been gone for several years now, but for movie fans who believed in cowboy justice and a nothing’s-too-cruel-for-the-bad-guys philosophy, no actor stood taller.
Bronson was the ultimate movie tough guy. His characters never achieved the fame of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and he wasn’t nearly so physically imposing as Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, but when it came to doing in the bad guys, nobody was more coldly calculating than Bronson.
Bronson-nee-Buchinsky grew up dirt poor in the coalfields of Pennsylvania before finding his niche in acting. In the 1960s, he perfected his shtick: playing a tough guy who did the right thing in the end, no matter how much grit it took.
He rode to fame in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but it wasn’t until The Dirty Dozen in 1967 that he became the ultimate bad guy turned good. One of 12 military prisoners sent on a suicide mission in return for their freedom, Bronson became a tough man’s tough man.
He wasn’t handsome by any means. With scraggly hair, more than his share of wrinkles and slits for eyes, Bronson won over fans with his sheer determination.
And then in 1974, in Death Wish, he became the embodiment of an attitude that would be voiced later in another flick: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Bronson played Paul Kersey, a liberal New York architect who vowed revenge on street scum after the murder of his wife and the rape of his daughter.
His plan was simple: acquire a high-powered gun, walk the streets until you find hoodlums performing some vile deed, then blast them so far into hell the pieces would never be found.
America loved it.
Despite the exhortations of psychologists who cautioned against a vigilante mentality, nearly everyone could identify with a man who’d been wronged and decided to cast aside the system and its coddling -- real or imagined -- of criminals. Almost all of us could secretly rejoice at Kersey/Bronson’s simple system of dealing with the vermin of the streets. Death Wish was so spectacularly successful and simple that it spawned four sequels, none of them quite as compelling as the original.
Bronson’s steely stare struck fear into the dark hearts of street toughs. His old-style revolver could silence forever the punks who terrorized women and children. His single-mindedness left us all knowing that bullies had better crawl back under their rocks and disappear if they hoped to live.
Bronson didn’t have the consummate acting skills of Gregory Peck, the grace of Katherine Hepburn or the comic brilliance of Bob Hope.
But he had an itchy trigger finger, and for the movie-going public of nearly a half-century ago, that was all he needed.
Western reruns might show him as a tender young cowpoke. But we all know better.