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Obituary: Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson: The ultimate hard man
Hollywood actor Charles Bronson has died aged 81, leaving a legacy of films including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.

Despite his craggy, unconventional features and sombre manner, Charles Bronson was an international star, perhaps best known for his impregnable vigilante role in the Death Wish film series.

He was born Charles Buchinsky on 3 November 1921, one of 15 children of a Lithuanian coal miner.

He once said of himself, "I guess I look like a rock quarry that someone has dynamited."

Bronson made his mark in The Magnificent Seven
Young Bronson's features were hardened by his work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, and his sport in the boxing ring.

Naturally reticent, he claimed to have spoken no English in his childhood home, and only broadened his horizons when he served as a tail-gunner for the US navy during the war.

On his return, Bronson decided to study art but, after spending time on set design, enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse and transferred his attention to acting.

Although he soon appeared in a catalogue of films, it was not until 1960 that he came to prominence in The Magnificent Seven, alongside Yul Brinner and Steve McQueen.

Angry man: Bronson was one of The Dirty Dozen
He followed this with The Great Escape and The Sandpiper. In 1967, Bronson was one of The Dirty Dozen, before taking his career in his hands and heading across the Atlantic.

Just as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef had come to prominence in the European features of Sergio Leone and his peers, so Bronson enjoyed the same success.

Such films as Guns for San Sebastian and Villa Rides assured Bronson of leading man status. The role of the taciturn gunslinger in Once Upon a Time in the West made him a superstar.

By 1971, he was awarded the accolade of the world's most popular actor, despite a limited range and unemotive style. Red Sun (1971), Someone Behind the Door (1971) and The Valachi Papers (1972) all did well.

Bronson had been married to late wife Jill Ireland
Back in Hollywood, some of his later roles were softened by the presence of his actress wife Jill Ireland, with whom he appeared in more than a dozen films, before her death in 1990.

But it was his very staunchness and unwillingness to compromise that brought him his biggest success. In 1974, producer Michael Winner tapped into the underlying force of Bronson's appeal for the first of his Death Wish series.

Although later waning in quality, the films were an important benchmark for cinema, with their glorification of "justified" violence.

Cold-blooded and without light respite, the series relied on the appeal of Bronson's central vigilante, seeking vengeance for an attack on his family.

As vigilante Paul Kersey in Death Wish
Drawing on a career spent dispensing monumental violence with minimal emotion, Bronson became the archetypal urban warrior, the defender of honour, immune to doubt.

Audiences lapped it up, and Bronson made the poll of top ten box office stars for four years in a row.

During the following decades, his celebrity star faded, as younger actors got more physical and failing health and personal tragedy exacerbated his ready truculence.

But for many, Charles Bronson remains the original action man, an unknowable loner who let his weapons do the talking.