The face is deeply lined, the hair is graying and the magnificent physique shows signs of paunch. Yet Charles Bronson, at 54, remains one of the world's superheroes, his career - and his confidence - unshaken despite the barrages fired at him by film critics, Hollywood liberals and even the Soviet newspaper Izvestia.
In a time when most movies are celebrating human frailty and fear, Charles Bronson triumphs by being confident, manly and heroic. Uncomfortable among the last in the line of distinctly American heroes that stretches from the days of Tom Mix to the twilight of John Wayne. In the downbeat '70s, Bronson is a reminder of a more vigorous, albeit violent, screen era.
"I like to do stories about people's strengths rather than their weaknesses," Bronson explains, puffing on a cigarette on the set of his latest movie "Telefon." "Weakness," he continued, is becoming an end these days. Look at that dude Gary Gilmore. They should have shot that punk as soon as he said shoot me." Then Bronson disappeared into the lights, cranes and confusion of a motel room scene with Lee Remick, his co - star.
Bronson's American ascendancy began in 1972 when he signed on for three years with producer Dino De Laurentiis. With three back - to - back hits which togehter grossed over $150 million - "The Valachi Papers," "The Stone Killers" and "Death Wish" - Bronson firmly established his American as well as international star status.
He's still working for De Laurentiis - their present film, "The White Buffalo," pits Bronson against a marauding albino buffalo - and his memorable face continues to be widely recognized, as it was last week, during his visits to such European movie - world extravaganzas as the Cannes Film Festival.
Today Bronson pulls down $1.5 million a picture up front as well as 15 per cent of the international gross. And since he works more than any star in his financial class - a class which includes Paul Newman and Marlon Brando - it is generally accepted in Hollywood that Bronson makes more money than any actor in town.
When the scene with Remick was over he returned to his chair, stonefaced as ever, and resumed his thoughts. "When you see weakness is a hero - you are doing something to his identity. You take something away from the kids, the next generation, you steal away giving them anything to look up to," he said. Bronson, the father of six children, blames the diminution of the heroic motif on what he calls the fashionable artistic crowd dominating the film scene.
The epitome of the establishment, he believes, is Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Bergman recently sought to sign the muscular American star, but Bronson was not impressed. "Everything is weakness and sickness to Bergman," Bronson said. "Everybody has some mental problem and all they can think about is suicide.
"Who'd pay for that boring stuff? I think it's too mental, damn dull entertainment. I tell you this," he added, flashing a slight smile, "if I was in the house with those people in the Bergman flicks, I'd walk right out. Much less pay $5 to see them."
Bronson's opinion of most of Hollywood's younger stars is quickly stated: They are "full of bull. They decorate themselves with affairs and politics. It's all bull."
He assaults the anti - heroic acting style of many of today's young male stars - his competition - and singles out the influential Lee Strasberg "method" school seeding the screen with weak amorphous stars. "They're all too busy trying to stretch something out of nothing," Bronson says. "I can play the character better because of the roundness of my experience - because of the things I've been through. All those method guys - like that De Niro. Stallone and what's his name, Pacino - they're all the same."
Behind the bluster however, Bronson seems to harbor layers of hurt and resentment - a feeling that his talent is going unnotice while others are being praised. Confident of his own abilities, he resents the assessment usually given him by critics.
He accuses the critics of stereotyping him as a bulky brutish man capable only of gymnastics and gore. "There are a lot of guys who think I'm too much in the physical area," he said, slipping a white shirt over his powerful shoulders. "If a man is graceful on the screen, they don't give him any marks for it.
"When you act your whole body is the instrument," he explained defensively. "Those critics can't relate to this. It's a lot more difficult to act with blood on you face rather than sipping cocktails on a couch. And which one do you think the public's going to pay to see?"
At lunch, Bronson continued his broadside of the press. Interviewers, he claimed, stressing his manly figure and Ghengis Khan features, unfairly paint him as a violent, almost subhuman character. "By the time they're done," he said, "I feel like I'm seeing myself through one of those mirrors at a carnival - long, grotesque images."
Bronson justifies his self confidence by pointing to the enormous commercial success of his pictures and his own worldwide popularity. Although he made his first appearance back in 1951 in the long forgotten Gary Cooper movie "You're in the Army Now," Bronson has only really emerged as a star in the 1970s.
His first big break came in Europe after his 1969 Italian movie "Once Upon a Time Again in the West," broke local attendance records and remained first - run in Berlin for five years. In 1971, when he was still far from the superstar in his home country, six Bronson movies were running along Paris' Champs Elysee. Even today Bronson estimates that 80 per cent of his audience is from overseas.
Despite his heavy workload Bronson manages a settled personal life with Jill Ireland, the British - born actress he married in 1969. Both are on their second spouses and all but one of their six children are products of their previous marriages. When in Los Angeles, the Bronsons live in a 40 room Mediterranean style villa high in the hills of Bel Air. When he can wrangle the time, Bronson takes his family to their 500 - acre farm in the green woods of Vermont.
All this is a long way from the Pennsylvania coal mining towns where Bronson, then known as Charles Buckinski, was brought up. Despite his immense success, Bronson still emphasizes instinctly with what he sees as the views of working - class America. Politically conservative, he bubbles with resentment toward those he classes as eggheads, homosexuals and criminals. Bronson, who reached Hollywood through the coal mines and the Army, believes the tough years have built his character.
"His foundation is deeper than most people," explained a friend, makeup man Philip Rhodes. "He was made down in the pits. That's where he got that solid character and that's why he's been able to keep his integrity."
Out of his milieu Bronson can relate to the type of hero he plays. Men like the bare-fisted fighter in "Hard Times", and even the vigilante in "death Wish," make sense to a man who grew up in gritty Pennsylvania coal towns. "The critics never see my role as it is - as a man protecting his garden killing poisonous snakes. Instead they say it's just me again committing violence," Bronson explained.
In "Telephone," to be released this Christmas, Bronson continues along the familiar pattern although this time as a Russian KGB agent, Major Borzov. With his slanted eyes and square, fleshy face Bronson makes a convincing Russian - but Borzov is still designed to appeal to the Chicago steelworker or Texas oilrigger.
Borzov's task in "Telefon" is to undermine a plot by a renegade Stalininst KGB agent (Donald Pleasance) that could cause a third world war. In between surviving and saving the planet, Bronson's KGB major has time to fight and eventually bed his American contact (Lee Remick). The movie is directed by Don Siegel, maker of the "The Shootist" and scores of other action-packed dramas.
The Soviets have already denounced the film, branding it last month as "naive and banal." "Telefon," the Soviets claimed, attempts to "stoke up a psychosis against the Soviet Union in the western countries reminiscent of days long since past." Izvestia called the film a dirty trick to be expected from "notorious western intelligence agencies."
The Moscow-directed blast left Bronson unmoved. "I'm not offended by anything the Russians or anyone else says," Bronson boasted, cracking a little smile. "They simply didn't say anything offensive. I don't think there's anything wrong with being in the CIA or the FBI. I think they're doing a great job. I know some guys from the CIA and they're great guys."
If such sentiments won't exactly turn on the liberal lights in the Hollywood hills or Capitol Hill, Charles Bronson couldn't care less.