At last, a man's man. Silent. Strong. Mean. "Il Brutto," the Italians call him -- The Ugly One. In France, he's "Le Sacre Monstre." From Hollywood, the press releases gush about the "one-man extermination squad" who finally showed the wimps how to get mad and even.
"Violence in pictures," says Charles Bronson, "is a release for millions of people that make up an audience." He speaks softly, slowly. Impassively, he adds, "If one out of millions takes it seriously it's a great exception."
Live, from his suite on the 39th floor of the Hotel Pierre, the suite he always commands for its damask walls, its satin-covered chairs, its English horse paintings, the hero of the "Death Wish" movies looks nothing like Bernhard Hugo Goetz.
No spectacles, for one. And he's square, where Goetz is slim. He's dark, while Goetz is fair. Scowl lines etch his face, in contrast to Goetz' bland features. But when Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, shot four black youths who accosted him in a subway here last winter, the tabloids dubbed him the "Death Wish Vigilante" after the Bronson character, a mild-mannered architect who murders rapists, robbers and muggers -- two of them on a subway -- in "Death Wish," "Death Wish 2" and, now, "Death Wish 3."
Today, however, it is Goetz, out on $5,000 bail and charged with attempted murder, who seems to shadow Bronson: Life imitates art imitates life. When the Goetz affair hit the international headlines last December, Bronson was resisting pressure from his producers to make another sequel: "Death Wish 3." "I knew they would use that Bernhard Goetz as a point to get me to do it," he says.
Bronson did, and now he's making excuses for being trapped in the stereotype. "There's not that much originality in it," he says of his new film. "But very few things are original these days anyway."
Bronson seems smaller -- 5 feet 10, 160 pounds -- and less menacing than on screen. He stretches with catlike grace as he talks, leaning back on an armchair as autumn sunlight fills the room. The expression is one of mild bemusement; the dress casual: blue jeans, a collarless cotton shirt and short boots. His hair is flecked with gray, one of the few signs of his 63 years and 100-plus movies. Yet about him, always, is a carefully cultivated aura of danger.
"People feel wimpy about crime and they don't have the courage to do anything about it," he says. Audiences "like to see those who are breaking the law, who are picking on gentle people get their punishment. If seeing it on the screen satisfies them, and removes some of their aggressions, I think it's pretty good."
"Death Wish," released in 1974, was a box-office hit, grossing $150 million. Audiences cheered wildly as Bronson, the New York architect crazed by the murder of his wife and the sodomizing of his daughter -- graphically depicted on screen -- turns into a cold-blooded killer.
"What about the good old American custom of self-defense?" the architect asks, in a line that eerily presaged Goetz' own explanations a few years later. "If the police don't defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves."
Critics, for the most part, greeted the film with raucous outrage; "A birdbrained movie to cheer the hearts of the far right wing" . . . "Stimulates our latent sadism" . . . "Lynch law confused with good citizenship." One news magazine wondered: "Which American metropolis will have the honor of producing the first spin-off vigilante?"
More jeers followed "Death Wish 2," in 1981, in which our hero, newly offended by the murder of his daughter and the rape of his housekeeper -- again depicted with blood-spattered brutality -- rages through Los Angeles, righteously shooting, bludgeoning and electrocuting hoodlums.
"Death Wish 3" -- originally X-rated for violence until, as Bronson put it, "they jiggled things around and now it has an R rating" -- features more gleeful gore. The vengeful architect has been Ramboized with a .475 magnum gas-operated automatic pistol with a 10-inch barrel, a Browning machine gun, hand grenades and an antitank missile launcher. Filmed in desolate east Brooklyn, three stores, one apartment house and five automobiles are blown up, with victims inside. Three buildings are burned down. Three thousand five hundred rounds of ammunition are expended. An average of two killings occur for every page of script.
Now even Bronson is having doubts.
"It's still a guy who takes up for the gentle people," he says. "But by this time in the story, he's become a little calloused."
Bronson was to have script approval, but he did little to exercise it. In one scene, the vigilante machine-guns motorcyclists. Much later, Bronson discovered, he says, that his victims, filmed separately, had no weapons and were merely throwing bottles. "That, to me, is excessive violence, and is unnecessary," he says. "It's too late for me to do anything about it. I resent that."
Nonetheless, when it comes to playing killers, Bronson, one of the highest paid actors in the world, shrugs, "I don't have a choice. These are mostly scripts that are sent me. It seems I'm believable in these roles . . . What am I going to do, starve?"
A thin smile plays across his lips. He adds, "I don't take these things too seriously. All I'm doing is acting a part. The picture is made to earn money. It's not a documentary. It's not intellectually stimulating. I'm appealing to peoples' emotions."
If Bronson seems tough, it's because he is tough. Born Casimir Buchinsky, ninth of a coal miner's 15 children, he grew up near Ehrenfeld, Pa. -- Scooptown, they called it. The water was contaminated with sulphur and the streets lined with slag. When the miners went on strike, his family had to move out of its cold-water company shack, into the basement of a neighbor's home.
The elder Buchinsky, a Russo-Lithuanian immigrant, never learned to speak English. He died young and Bronson (he changed his name early in his Hollywood career) went into the mines after high school, where he dug coal for $1 a ton to support the family.
"There's a lot of violence in childhood -- in mine anyway," Bronson says. "Almost every other day you'd have some altercation, or fist fighting or battling with somebody. When I was a child, my pleasure was hopping freight trains -- it's a whole different kind of life than girls know."
He looks directly at his interviewer without a trace of postfeminist consciousness. "I say that because you're a woman, and it's hard to really give you the color of the whole thing because you wouldn't understand it. The thrill of it. And the risks that you take, like standing on a bridge and there's a coal freight going beneath you, like 35 or 40 miles an hour. And you might be 25 feet up on the bridge. And you time it. And you jump down in one of the coal cars that's full of coal, and, if you land between the cars, you're dead. You do these things. It's a boy thing. That kind of boy thing -- a girl wouldn't understand."
Director John Huston once likened Bronson "to a hand grenade with the pin pulled." Even in the lush surroundings of the Pierre, there is a tautness to Bronson, the feeling that, as he half-closes his eyes in reminiscence, he could pounce without warning.
Had any fist fights lately?
"Not recently," he says.
How long ago?
"Six years really."
What did you fight about?
He looks sheepish. He doesn't feel like elaborating, he says, "because my wife doesn't know about it."
Reluctantly, he explains he was driving in Los Angeles when another car cut in front of him. He made an obscene gesture. The other driver pulled up and said, "What do you mean?" and imitated the gesture. "I'll show you!" Bronson shouted. "Step outta the car!"
A few shoves and punches were exchanged before it suddenly dawned on the motorist that the face he was aiming for looked familiar. As the fight cooled down, "He begins to realize this is somebody he's seen before," Bronson says.
The one-man extermination squad chuckles. "It would be funny if he ended up saying, 'Can I have your autograph?' But it didn't happen."
After four years in the mines, Bronson was drafted into World War II, serving in a mess squadron in Kingman, Ariz. If it hadn't been for the Army, he once said, "I'd still be in Appalachia on some welfare roll." After the war, he drifted from job to job: mailman, onion picker, baker on the night shift. He took art classes in Philadelphia. In Atlantic City, N.J., he rented out beach chairs and roomed with actor Jack Klugman. Through that friendship and his talents as as set designer, he began working at a Philadelphia theater.
Moving to California, Bronson acted at the Pasadena Playhouse. His first film role was in "You're in the Navy Now" with Gary Cooper. Other minor roles followed, in "Pat and Mike" with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and in low-budget westerns where, with his swarthy, Slavic features, he developed a specialty playing Indians and Mexicans. His best parts were supporting roles in "The Great Escape," "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Magnificent Seven."
If the critics call him "stone-faced" and "wooden-faced," Bronson says it's because "I don't mug for the camera. Look at everyday living. People don't use their faces that way." Slit-eyed, brooding, he nonetheless intrigues. "I supply a presence," is the way he once explained his minimalist acting technique.
It wasn't until the late 1960s that Bronson, then a journeyman performer of no great fame or fortune, began to get the lead roles in European films that rocketed him to international stardom. Movies like "Adieu l'Ami," where he played opposite Alain Delon, and "Red Sun," where he starred with Delon and Japan's Toshiro Mifune, made Bronson a wildly popular box-office draw in France, Italy, Spain, Israel and Japan.
In the United States, he had flirted with celebrity as star of the 1958 TV series "Man With a Camera," but it was "Death Wish" 16 years later that made him famous.
Now, even as plans get under way for "Death Wish 4," Bronson seems ambiguous about the violent characters he plays and the violent image his publicists cultivate. "If I were writing my own script, they would be different, of course," he says. "The character would be a little more human."
How is he different?
"I have a temper," he says. "I am not a Caspar Milquetoast, but most of the time I'm mild. I can afford to be because I don't have the fears that most men have about masculinity or machoness. A lot of belly-up-to-the-bar men and the ones who puff their muscles here and there as they walk down the street -- that's the sort of person you would expect to be doing this sort of "Death Wish" role."
Married to his second wife, actress Jill Ireland, whom he often recruits as his leading lady, he has six children and step-children. They live in a 36-room mansion in Bel Air, Calif., retreating as often as possible from a hectic international schedule to a farm in Vermont. "I like to fish," says Bronson, who was heading up to the Green Mountain State after his stay at the Pierre. "I love the woods. I was once asked what my favorite thing in the entire world was. I love trees. Not each and every tree, but mostly I love trees."
Guaranteed a Cadillac under his movie contracts wherever he goes, Bronson doesn't have to worry about being mugged these days. But a few years ago, in Rome, "I had a gun pushed into my side. A guy in broken English asked me for money," Bronson recalls. "I says, 'You give ME money.' He repeated himself, like he didn't understand. And I said, 'YOU . . . GIVE . . . ME . . . MONEY.' He turned around and he walked away."
This, from the vigilante incarnate, seems comfortingly in character. "It was against my principles" to give up the money, Bronson explains. But suddenly, he adds, "if it had been somebody down at the heels, who looked like he really needed the money, probably I'd have given it to him."
Does Bronson own a gun?
Several, he says..
But he later confesses: "Only for target pracice. I don't hunt. I have never killed an animal. I don't believe in it. I don't eat red meat. It's the blood products. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember my father killed a pig. He slit its throat. He poured the blood in a bucket. He tipped the bucket to his mouth and drank it. I couldn't believe it. He drank the warm, hot pig's blood. He came from another generation and another country."
Bronson pauses, gazing out the window over a field of skyscrapers. "Until a few years back, every once in a while, I'd eat a hamburger. But the cholesterol is the worst . . ."
In the context of muggings, of violence and masculinity, Bronson is asked if he's ever frightened. He hems, haws, can't really think of any particular time, changes the subject.
Hours later, he telephones. He'd been walking in Central Park, he says, and thinking about the question. He hadn't been completely honest, he says. Of course, there are things that frighten him. Earthquakes, for instance. Fires.
So why hadn't he confessed this before?
"I guess I didn't want to seem vulnerable," he says. "It's not my image."