Charles Bronson, the poker-faced actor who became a screen star in his fifties by playing quiet, iron-willed vigilantes with nothing to lose, died Aug. 30 in a Los Angeles hospital. The actor, whose death was announced a day later, had Alzheimer's disease and was reported to be 81.

Mr. Bronson, laconic and leathery, once described himself as resembling "a rock quarry that someone has dynamited." An unlikely movie hero, he spent years in obscurity before becoming one of the most popular film personalities of the 1970s and 1980s in the "Death Wish" series and violent revenge dramas such as "Mr. Majestyk."

It was not unusual for theatergoers to applaud wildly as Mr. Bronson, whose characters only sought some solitude, was pushed by larger forces into hunting down street punks, organized crime figures, corrupt landowners and other societal scum.

In reaction to tales of urban violence, "one-man wrecking crew" movies found a wide audience, most notably with Clint Eastwood as "Dirty Harry" Callahan. But where Callahan used one-liner, "make-my-day" wit before disposing of his enemies, Mr. Bronson's characters coolly dispatched their nemeses without much talk.

Mr. Bronson, who rose from dire poverty to become one of the world's most recognized and wealthiest stars, said he identified with lone-man roles. He shunned the Hollywood party circuit, held film critics and most actors in disdain and liked to showcase himself as an antidote to the sensitive, self-doubting 1970s male.

He said he believed in his characters' basic, uncomplicated integrity and winced at more-nuanced portrayals.

"When you see weakness in a hero, you are doing something to his identity," he once told The Washington Post. "You take something away from the kids, the next generation, you steal away giving them anything to look up to."

Mr. Bronson was a coal miner, onion picker and short-order cook before stumbling into acting after World War II. After brief stage training, he entered films, usually as a heavy or some swarthy secondary character. He got his first role, in "You're in the Army Now" (1951), by convincing the director he could burp on cue.

Featured roles in such action films as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), "The Great Escape" (1963), "Battle of the Bulge" (1965) and "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) brought him accolades as a quietly forceful screen personality, but he found leading roles elusive because of his worn facial features.

After making a greater impression in European productions, including Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1969), he came to full promise as a film star in the early 1970s after signing with producer Dino De Laurentiis.

Under De Laurentiis, he headlined three films that, cumulatively, made more than $150 million: "The Valachi Papers," in which he plays an aging mob informer; "The Stone Killer," as a police detective; and "Death Wish," as an architect who hunts down the thugs who murdered his wife and raped his daughter.

Mr. Bronson received critical drubbings for many of these parts, but the actor was not fazed. Critics, he said, never pay to see films anyway.

In interviews, he came across as resentful of those he deemed media darlings, largely actors with intensive stage training. "They're all too busy trying to stretch something out of nothing," he told The Post in 1977. "I can play the character better because 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. They even look the same."

Mr. Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky, the 11th of 15 children born to Russian-Lithuanian immigrants. He grew up in a coal-mining community near Ehrenfeld, Pa. His father died of cancer when Mr. Bronson was 10, worsening the family's plight. He wore clothes his siblings outgrew, sometimes his sisters' dresses.

He said that he was the only one of his siblings to graduate from high school but that he was unable to attend ceremonies because he beat up the basketball coach during a fight.

He worked in a coal mine and often asked for the toughest assignment to earn 10 cents more an hour. He also spent time in jail for stealing food to feed his family.

He might have settled into a life of backbreaking work had it not been for U.S. entry into World War II, when he served in an Army mess squad in Kingman, Ariz.

He held odd jobs across the eastern United States in the late 1940s. He did set design for a stage company in Philadelphia and, taken with what he considered the ease of acting, took voice lessons. He performed at the Pasadena Playhouse in California before entering films.

From 1958 to 1960, he also starred in the ABC-TV series "Man With a Camera," about a combat photographer who uses his skills to solve crimes. But he was convinced that his future was in movies and that the public was tiring of artificially suave leading men.

His marriage to Harriet Tendler Bronson ended in divorce. He was married to actress Jill Ireland from 1968 until her death in 1990. They co-starred in such films as "The Mechanic," "Hard Times," "Breakheart Pass" and "Assassination."

Survivors include his wife, Kim Weeks Bronson, whom he married in 1998, and six children, according to the Associated Press.

Charles Bronson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1980. He became a star in his fifties after signing with producer Dino De Laurentiis.Charles Bronson found international fame as a close-lipped action star in such films as 1985's "Death Wish 3."