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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tough Guy Charles Bronson Dead, 81

NEW YORK -- Charles Bronson, a muscular coal miner from Pennsylvania who became an international film star and archetypal American tough guy, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from pneumonia. He was 81.

Bronson was acclaimed in Italy as Il Brutto, or The Ugly One, and in France he was one of the monstres sacris of the cinema. His acceptance in the United States was delayed and muted, with critics sour on the violence that stalked the scripts of his films and not so sure that someone so typecast could really act.

Bronson was best known for his roles in what were some of Hollywood's most violent films of the 1970's. None were more violent than the 1974 movie "Death Wish."

The critics denounced the film as a vehicle for legitimizing violent behavior. Vincent Canby, reviewing it for The New York Times, called it "a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers."

The movie nevertheless became a hit and made Bronson, then in his early 50s and already a success in Europe, a star in the United States. Responding to critics' complaints, he said, "We don't make movies for critics, since they don't pay to see them anyhow."

But privately he was upset at his typecasting and longed to play more challenging roles.

Bronson was born on Nov. 3, 1921, in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining town. His real name was Charles Buchinsky, and he was the 11th of 15 children born to Lithuanian immigrants. His family was so poor that when he was six he was sent to school in a dress, a hand-me-down from an older sister.

In 1943, he was drafted into the army. After the war, Bronson held various jobs. He went to Atlantic City, where he rented out beach chairs on the boardwalk. There he met some vacationing actors from a Philadelphia troupe and persuaded them to let him demonstrate his ability to paint scenery. They were impressed and hired him, then let him do a bit of acting.

Bronson found that he liked acting more than painting, and in 1949 he went to California. In 1951 he had a minor role in "You're in the Navy Now," which starred Gary Cooper. Bronson later explained that he got the part because he was the only one among the auditioning actors who could belch on cue.

By the 1970s, Bronson had a loyal following, and even many critics agreed that although the scripts were usually bad, Bronson could be counted on to turn in a good performance.