Scott Brown and Nick White
September 12, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In 1954, on the Mexican set of the Western Vera Cruz, two obscure actors — Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson — decided to go for cigarettes. This meant saddling up in costume, side arms and all, and riding to the nearest town. On the way, the pair was waylaid by a truck full of armed federales who mistook them for bandits and held them at gunpoint. Artistas! they protested to their captors. Artistas!

Bronson probably didn’t know it at the time, but this was going to be the story of his life: being mistaken for a heavy. The craggy actor (who was 81 when he died on Aug. 30 in L.A. after a long bout of pneumonia) went to Hollywood not to throw his weight around, but to secure a slice of the American dream big enough to ensure he’d never have to return to the Pennsylvania coal country he’d fled.

But success wasn’t instant. In the late ’40s, Bronson shared a one-room New York City apartment with fellow starving actor Jack Klugman. ”We had two white shirts,” recalls Klugman. ”I would wash the shirts in the tub and Charlie would iron them on milk boxes.”

After he achieved fame in Europe, 1974’s controversial vengeance thriller Death Wish made the 53-year-old a major Stateside star as well.

”People thought he was just that rough character,” says Klugman, who cites Bronson’s skill as a painter — his longtime hobby — as evidence to the contrary. ”He couldn’t have been a good actor without that sensitive side.” — Scott Brown, with additional reporting by Nick White




1960 His killer with a conscience gave The Magnificent Seven its heart.

1963 His laconic POW in The Great Escape helped cement his tough-guy status.

1967 Who among The Dirty Dozen was man enough to survive a suicide mission against the Nazis? Yeah, that’s right: Bronson.

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