HOLLYWOOD  DIARY

 

THE BIG Bs of HOLLYWOOD

 by

Naveen K. Gupta

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The ‘tough guy’, is serenaded no end in both Hollywood and Bollywood. Men swear by them, women find them an irresistible mystery, kids root for this surrogate ‘father figure’  and producers thank their heavens, when they land with a genuine tough guy on their hands, laughing all the way to the bank!

Hollywood in the 50s and 60s was swarmed with the ‘tough guy’, the second world war had just ended, McCarthyism was all time high and the good old cowboy hero was about to retire. Out of the many heavies who donned the mantle of the tough guy in Hollywood, two of the most legendary not only were from migrant families, but they had their origins in good old USSR!! They were Charles Bronson and Yul Brynner.

Bronson was born Charles Dennis Buchinskas  in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania on November 3, 1921 as the 11th of 15 children born to a Lithuanian Tatar immigrant father  and a Lithuanian mother. Charles Bronson was the first member of his family to graduate from high school.  His childhood was painful as a young Charles did not speak English and learned it later as a foreign language; his father died when Charles was only 10, and he went to work in the coal mines,earning $1 per ton coal he mined! Charles worked there until he entered military service during World War II. The family was so poor that, at one time, Charles would wear his sister's dress to school because he had nothing else to wear!

Brynner was born in Vladivostok, Far Eastern Republic to an actress & singer mother and a mining engineer father.His family was very much what would you term as part of the .  intelligentsia. To romanticise his tough fella image Brynner claimed  part  mongol and part romany ancestry, and claimed to be born as  Taidje Khan on the Russian island of Sakhalin. And yet little Yul , despite his affluent parentage shared  a broken childhood with Bronson, his father Boris Brynner abandoned his family, and his mother had to take Yul and his sister, Vera  to Harbin, China, where they attended a school run by the YMCA,  in 1934 she took them to Paris.

During World War II, whereas Brynner worked as a French-speaking radio announcer and commentator for the U.S. Office of War Information, broadcasting propaganda to occupied France Bronson in direct contrast served as an aerial gunner in the and in 1945 as a B-29 Superfortress crewman with the 39th Bombardment Group based on Guam. He was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received during his service.

 

                                      

  Charles Bronson(1921-2003)                                                            Yul Brynner(1915-1985)

Bronson's first film role, an uncredited one  was as a sailor in ‘You’re in the Navy now,’  (1951) and he alternated between bit parts and Television.He made a strong impact in ‘Drumbeat,’(1954) supporting Alan Ladd , portraying a psychopathic Apache warrior, who enjoys wearing the tunics of soldiers whom he has killed. To evade the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings, he changed his surname from Buchinsky to Bronson as Eastern European names sounded suspicious in an era of anti-Soviet sentiment. He took his inspiration from the Bronson Gate at Paramount Studios, situated on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Bronson Street.

 

                                                              

 

Brynner had began acting and modeling in his twenties, and early in his career he was photographed nude by George Platt Lynes. He failed his screen test at Universal Studios because he looked “too exotic,” the very looks fortified with imperious mannerisms and deep rich voice would land him the role of King Mongut of Siam in the Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicalThe King and I,’ a role that reprised 4,626 times on stage over the span of his career from 1951.  He made an immediate impact upon launching his film career in 1956, appearing not only in ‘The King and I,’  but also in major roles in ‘The Ten Commandments,’and ‘Anastasia.’Brynner, at 5'10",  took to intensive weight-lifting to counter Charlton Heston's physical presence in ‘ The Ten Commandments.’

Charles Bronson gained attention in 1960 with his role as O’Reilly in  western ‘The Magnificent Seven,’(1960) as one of the seven gunfighters taking up the cause of the defenseless. It was his first pairing with Brynner. The film was John Sturges' remake of Akira Kurosawa's ‘Seven Samurai.’ The English language rights were acquired at an amazing  price of $250! But the film impressed Kurosawa so much that he presented Sturges with a sword Two years later, Sturges cast him for another popular Hollywood production ‘The Great Escape,’ as a claustrophobic Polish POW nicknamed "The Tunnel King", ironically Bronson was really claustrophobic because of his childhood work in mines.

Brynner later starred in such films as the Biblical epic ‘Solomon and Sheba,’ (1959), ‘ The Magnificent Seven,’ (1960),  Kings of the Sun,’ (1963), co-starred with Marlon Brando in ‘Morituri’; Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot,’ but nothing he would do now could take him to the heights he’d already scaled as King Mongut! He had already won the Oscar for best actor in ‘The King and I,’ ; the film garnered nine nominations and five oscars! He appeared in a Tv series based on the film and various other stage and Broadway revivals of a role that the public never got tired for decades.He made "Top 10 stars of the year", in both 1957 and 1958. 

Bronson’s output remained sporadic with ‘Kid Galahad,’’Four for Texas,’ ‘Battle of the Bulge,’ ‘The Sandpiper’, and ‘This property is condemned,’ till he grabbed eyeballs once again in ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ (1967) as an Army death row convict conscripted into a suicide mission.Bronson’s star was on ascendency in Europe also and was known by two nicknames: The Italians called him "Il Brutto" ("The Ugly One") and to the French he was known as a "monstre sacré" ("holy monster").

In 1968 he starred as “ Harmonica,” in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ The director, Sergio Leone, once called him "the greatest actor I ever worked with", and had wanted to cast Bronson for the lead in all three of his previous westerns, the Dollars trilogy. Bronson turned him down each time  to the advantage of a certain relatively unknown Mr.Clint Eastwood ! That very year Brynner and Bronson paired the second and last time for Buzz Kulik’s, ‘Villa rides again,’ it was one of those rare films in which Brynner had a full pate! And the screen play was written by Robert Towne and Sam Peckinpah!

At 50,  one of Bronson's most memorable roles cantered along in ‘Death Wish,’ (1974), the most popular film of his long association with director Michael Winner. His vigilante avtar as a result of a brutal rape&murder of his wife and daughter touched a raw nerve, especially in the female audiences! It was a highly controversial role, as his executions were cheered by crime-weary audiences. This successful movie spawned sequels over the next 20 years, in which Bronson also starred. By the time of Walter Hill's ‘Hard Times,’ (1975),which had Bronson as a Depression-era street fighter making his living in illegal bare-knuckled matches in Louisiana, he was 4th biggest box-office star beaten only by Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Al Pacino. The 80s saw him in quickies with film companies that could afford his salary, which remained in the top bracket till he stepped in front of the camera.His health deteriorated in later years, and he retired from acting after undergoing hip-replacement surgery in 1998. Bronson also suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his final years. On August 30, 2003 Bronson died of pneumonia. His second marriage to famous actress Jill Ireland was much celebrated for its celebrity quotient and its tragic end- Jill Ireland died of breast cancer in 1990.

Brynner was an active photographer, and wrote two books,served as a UN special consultant on refugees A student of music from childhood, Brynner was an accomplished guitarist and singer. In his early period in Europe he often played and sang gypsy songs in Parisian nightclubs with Aliosha Dimitrievitch. Among his final feature film appearances were in Michael Crichton's ‘Westworld,’ (1973) and its sequel ‘Futureworld,’ (1976).

 Brynner was married four times, the first three ending in divorce. He fathered three children and adopted two others.Knowing he was dying of cancer, Brynner starred in a run of farewell performances of his most famous role, ‘The King and I’, on Broadway from January 7 to June 30, 1985, opposite Mary Beth Peil. He received the 1985 Special Tony award honoring his 4,525 performances in ‘The King and I,’ becoming one of the 9 people in history to have won an oscar and a Tony for the same role!

Throughout his life, Brynner was seen with a cigarette in his hand. Nine months before his death, in an interview on ‘Good Morning America’,  he expressed his desire to make an anti-smoking commercial for American Cancer Society, it was poignantly released after his death; the last words of the Brynner were the warning- "Now that I'm gone, I tell you, don't smoke. Whatever you do, just don't smoke. If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn't be talking about any cancer. I'm convinced of that."

Brynner died of lung cancer on October 10, 1985 in New York City, the same day as Orson Welles.