Not Just a Tough Guy

By | Mar 14, 2021 | No Comments

One actor who made a great impression on me was Charles Bronson. He was the epitome of cool—terse, stoic, and macho.

Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson

Bronson had carved out a successful career in Hollywood by playing heroic tough guys, but that success didn’t come until much later when he starred—at the age of 52!—in Death Wish (1974), which became a huge international sensation. Until then, he was more famous in Europe for his ensemble cast films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967), and later with European films like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Rider on the Rain (1970). Incidentally, Bronson’s decision to turn down Italian director Sergio Leone’s multiple pleas for him to appear in his first spaghetti western indirectly helped launch Clint Eastwood’s career, who starred in Leone’s first feature, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Who knows how the trajectory of Bronson’s career would have gone had he accepted Leone’s initial offer?

One Saturday night, he had booked a large table for 12 people at Trattoria Dell’Arte, as he was attending a concert at Carnegie Hall with some of his family members, and I believe his son had something to do with it. His wife, actress Jill Ireland, had died a few years before, and one of his guests that evening was the British actor David McCallum, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame. He too was married to Jill Ireland before Bronson entered the picture. So I found this endearing and odd at the same time. I guess they may have gotten closer as friends (they both appeared in The Great Escape together) after her death.

Anyhow, when Bronson arrived, we sat him in the center of the dining room, which is where we seated most large parties. The joint was already packed, and when we eventually seated Bronson, the electricity in the room crept up several more notches. Now, most New York diners usually feign interest in movie stars when dining at a restaurant. But I believe they are secretly amused and entertained. However, this night I witnessed grown men walking up to Bronson and shaking his hand and some even embracing him, which I never saw happen to any celebrity. They are usually left alone to dine in peace, especially at a place like Dell’Arte, which went out of its way to make them comfortable. But Bronson is the kind of man that most want to be like, and some even be with.

So I felt bad for Bronson, who was an irresistible target that night. But he didn’t seem to mind too much. He was very gracious and accommodating. When he completed his meal, he called me over and told me to give him the check, as he didn’t want McCallum to pay. But when the bill arrived, they both had a spirited exchange about paying, which Bronson won, of course.

As Bronson was leaving, I told him how much he meant to me growing up in the 70s and watching all of his films, like The Mechanic, Death Wish, and Telefon. Touched by my heart-felt sentiments, he said, “thank you,” shook my hand firmly, then pulled me in and gave me a warm hug, which surprised me. That’s a hug I’ve never forgotten.

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