His parents were from Lithuania, where his father was a coal miner, and he grew up in a western Pennsylvania coal-mining town. Growing up without much money for newer clothes, as a boy he often wore his older sister's hand-me-downs. He was the 11th of 15 kids and didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teenager. Until then, he spoke Lithuanian and Russian.
His father died when he was 10, and at 16 he followed his brothers into the mines to support the family. He was paid $1 per ton of coal and volunteered for perilous jobs because the pay was better.
Like all the men in his family he worked in the mines, but hated it and used a variety of means to escape it including the military and, eventually, acting.
As a boy working in the mines, he was caught in a cave-in and almost died before he was finally rescued. Ever since that time he had had a deathly fear of enclosed spaces.
His expertise with tunneling and working underground helped when making The Great Escape (1963) in the role of "Tunnel King" Velinski. However, even though the "tunnel" he was working in was a cutaway set, he could only stay in it for a few minutes at a time before he had to get up and leave.
He was drafted into the army in 1943 and assigned to the Air Corps. At first he was a truck driver, but was later trained as a bomber tail gunner and assigned to a B-29. He flew 25 missions and received, among other decorations, a Purple Heart for wounds incurred in battle.
In 1954 on the Mexican set of Vera Cruz Charles and Ernest Borgnine--who were playing American gunfighters involved in the Mexican fight against the French--had some spare time on their hands and decided to go to a nearby town for cigarettes. They saddled up in costume, sidearms and all, and began riding to town. On the way they were spotted by a truck full of Mexican "federales"--national police--who mistook them for bandits and held them at gunpoint until their identities could be verified.
Called West Windsor, Vermont his home for more than three decades (Bronson Farm),
Spoke fluent Russian, Lithuanian and Greek.
He was by all accounts a very quiet and introspective collaborator, often sitting in a corner for much of a shoot and listening to a director's instructions and not saying a word until cameras were rolling. People commented on how surprised they were to discover how thoroughly and completely prepared Bronson was when he came to work, as it didn't seem to fit his "laid-back" image.
He left an estate worth $48 million including an $8 million house in Malibu as well as a $4.8 million beach house and a ranch in Vermont. He also owned homes in Europe, including Lithuania and Greece.
He had hip replacement surgery in August 1998.
He was very active in raising funds for the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
Dick Van Dyke received a lemon cake every Christmas from Bronson, who lived nearby in Malibu for 16 years.
In the '90s a lady whom he'd never met left him her estate worth well over a million dollars. She was a big fan of his. Her family sued and he ended up settling with them out of court.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2000 after suffering ill health for the previous two years.
Charles in 1968
It's going to be another day of leisure for me, I think. Just the way I like it. I did force myself to get out and walk a little yesterday but the area I chose was too chilly so I cut it short after taking a few pictures. Not pleased with the zoom feature on my new camera as I don't think it takes good photos. I'm hoping it's just that I didn't use the correct setting. I'll have to play around with it some more. Here's a few I took down at Ediz Spit.
foggy haze over PA across the bay. Not even worth taking a picture of really
Well, I think I'll go over to Google Earth and do some zooming around. I need to figure out how the controls work first, though, as I know you're able to do a lot more than what I usually do.