Recently I watched THE GREAT ESCAPE again and I was knocked over in the scene when Charles Bronson, aka Danny the Tunnel King, cracks and refuses to go back into the tunnel, confessing that he had claustrophobia from his days of working in the mines. I didn’t realize that Charles Bronson as a boy working in the coal mines had claustrophobia after a tunnel collapsed on him. And yet, not only did he face his fears and accept what the script called for, he actually acted as a consultant in building the tunnel.

Shortly after I watched a Twilight Zone that starred Bronson and then a Laramie episode with Bronson playing a ‘half-breed’. I was on a Bronson kick, and while I didn’t have time to watch the movie ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the time, I did watch one of my favorite movie scenes, the opening of that picture. Woody Strode! Jack Elam and the fly! The ticketmaster! And the third gunman, Al Mulock, who finished the scene, went back to his hotel and jumped out the window to his death.

The three guns wait and wait and wait for the train. It comes and the man they were paid to kill doesn’t get off – on the platform side; but as the train leaves, the sound of a harmonica is heard. And there on the opposite side of the tracks stands Charles Bronson, Harmonica!

Leone got his wish. He had offered the role of the Man With No Name in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY to Bronson, who turned it down. Bronson, who later Leone called the best actor he had ever worked with, had finally consented to appear in a Leone film.

For someone that Hollywood that never saw fit to nominate him for any of his film work, he certainly has a large body of great films that he did excellent work in. I never met him nor worked with him, as much as I would have like to; but here is a great story that Sandy Nimoy, Leonard’s first wife, told me about Bronson.

Bronson’s wife, actress Jill Ireland, had played Leilia, the only character in the STAR TREK series that Spock ever fell in love with. Over the years Sandy and Jill often met while shopping or doing charity work. Sandy said that Jill Ireland was so warm and likeable in real life, she had been perfectly cast in the role of Leilia. Even the logical Spock would fall in love with her.

The two women always mentioned getting together and having dinner at one or the other’s home. But show business schedules for the most part does not allow for conventional planning.

Finally they decided the heck with it and Jill said dinner would be at the Bronsons on such and such a day. Charles would be starting a new picture soon, and although Leonard was playing Arthur in CAMELOT in an L.A. theater, they would squeeze in a  dinner early enough to give Leonard enough time to get to the theater and prepare for the performance.

Although when both Charles and Leonard were starting out getting small parts on TV and even appeared in the same series at different times, they never met. Sandy told Leonard not to think Bronson was bored or rude at the dinner, if he didn’t add much to the conversation. Jill Ireland said he just doesn’t talk much

And the warning proved true. Along with his wife, he greeted the Nimoys at the door and then went into a shell of silence. Occasionally Sandy or Leonard would address Bronson directly and his wife would automatically answer. It was quite evident that was a very normal thing to do for Jill to do.

When the dinner was over and it was time to go, the Bronsons escorted the Nimoys to the door where Sandy once again mentioned as much as they would like to stay longer, they really had to go so Leonard could get to the theater.

And then, just as he shook Leonard’s hand, Bronson, a strictly film actor, spoke, ‘You, ah, really like all that theater shit?


Bronson was one of fifteen children so I imagine his lack of conversational skills came about because growing up he could never get an word in edgewise. But in spite of his reluctance to talk he was fluent in Russian, Lithuanian, and Greek. He never really spoke much English until he went in the Army.

Lest this offends the ‘patriotic’ Speak English or Get the Hell Out of America’ clique, I would like to point out that this son of an immigrant enlisted at the outbreak of America’s entry into WWII. Not satisfied being an Army truck driver, he pushed for more training and would up as a tail gunner on a B29 bomber, a position that had a very short life expectancy; and he earned a chestful of medals including the Purple Heart.

Oh, the answer to the question Charles Bronson asked Leonard Nimoy, another son of immigrants, was, ‘Yeah, Charles, I really like that stage shit.’


14 thoughts on “A DIALOGUE FOR BRONSON

  1. This is a fantastic story and I thank you for telling it. Charles Bronson has always been one of my favorite actors AND one I highly respected. I heard he would refuse to work a film unless Jill was in it too (unless she was ill at the time), so strong was his love for her. I knew of his language skills and rough childhood and it added to my respect for the man.
    Nimoy as well, in a different fashion. More of a traditional actor, but excellent in his work. His private life I knew nothing about.

  2. Marvellous Don.

    My dad was a great Bronson fan and we would always enjoy watching his films.

    Bronson had something no amount of theatre training can give you – screen presence.

    Regards Thom

  3. Bronson had paid a ton of dues for ANYTHING he did. I like his opening intro in The Magnificent Seven (1960) where he is chopping wood. Damn right he knew how to do that. And as an actor he labored without lines as an Extra in quite a few pics , before gradually working his way to Stardom. Quite a guy – and a hell of a career.

  4. The things is I can see those two icons saying those words. Wow thanks for this story Don. Nimoy also did time in the service. Can never confirm if it was Army or Army Reserve, its in the 1950s and stateside. I believe he was placed in a unit putting on plays and reached the rank of Sergeant in short time but its difficult to know for certain. I just watched Once Upon a Time in the West recently and have to say I really loved it. What a movie!

      • Thanks for the info Don. Both served in Special Services right? A quick Wikipedia check shows Mr Barry was in an Artillery Division initially although I don’t know if that means he was a Gunner. I’m not familiar with F Troop but I used to watch Herbie Rides Again quite a bit as a kid.

      • He served the first part of his enlistment in the artillary and then won a post tap dance contest and was switched to the USO. Leonard was his sergeant and when Barry got out, Leonard encouraged him to go the LA and he also wrote letters casting directors and agents to help Barry get started in film and tv.

  5. Wonderful story. I’ve always thought that Bronson was one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. He was a minimalist actor, and that kind of actor never gets awards. Anyhow, I can relate to the story. I’m an introvert and my wife is a social butterfly. At parties, my wife often answers for me. People misunderstand our dynamic. They think I’m rude and my wife is a domineering woman. Nope. The truth is that I don’t like to talk much, and I’m always glad that my wife talks for both of us! 😉

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