There’s little doubt that from 1968 forward, Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland, were a team traveling the world and making movies together up until her untimely death in 1990 following a long and courageous battle against cancer. A battle that she documented in her autobiography, Life Wish.
According to legend, the pair met on the set of The Great Escape in 1963 where Bronson was cast as the Tunnel King and Jill’s then husband, David McCallum, was enlisted as one of the escapees in charge of “Dispersal.” Part of the legend is that Bronson told McCallum he was going to steal her away. True or not, Charlie and Jill were married in October of 1968. What followed was a total of 16 movies that had Jill turing up opposite Bronson. From a bit as Robert Mitchum’s snooty date in Villa Rides (1968) to her final role as The First Lady opposite Bronson’s Secret Service Agent in 1987’s Assassination, Jill always seemed to be arm in arm with her iconic hubby. Her roles got larger as the years went by coinciding with Bronson’s box office power getting stronger.
Keep your eyes peeled at the fadeout of Villa Rides and you’ll see Jill’s brief appearance.
1970’s Lola aka Twinky aka London Affair had what amounts to an “extra” part for Jill in a blink and you’ll miss her part at the airport with no dialogue while Charlie played one of his oddest roles as a middle aged writer taking a child bride played by Susan George amongst a big cast of well known British stars like Trevor Howard, Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman.
Jill also had a hand in an excellent thriller of 1970, Rider on the Rain, that had Bronson starring alongside Marlene Jobert. An overseas box office hit that never really found an audience in North America until the success of Death Wish prompting it’s release on this side of the pond.
In Violent City (1970) aka The Family, Jill’s femme fatale bewitched Bronson’s hitman while Telly Savalas looked on.
In Cold Sweat (1970), Jill took the secondary role as gangster James Mason’s personal merchandise while Liv Ullmann was cast as Bronson’s wife in this action packed “Key Largo” like shoot’em up. Thankfully with some plot twists, she gets to spend most of her on camera time opposite her real life hubby.
Someone Behind the Door (1971) bumped Jill back up to the leading role in a triangle of love and murder. A film that had her and Charlie joined by Anthony Perkins as an unstable Doctor looking to get rid of his philandering wife. Why not use an unstable Bronson to do the dirty work. Damn but there’s a good movie in here somewhere. Needed a Hitchcock touch.
1972 brought to the screen the real life tale of The Valachi Papers that gave the married couple the leading roles in Terence Young’s gangland epic.
One of Bronson’s most memorable films, 1972’s The Mechanic, cast Jill as a high priced call girl that our hitman paid regular visits to.
Chino aka The Valdez Horses came along in 1973 under the direction of John Sturges casting the couple as would be lovers against all odds.
Robert Duvall stood between our couple in 1975’s Breakout. A film that has Jill hiring Bronson’s pilot to fly her on screen husband, Duvall, to safety and freedom from a Mexican prison. A fun entry in the couple’s catalog of titles.
Hard Times (1975). Probably the best film the duo appeared in was this Walter Hill film casting Bronson as a bare knuckle streetfighter and Jill as the woman he takes a liking to during the depression era of New Orleans. Love the exchange between the pair.
Jill : “What does it feel like to knock somebody down?”
Charlie : “It makes me feel a hell of a lot better than it does him.”
The entertainment value continued when the pair headlined an all-star cast in this Agatha Christie like western on board a train headed to Breakheart Pass in 1975.
And finally a comedy. Jill as a widow and Charlie as the outlaw/lover. Rare but a film worth seeking out to see the Bronson’s having fun and Charlie taking on a role unlike any other during the years when his box-office pull was at it’s strongest.
1979 brings us to Love and Bullets. Bronson plays the cop and Jill stars as mafia Don, Rod Steiger’s dimwitted girlfriend. But does she know too much? When Rod hires assassin Henry Silva to terminate her, Bronson must step in. Love the one sheet for this one.
Jill was spared the usual ending for a loved one in the Death Wish series when she played Charlie’s leading lady in Part 2 of the vigilante saga. Still there was no happy ending for Bronson’s love life in Michael Winner’s violent and sometimes offensive follow up to the 1974 classic.
Following her first bout with cancer, Jill, was cast as The First Lady opposite her man in their sixteenth and sadly their final film together, Assassination.
Contemporaries Burton and Taylor made 11 films together. Newman and Woodward made a total of 15 projects together. Many with Newman strictly as his wife’s director. Bronson and Ireland at 16. Now as much as I love the other quartet of stars it’s mostly these films I come back to with regularity. They may not be as critically acclaimed as many of those starring the other couples but when it comes to the entertainment value I find the films of Bronson and Ireland hold up quite well in comparison.
O.K. so I’m a bit biased where Bronson’s concerned.
Jill Ireland (1936-1990) – Charles Bronson (1921-2003)