WWII Vet Charles Bronson Got His Big Break Playing a WWII Vet on TV

Charles Bronson Man With a Camera
Charles Bronson plays WWII veteran combat photographer Mike Kovac in the television series "Man With a Camera." (ABC)

World War II veteran Charles Buchinsky kicked around Hollywood for almost a decade playing minor roles in film and TV while he waited for his big break. That break came when he was cast as the lead in the 1958 ABC drama “Man With a Camera.” The complete series is out now on Digital and DVD from MPI Media Group.

Buchinsky changed his name to Charles Bronson in 1955 after his agent convinced him that his Eastern European family name would draw the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee as they hunted for communists in Hollywood.

In “Man With a Camera,” Bronson plays World War II veteran and combat photographer Mike Kovac. Combat photographers made a big impression in post-war America, since images like Joe Rosenthal’s iconic shot of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima came to define American’s memories of the conflict.

Kovac is just a hard-working guy, trying to use the skills he learned in the service to make a living as a freelance photographer. He takes commissions for promotional photos and chases news stories to get an image that he can sell to the papers or their wire services.

Of course, crime follows our hero, and he gets caught up in solving mysteries and catching the criminals that the cops can’t nail. He’s constantly in danger and either takes or throws a few punches in almost every episode.

Back in the 1950s, ABC trailed CBS and NBC in audience and revenue. Its shows made do with lower budgets and were often more violent and racy in an attempt to lure audiences away from its bigger rivals.

“Man With a Camera” also fits into the now-forgotten genre of half-hour dramas. Cheaper to produce (obviously), these shows often followed plot arcs recycled from old radio dramas. Focus on the action and don’t waste time on too much backstory or character development.

The one area where producers didn’t skimp was Bronson’s camera gear. He’s got all the latest toys and even a portable darkroom that he lugs around in the trunk of his car. It all may look primitive to modern viewers, but the series was a showcase for the best photo gear of its era.

Check out this episode opening, and you’ll get the idea.

Bronson was working in a Pennsylvania coal mine before he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943, serving as an aerial gunner on a B-29 Superfortess in the Pacific. He flew 25 combat missions, including several over Japanese home territories. Buchinsky was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle.

Bronson went straight from “Man With a Camera” to his breakthrough movie role in the iconic western “The Magnificent Seven.” Director John Sturges liked the actor so much that he also cast him in the WWII thriller “The Great Escape.” “The Dirty Dozen” came a few years later and Bronson went on to become one of the biggest action stars of the ’70s, beginning with “Death Wish.”

All of that success tracks back to Bronson’s breakthrough as Mike Kovac, a veteran who combines shutter clicks with his fists to right wrongs while he’s just trying to get by and make an honest living.

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