Don’t Be Charles Bronson©

I’m currently reading Billy Crystal’s 2013 book Still Foolin ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (Holt 2013), a funny and enjoyable read. Telling stories about his vast and varied comedy, television and film career, Crystal shares the story of his development of the concept and the making of the movie City Slickers (1991). One particularly interesting story is about the role of Curly, ultimately played brilliantly by Jack Palance. Palance was always Crystal’s first choice for the role of Curly, but Palance had a potential scheduling conflict, so Crystal shared the script with veteran actor Charles Bronson (known for The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape and the Death Wish series). Crystal was hopeful that Bronson would be interested in playing the Curly role if Palance was not available.

Needing to make a decision on a very tight timeframe, Crystal arranged to talk to Bronson by phone to find out if he was interested in the role. Here’s the description of that phone call from Still Foolin ‘Em (page 148):

‘Hello,’ I said cheerfully. ‘F*** you,’ he replied. I waited for the punch line. There wasn’t one. ‘F*** you. I’m dead on page sixty-four! How dare you send this to me.’ I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. ‘You have a lot of nerve,’ he went on. ‘I don’t die in my films.’ I was about to remind him that he died in The Magnificent Seven, but before I could he said it again. ‘F*** you.’ ‘Mr. Bronson, I’m sorry you feel this way. It’s a great part.’ ‘No, it’s not—I’m dead on page sixty-f***ing-four.’ And he hung up.

The good news is that Jack Palance decided to accept the Curly role and canceled his other film commitment.

Nice story, you say, but what’s the point? That Charles Bronson was rude or worse? No. That Charles Bronson is not a nice person? No. That Charles Bronson was pickier about movie roles than Jack Palance? No. Perhaps you need one more bit of information. City Slickers won one Academy Award – you guessed it … Best Actor in a Supporting Role! Apparently, the role of Curly was a great role and Palance delivered an award-winning performance. Borrowing a line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), it would appear that Charles Bronson “chose poorly.”

We all make choices, and not all of them work out the way we hope or plan. Certainly, Charles Bronson cannot be faulted for not predicting that the Curly role would end up being so rich and full of potential. While Jack Palance saw the possibilities for the Curly role, that doesn’t make him smarter or better than Bronson. More important, however, is how Bronson appears to have evaluated the Curly role.

First, Bronson clearly felt that the role was beneath him and was offended by being offered a role where his character died. While Bronson didn’t die in many of his movies, even John Wayne died in some of his movies (e.g. Fighting Seabees, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Alamo, The Cowboys and The Shootist), which added a new dimension to Wayne’s body of work. The point is that Bronson was stuck in the way things had been before, and as a result he missed out on a unique opportunity. The same can be true for each of us. It’s easy to get stuck in what we’re used to and miss out on new opportunities because they don’t fit the way we’ve always done things.

Second, it’s clear from the conversation with Crystal that Bronson’s approach was loaded with lots of ego. It seems that Bronson’s mindset was all about Charles Bronson, and he was insulted by being offered a role that he thought was beneath him. While we all need to be discerning about the “roles” we take on in our personal and professional lives, coming from a place of ego will rarely serve you.

Finally, while Bronson’s approach may not have burned any bridges, it also certainly may have. Think about it – would you be likely to go back to Bronson with another role in the future after this experience with him? Our lives, businesses and careers are meant to be relational, and there’s no reason or need to burn a bridge when delivering a “no.” We are all asked to do things in various contexts where (for whatever reason) we don’t want to do them. While it’s sometimes difficult to say “no” (that’s a whole other topic for the future), we can and should deliver a “no” in a way that communicates that we are honored by the opportunity even if it’s not the right fit.

In what areas of your life or business are you closing the door to opportunities based upon your comfort zone, the way you’ve always done things or how things have gone in the past?

In what ways are you making personal or professional decisions primarily from your ego, rather than after well-reasoned and rational consideration?

In what parts of your life or business are you burning bridges or relationships by the way you communicate (or fail to communicate)?

In the coming weeks and beyond, take a lesson from Charles Bronson on what not to do. Be willing to try new things or get outside your comfort zone. Focus on making decisions from your heart, not your ego. Remember than even a “no” can be delivered with dignity and respect. And while you’re at it, watch City Slickers again and pay close attention to Curly’s great wisdom about the ONE thing.


  1. This is a great one for me, as I am about to make yet again, another turning point. Thanks Jeff!! I am going to share it with Micah too! Bless you.

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