Updated September 01, 2003 06:06 PM

Charismatic tough guy Charles Bronson, 81, who was to the five “Death Wish” movies starting in the 1970s what Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone respectively were a decade later to the “Indiana Jones” and “Rambo” series, died Saturday in Los Angeles from pneumonia, The New York Times reported. Published sources said he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past few years.

Born into a coal miner’s family in rural Pennsylvania, Bronson (whose original, Lithuanian surname was Buchinsky) was the 11th of 15th children. He too worked in the mines until, as a teen, he was drafted into Army service – after which he moved to Atlantic City, where he hooked up with a group of stage actors.

Hitting Hollywood in 1949, he landed some small roles, including one in 1951’s “You’re in the Navy Now,” starring then-veteran matinee idol Gary Cooper. Among Bronson’s better-known B movies was 1958’s “Machine-Gun Kelly,” which, according to The Times, later prompted French star Alain Delon to invite Bronson (as he was now calling himself) to France to costar in 1968’s “Adieu, L’ami,” which proved a European success.

But it was Paramount Pictures’ 1974 “Death Wish” that made the leading man with the lived-in face a household name in his native country – despite the fact that several critics grew nauseous over the movie’s violence as well as its seeming approval of vigilantism. (Bronson played liberal New York architect Paul Kersey, whose wife is murdered and daughter raped by hoodlums, and, after the judicial system fails to punish the perpetrators, Kersey takes the law into his own hands.)

In response to the reviewers’ outrage (newspaper editorial pages coast to coast also commented on the phenomenon of the film’s success), Bronson said, as reported by The Times: “We don’t make movies for critics, since they don’t pay to see them anyhow.”

Bronson’s other films included 1975’s “Breakout,” 1984’s “The Evil That Men Do” and 1986’s “Murphy’s Law,” and several TV movies. And, despite his gruff image, Bronson was said to be a gentle fellow whose hobby was painting.

Divorced from his first wife, Harriet Tendler, in 1969, Bronson lost his second wife, British actress Jill Ireland, to cancer in 1990. His survivors are his third wife, Kim; daughters Suzanne, Katrina and Zulieka; son Tony; stepsons Paul and Valentine McCallum; and two grandchildren.