After finishing The Stone Killer (1973), Charles Bronson and Michael Winner wanted to make another film together, and were discussing further projects. "What do we do next?" asked Bronson. "The best script I've got is 'Death Wish'. It's about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and he goes out and shoots muggers," said Winner. "I'd like to do that," Bronson said. "The film?" asked Winner. Bronson replied, "No . . . shoot muggers."
The name "Paul Kersey" for the Charles Bronson character was the actual name of one of the extras hired for the movie. He allowed the use of his name in exchange for his appearing in all possible scenes requiring an extra.
The opening scene with Kersey photographing his wife in Hawaii was added to the script by Michael Winner himself. After Kersey's wife is murdered and his daughter raped, he gets the photographs back from the developer after he comes back from Tucson and been given a gun by the architect. It's the emotional impact of the photographs that makes him go out and kill his first mugger.
Star Charles Bronson once said of this movie: "I certainly don't advocate anyone taking the law into their own hands. I don't think that the film advocates that, either. If my films have a lesson, it's that violence doesn't pay. My opinion is that violence only breeds violence."
After the success of Dirty Harry (1971), Clint Eastwood was offered the role of Paul Kersey but declined, feeling he would be poorly cast. He also thought that Gregory Peck would have been right for the part.
Director Michael Winner was anxious before production because he was waiting for Charles Bronson to tell him he wanted Jill Ireland to play his wife in the movie, despite Winner's feeling she was unsuitable for the part. Finally he said to Bronson, "Charlie, do you want Jill to play your wife in 'Death Wish'?" Bronson replied, "No. I don't want her humiliated and messed around by these actors who play muggers. You know the sort of person we want? Someone who looks like Hope Lange." Lange was an attractive, blonde, all-American "girl next door" type who had starred in the TV series The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968) and The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971). Winner said, "Well, Charlie, the person who looks most like Hope Lange is Hope Lange. So I'll get her." And he did.
After viewing the film, Brian Garfield was dissatisfied with the result of his novel-turned-film, due to its advocacy towards vigilantism, resulting in him writing a sequel novel called 'Death Sentence,' which dealt of the consequences of vigilantism. The book was adapted in 2007 starring Kevin Bacon, but with a complete different story, which kept only certain elements from the book.
The time line of the "Death Wish" films gets slightly confusing. In Death Wish II (1982), when policeman Ochoa is speaking with Jill Ireland's character, he says Kersey "killed nine people in New York City four years ago". In Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), Officer Reiner, in a scene after the corpse of Officer Nozaki is found, speaks with a superior and says that Mrs. Kersey died in 1975, while his daughter died in 1981. The presence of Excalibur (1981) on a theater marquee towards the end of "Death Wish II" supports the placement of the events of that film in 1981. If one accepts Ochoa's placement of Kersey's New York rampage as four years prior to 1981, that would push much of the events of the original Death Wish (1974) to 1977.
This movie was released in the U.S. in July of 1974, the same month as another Charles Bronson picture, Mr. Majestyk (1974). This movie premiered on the 24th whilst that movie was released just a week earlier on the 17th.
It has been rumored that Denzel Washington played one of the alley thugs at around 47 minutes (albeit uncredited). While the actor in the film may bear a resemblance to Denzel Washington, this has not been confirmed to be true.
The final script had the vigilante making the occasional reference to westerns. While confronting an armed mugger, he asks him to draw. When Ochoa asks him to leave town, he asks if he has until sundown to do so.
According to writer Brian Garfield, Sidney Lumet was set to direct the film with Jack Lemmon playing Paul Kersey (presumably to be more in line with the "everyman" character in the book) and Henry Fonda as the police chief. After Lumet chose to direct Serpico (1973) instead, both Lemmon and Fonda dropped out. At one point the movie was also set to be shot in black-and-white.
This picture went into turnaround at United Artists due to financial problems relating to the budget, and consequently the producers, Bobby Roberts and Hal Landers, were forced to sell their film rights.
The handgun that was given to Paul Kersey, as a gift by Ames Jainchill, which Paul uses to kill muggers, is a nickel plated Colt Police Positive .32 calibre, made by Colt Manufacturing Company from 1908-1995.
When Ames Jainchill meets Paul Kersey in his office he says, "I don't know who said it, but someone once said 'Don't look back because something might be gaining on you'." That quote is attributed to Leroy 'Satchel' Paige.
Saul Rubinek plays a punk wearing a U.S. flag embossed motorcycle jacket in the subway scene (uncredited). Twenty years later, Rubinek plays a completely different character, (an NYPD detective), in the Canadian-made sequel, Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994).
This movie was Charles Bronson's first picture to feature the word 'Death' in the title. The next was Death Hunt (1981) made and released seven years later. Another Messenger of Death (1988) also featured the word. Bronson made seven movies with this word in the title, five of them being in the 'Death Wish' franchise. The final time film would be Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), where the word actually appears twice.
A minor argument occurred when it came to a shooting location for the film. Charles Bronson asked for a California-based location so he could visit his family in Bel Air, Los Angeles. Michael Winner insisted on New York City and Dino De Laurentiis agreed. Ultimately, Bronson backed down.
The home of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is revealed as being 33 Riverside Drive, New York City. The real actual house was located on West 75th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Numerous scenes were filmed around this location.
In the original novel, the main character was an accountant. His profession was changed to architect for the film. Despite this, many of his co-workers in the film share their names with co-workers in the book.
The large bank where Paul Kersey picks up two rolls of quarters, to place in a sock as a weapon, was Central Savings Bank at 2100 Broadway at 73rd Street in NYC. It is now Apple Bank for Savings, and the building is a historic landmark.
Initially, Charles Bronson wasn't sold on starring in the film. "The way the part was written, it was about a meek little New York-born accountant," Bronson said. "I thought it was a much better picture for Dustin Hoffman." Eventually, it was Michael Winner who convinced Bronson to take the role anyway. "He said we could change the part to a more active and virile architect, and we'd all make a potful of money."
The early draft of the script had the vigilante being inspired by seeing a fight scene in High Noon (1952). Michael Winner decided on a more elaborate scene, involving a fight scene in a recreation of the Wild West, taking place in Tucson, Arizona.
Charles Bronson and his agent disagreed on the film's message. "It's the only time Paul Kohner, my agent, ever disagreed with me about a film," Bronson said in 1974. "Paul felt very strongly that it was a dangerous picture-that it might make people think it's right to take the law into their own hands. This is what the hero of the picture does when he wants a one-man vigilante squad to kill muggers, after three of them have murdered his wife and raped his daughter. I told Paul I thought the message was the same there that runs through a lot of my pictures: That violence is senseless because it only begets more violence."
Reportedly, director Michael Winner lost over fourteen pounds during the filming of this movie. This was attributed to (at least in part) moving from the hot conditions of Hawaii to the freezing weather in New York City.
Both the novel and the original script had no scenes showing the vigilante interacting with his wife. Michael Winner decided to include a prologue depicting a happy relationship, so the prologue of the film depicts the couple vacationing in Hawaii.
Wendell Mayes preserved the basic structure of the novel and much of the philosophical dialogue. It was his idea to turn police detective Frank Ochoa into a major character of the film. His early drafts for the screenplay had different endings than the final one. In one, he followed an idea from Brian Garfield. The vigilante confronts the three thugs who attacked his family and ends up dead at their hands. Ochoa discovers the dead man's weapon and considers following in his footsteps. In another, the vigilante is wounded and rushed to a hospital. His fate is left ambiguous. Meanwhile, Ochoa has found the weapon and struggles with the decision to use it. His decision left unclear.
The original novel received favourable reviews but was not a best seller. Brian Garfield sold screen rights to both Death Wish and Relentless to the only film producers who approached him on the subject, Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts. He was offered the chance to write a screenplay adapting one of the two novels, and chose Relentless. He simply considered it the easier of the two to turn into a film.
Charles Bronson almost didn't get this film for two reasons - first, his agent Paul Kohner considered that the film carried a dangerous message. Second, at this point the screenplay followed the original novel in describing the vigilante as a meek accountant-hardly a suitable role for Bronson.
Brian Garfield thought that Charles Bronson was miscast as Paul Kersey. Garfield didn't like the fact that as soon as Bronson appeared on screen, "you knew he was going to start blowing people away." Michael Winner dismissed the author's criticisms, calling him "an idiot."
When it came time to air the movie on network television, Washington D.C. delayed the start time from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Chicago and San Francisco opted not to air it. But every other major CBS affiliate around the country aired an edited version of the film during on primetime on November 10, 1976, despite Brian Garfield's protests. "I think it is a dangerous film," he said. "And the proof is that several people have already committed vigilante crimes inspired by the film, and said so." Garfield said this despite potentially losing $50,000 if Death Wish didn't run.
Olympia Dukakis was uncredited, but paid, for playing one of the cops at the precinct. She was open with The A.V. Club about the whole experience. "Yeah, they sent me over, and the director [Michael Winner] was, uh, not necessarily liked by the actors. I mean, he made me turn around, and he wanted to see me, and ... he treated me like a piece of meat during the audition. But it was, like, one day, so I could take the money and go home and say, 'F**k you and the horse you rode in on.'"