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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
The time line of the "Death Wish" films gets slightly confused. 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.
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.
The handgun that was given to Paul Kersey as a gift by Ames Jainchill which Paul uses to kill muggers, is a nickle plated Colt New Police Positive, caliber .32, made by Colt Manufacturing Company from 1908-1995.
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.
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 about 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.
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."
This movie was launched in the USA in July 1974, the same month as another Charles Bronson picture, Mr. Majestyk (1974). This movie premiered on the 24th whilst that movie was first released just a week earlier on the 17th.
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.
This picture went into turnaround at the United Artists studio due to financing problems relating to the budget and consequently the producers Bobby Roberts and Hal Landers were forced to sell their film rights and liquidate them.
Reportedly, director Michael Winner lost over a stone in weight during production filming on this movie. This was attributed to (at least in part) to moving from the extremely hot conditions of filming in Hawaii to the extremely freezing weather whilst filming in New York City.
After viewing the film, Brian Garfield was dissatisfied with the result of his novel turned film due to its advocacy towards vigilantism, resulted him to write up a sequel novel called 'Death Sentence,' which dealt of the consequence 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.