Celebrities That Went From Coal Mining Towns To Tinsel Town

April 19, 2011
In the opening sequence for Spike TV's new hit original series Coal, the miners of Cobalt Coal are labeled as being "sons, brothers and fathers." In other words, they are just like any of us, doing a job and providing the very best for their families. Set in West Virginia, Coal also showcases small town America, but just because you come from a small coal mining town, doesn't mean you can't go on to bigger things. Here are just a few celebrities who started in coal mining families or as coal miners themselves.

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Charles Bronson - One of the toughest actors in the business, the late Charles Bronson was born and raised in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. Hailing from the small town of Ehrenfeld, he followed in his coal miner father’s footsteps, and worked as a miner himself from the ages of sixteen to twenty at which point he went off to fight in World War II. It wasn’t until he came back that he moved to Hollywood, and took up acting classes. A few bit roles later, Bronson hit his stride starring in the likes of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape where this former miner played by no coincidence, “The Tunnel King,” and was tasked to dig his fellow prisoners out of their Nazi prison camp. Years later Bronson solidified his place in history as the ultimate tough guy when he took on the lead role of ‘Paul Kersey’ in the famed Death Wish films, but as Bronson would often admit, that toughness began in the mines.

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Loretta Lynn - Truly a Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn was born in Kentucky and raised by her coal mining father, Melvin "Ted" Webb. Moving halfway across the country couldn't stop her from remembering where she came from. In 1970 she released the song, "Coal Miner's Daughter," which went on to hit #1 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song later became the title of her biography and finally that of the film based on her life starring Sissy Spacek. With 16 number one hits, Lynn continues to be a musical inspiration, and has most recently reached out to younger generations, teaming up with the likes of the White Stripes singer/songwriter, Jack White, but it all comes back to her being a coal miner’s daughter.

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Jack Palance – This late Oscar winner and City Slickers star was born in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania just outside Hazleton. An actor for more than 40 years, he was also a boxer and a graduate of Stanford University, proving that you don’t have to be brain or brawn, you can be both. His tough guy status started much like Bronson’s -- in the mines. Raised as the son of a coal miner, Palance himself headed down into the mines for a time. However, it was when he got his football scholarship that he came back out. An Emmy winner for “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” Palance never denied his roots and was as fiercely proud to be the son of a coal miner .

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Mary Lou Retton - A native of West Virginia, this Olympic gold medalist, is the daughter of Ronnie Retton who owned and operated a coal transportation business in the small town of Fairmont. Never graduating from high school, Retton took up gymnastics after being inspired by gymnast sensation, Nadia Comaneci. It's when she moved to Texas to train under Comaneci's famed coach that her career took off and she landed in the ’84 Olympics. Retton owns five Olympic medals to her now household name. However, all the medals in the world couldn’t keep her away from Fairmont. She returned to her native West Virginia hometown four years ago and has been raising her family there since; enjoying the “slower life” and getting simple high-fives on the street rather than being hounded by autograph seekers.

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Jerry West - West Virginian native, Jerry West also grew up in a coal mining family with his father working as a coal mine electrician in the then impoverished town of Chelyan. At first, Jerry was labeled small and frail. It was only when he got to high school that he finally was able to show everyone what he had been training his whole life for -- basketball. West quickly rose in the ranks, first as West Virginia’s Player of the Year in 1956, then as a star at West Virginia University and finally as an all-star with the Minneapolis Lakers (later the Los Angeles Lakers). West later transitioned into leadership as a coach and general manager before retiring from the sport, but his fondness for his home state still shines through as West continues to spend three months out of the year in West Virginia.

There are many more stories like these, which prove that as a coal miner or the child of one, the opportunities you get in life are only the ones you seek out for yourself. All new episodes of Coal air every Wednesday at 10PM/9C on Spike. Be certain to follow the show on Facebook and Twitter for more great coal miner stories and the latest in exclusive content.