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Coburn as Anthony Wayne in The Californians(1959)
- Born: James Harrison Coburn III, August 31, 1928
Laurel, Nebraska, U.S.
- Died: November 18, 2002 (aged 74), Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
- Cause of death: Heart attack
- Resting place: Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
- Education: Compton Junior College
- Alma mater: Los Angeles City College
- Occupation: Actor
- Years active: 1957–2002
- Home town: Compton, California
- Beverly Kelly, (m. 1959; div. 1979)
- Paula Murad, (m. 1993; his death 2002)
- Dylan (deceased)
- James Harrison Coburn II
- Mylet Coburn
James Harrison Coburn III (/dʒeɪmz ˈkoʊbɜːrrnˌˈkoʊbərn/; August 31, 1928 – November 18, 2002) was an American actor. He featured in more than 70 films, largely action roles, and made 100 television appearances during a 45-year career, ultimately winning an Academy Award in 1998 for his supporting role as Glen Whitehouse in Affliction.
A capable, rough-hewn leading man, his toothy grin and lanky physique made him a perfect tough guy in numerous leading and supporting roles in westerns and action films, such as The Magnificent Seven, Hell Is for Heroes, The Great Escape, Charade, Our Man Flint, In Like Flint, Duck, You Sucker!, and Cross of Iron. Coburn provided the voice of Henry Waternoose in the Pixar film Monsters, Inc.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s Coburn cultivated an image synonymous with “cool”, and along with such contemporaries as Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson became one of the prominent “tough-guy” actors of his day.
Coburn was born on August 31, 1928 in Laurel, Nebraska, the son of James Harrison Coburn II and Mylet Coburn. His father was of Scottish-Irish ancestry and his mother was an immigrant from Sweden. The elder Coburn had a garage business that was destroyed by the Great Depression. Coburn himself was raised in Compton, California, where he attended Compton Junior College. In 1950, he enlisted in the United States Army, in which he served as a truck driver and occasionally a disc jockey on an Army radio station in Texas. Coburn also narrated Army training films in Mainz, Germany.
Coburn attended Los Angeles City College, where he studied acting alongside Jeff Corey and Stella Adler, and later made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.
Coburn’s first professional job as a live television play for Sidney Lumet.
He was selected for a Remington Products razor commercial in which he was able to shave off 11 days of beard growth in less than 60 seconds, while joking that he had more teeth to show on camera than the other 12 candidates for the part.
Coburn’s film debut came in 1959 as the sidekick of Pernell Roberts in the Randolph Scott western Ride Lonesome. He soon got a job in another Western Face of a Fugitive (1959).
Coburn also appeared in dozens of television roles including, with Roberts, several episodes of NBC’s Bonanza. Coburn appeared twice each on two other NBC westerns Tales of Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson, one episode in the role of Butch Cassidy, and The Restless Gun with John Payne in “The Pawn” and “The Way Back”, the latter segment alongside Bonanza’s Dan Blocker.
Coburn’s third film was a major breakthrough for him – as the knife-wielding Britt in The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges for the Mirisch Company. Coburn was hired through the intervention of his friend, Robert Vaughan.
During the 1960 to 1961 season, Coburn co-starred with Ralph Taeger and Joi Lansing in the NBC adventure/drama series, Klondike, set in the Alaskan gold rush town of Skagway.
When Klondike was cancelled, Taeger and Coburn were regrouped as detectives in Mexico in NBC’s equally short-lived Acapulco.
Coburn also made two guest appearances on CBS’s Perry Mason, both times as the murder victim in “The Case of the Envious Editor” and “The Case of the Angry Astronaut.” In 1962, he portrayed the role of Col. Briscoe in the episode “Hostage Child” on CBS’s Rawhide.
Coburn in Charade (1963)
Coburn had a good role in Hell Is for Heroes (1962), a war movie with Steve McQueen. Coburn followed this with another war film with McQueen, The Great Escape (1963), directed by Sturges for the Mirisches; Coburn played an Australian. For the Mirisches, Coburn narrated Kings of the Sun (1963).
Coburn was one of the villains in Charade (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. He was then cast as a glib naval officer in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily, replacing James Garner, who had moved up to the lead when William Holden pulled out. This led to Coburn being signed to a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox.
Coburn had another excellent support role as a one-armed Indian tracker in Major Dundee (1965), directed by Sam Peckinpah.
At Fox, he was second-billed in the pirate film A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), supporting Anthony Quinn. He had a cameo in The Loved One (1965).
Our Man Flint and Stardom
Coburn became a genuine star following the release of the James Bond parody film Our Man Flint (1966), playing super agent Derek Flint for Fox. The movie was a solid success at the box office.
He followed it with What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), a wartime comedy from Blake Edwards which was made for the Mirisches; Coburn was top billed. The film was a commercial disappointment. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) was a crime movie made at Columbia.
Back at Fox, Coburn made a second Flint film, In Like Flint (1967), which was popular but Coburn did not wish to make any more. He went over to Paramount to make a Western comedy, Waterhole No. 3 (1967), and the political satire The President’s Analyst (1967). Neither film performed particularly well at the box office but over the years The President’s Analyst has become a cult film. In 1967 Coburn was voted the twelfth biggest star in Hollywood.
Over at Columbia, Coburn was in a swinging sixties heist film, Duffy (1968) which flopped. He was one of several stars who had cameos in Candy (1968) then played a hitman in Hard Contract (1969) for Fox, another flop.
Coburn tried a change of pace, an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970) directed by Sidney Lumet, but the film was not popular.
In 1971, Coburn starred in the Zapata Western Duck, You Sucker!, with Rod Steiger and directed by Sergio Leone, as an Irish explosives expert and revolutionary who has fled to Mexico during the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. This was not as highly regarded as Leone’s four previous Westerns but was hugely popular in Europe, especially France.
Back in the US he made another film with Blake Edwards, the thriller The Carey Treatment (1972). It was badly cut by MGM and was commercially underwhelming. So too was The Honkers (1972) where Coburn played a rodeo rider.
Coburn went back to Italy to make another Western, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1973). He then re-teamed with director Sam Peckinpah for the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he played Pat Garrett. In 1973 Coburn was voted the 23rd most popular star in Hollywood.
In 1973, Coburn was among the featured celebrities dressed in prison gear on the cover of the album Band on the Run made by Paul McCartney and his band Wings. Coburn, Steve McQueen and Chuck Norris were pallbearers of Bruce Lee’s casket and Coburn was considered to be one of Lee’s friends.
Coburn was one of several stars in the popular The Last of Sheila (1973). He then starred in a series of thrillers: Harry in Your Pocket (1974) and The Internecine Project (1975). Neither was widely seen.
Decline as Star
Coburn began to drop back down the credit list: he was third billed in Bite the Bullet (1975) behind Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen for Richard Brooks. He co-starred with Charles Bronson in Hard Times (1975), the directorial debut of Walter Hill, but it was very much Bronson’s film. The movie was popular.
Coburn played the lead in the action film Sky Riders (1976) then played Charlton Heston’s antagonist in The Last Hard Men (1976). He was one of the many stars in Midway (1976) then had the star role in Cross of Iron (1977) for Sam Peckinpah, playing a German soldier. This critically acclaimed war epic performed poorly in the United States but was a huge hit in Europe. Peckinpah and Coburn remained close friends until Peckinpah’s death in 1984.
Coburn returned to television in 1978 to star in a three-part mini-series version of a Dashiell Hammett detective novel, The Dain Curse, tailoring his character to bear a physical resemblance to the author. During that same year as a spokesman for the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, he was paid $500,000 to promote its new product in television advertisements by saying only two words: “Schlitz. Light.” In Japan his masculine appearance was so appealing he became an icon for its leading cigarette brand. He also supported himself in later years by exporting rare automobiles to Japan. He was deeply interested in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and collected sacred Buddhist artwork. He narrated a film about the 16th Karmapa called “The Lion’s Roar”.
Coburn starred in Firepower (1979) with Sophia Loren, replacing Charles Bronson when the latter pulled out. He had a cameo in The Muppet Movie (1979) and had leading roles in Goldengirl (1980) and The Baltimore Bullet (1980). He was Shirley MacLaine’s husband in Loving Couples (1980) and had the lead in a Canadian film, Crossover (1980).
Coburn moved into almost entirely support roles: the villain in High Risk (1981) and Looker (1981). He hosted a TV series Darkroom (1981-82).
Because of his severe rheumatoid arthritis, Coburn appeared in very few films during the 1980s, yet continued working until his death in 2002. This disease had left Coburn’s body deformed and in pain. “You start to turn to stone,” he told ABCNEWS in an April 1999 interview. “See, my hand is twisted now because tendons have shortened.” For 20 years he tried a host of conventional and unconventional treatments, but nothing worked. “There was so much pain that … every time I stood up, I would break into a sweat,” he recalled. Then, at age 68, Coburn tried something called MSM, methylsulfonylmethane, a sulfur compound available at most health food stores. The result, he said, was nothing short of miraculous. “You take this stuff and it starts right away,” said Coburn. “Everyone I’ve given it to has had a positive response.” MSM did not cure Coburn’s arthritis, but it did relieve his pain, allowing him to move more freely and resume his career.
He spent much of his life writing songs with British singer-songwriter Lynsey de Paul.
Coburn returned to film in the 1990s and appeared in supporting roles in Young Guns II, Hudson Hawk, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Maverick, Eraser, The Nutty Professor, Affliction, and Payback. Coburn’s performance in Affliction eventually earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In addition, he provided the voice of Henry J. Waternoose III in Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.
Bob Bondurant teaching Coburn in 1972
Coburn’s interest in fast cars began with his father’s garage business and continued throughout his life, as he exported rare cars to Japan. Coburn was credited with having introduced Steve McQueen to Ferraris, and in the early 1960s owned a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso and a Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California SWB. His Spyder was the thirteenth of just fifty-six built. Coburn imported the pre-owned car in 1964, shortly after completing The Great Escape. The car was restored and sold for $10,894,400 to English broadcaster Chris Evans, setting a new world record for the highest price ever paid for an automobile at auction.
Cal Spyder #2377 was repainted several times during Coburn’s ownership; it has been black, silver and possibly burgundy. He kept the car at his Beverly Hills-area home, where it was often serviced by Max Balchowsky, who also worked on the suspension and frame modifications on those Mustang GTs used in the filming of McQueen’s Bullitt. Coburn sold the Spyder in 1987 after twenty-four years of ownership. Over time he also owned the above-noted Lusso, a Ferrari Daytona, at least one Ferrari 308 and a 1967 Ferrari 412P sports racer.
Death and Legacy
Coburn’s grave marker
Coburn died of a heart attack on November 18, 2002 while listening to music at his Beverly Hills home. He was survived by his second wife, Paula (née Murad), two children and two grandchildren.
His wife Paula died two years later on July 30, 2004 at the age of 48, due to cancer.
In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson states that “Coburn is a modern rarity: an actor who projects lazy, humorous sexuality. He has made a variety of flawed, pleasurable films, the merits of which invariably depend on his laconic presence. Increasingly, he was the best thing in his movies, smiling privately, seeming to suggest that he was in contact with some profound source of amusement”. Film critic Pauline Kael remarked on Coburn’s unusual characteristics, stating that “he looked like the child of the liaison between Lt. Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly”. George Hickenlooper, who directed Coburn in The Man from Elysian Fields called him “the masculine male”. Andy García called him “the personification of class, the hippest of the hip”, and Paul Schrader noted “he was of that 50’s generation. He had that part hipster, part cool-cat aura about him. He was one of those kind of men who were formed by the Rat Pack kind of style.”