That commanding voice. Those pearly white teeth. That lanky frame. Those acting chops. That long angular face and devilish laugh. Those blue eyes.
Could this be the same guy who was involved in some of the original LSD experiments, took martial arts lessons from Bruce Lee, fought crippling rheumatoid arthritis and won, appeared on the cover of an iconic record album and took home an Academy Award?
Indeed, it was: James Coburn, one of the coolest cucumbers in Hollywood history.
Throughout my childhood, the actor kept showing up in some of my favorite movies. Whether in the lead or as a supporting performer, he always left a major impression, and according to critic David Thomson, he typically did so with “lazy, humorous sexuality.”
There was the expert knife thrower in The Magnificent Seven…the Australian POW in The Great Escape…the bad guy cowboy in Charade…the first mate on a pirate ship carrying stowaway children in A High Wind in Jamaica…and, of course, the ultra-cool secret agent Derek Flint in two colorful sixties spy spoofs.
The older I got, the more fascinated I was with not only Coburn’s persona, but his acting. When I was researching a book on the films of the 1960s and 1970s, I went back and took a closer look at some of the films I saw when I was younger, and his work grew even more striking. Here was a guy obviously enjoying himself, no matter how dire the situations his characters faced.
Coburn was born in Laurel, Nebraska in 1928; his family moved to Compton, California, where, after a stint as a disc jockey in the Army, he studied acting at Los Angeles City College. A move to New York led to learning the performance ropes alongside Warren Beatty with Stella Adler, stage appearances, and TV work both on commercials—he shaved off his shaggy beard in a Remington spot, for residuals that eventually totaled over $20,000—and in several TV dramas.
After a move back to the West Coast and taking lessons with noted thespian sage Jeff Corey, Coburn started to draw attention for his work in small screen westerns. He got his first on-screen assignment in 1959 in Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome, in which he plays one of the outlaws out to collect loot from bounty hunter Randolph Scott. Lots more TV roles ensued, heavy on the black hats, in such popular oaters as Bonanza, Rawhide and The Rifleman.
Also in 1959, Coburn partook in an experiment with LSD to “find out where I was in a state of consciousness.” Through the years, he also delved into Sufi meditation, fasting, biorhythms, used a special holistic approach and, years later, employed a megavitamin diet to deal with his crippling arthritis.
In John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Coburn’s blade expert stole scenes from his other six compadres, played by Yul Brynner, Robert Vaughn, Horst Bucholz, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter and close pal Steve McQueen. With McQueen, he would soon make Don Siegel’s war drama Hell is for Heroes; he’d reunite with McQueen, Sturges and Bronson for The Great Escape, this time playing a bicycle- swiping Aussie officer and one of the few in the film to actually escape the Nazi POW camp. Offscreen, it was Coburn, in fact, that introduced McQueen to Ferraris, fueling his love for fast cars.
Coburn’s lean 6’3”frame, baritone pipes, effervescent grin and energetic jump in his step pointed to larger roles in features. That is what he got after key supporting parts in Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily and Sam Peckinpah’s troubled sagebrusher Major Dundee, both in 1964.
In the shadow of the international sensation that was Sean Connery’s 007, Coburn delivered as Our Man Flint, 20th Century Fox’s response to the secret agent hijinks taking place in movies and TV at the time. Perfectly tailored to Coburn’s sharp, imperturbable persona, Derek Flint was a suave brainiac with martial arts skills (Coburn and McQueen studied under Bruce Lee, and later served as pallbearers at his funeral), supreme sleuthing abilities, a battery of nifty gadgetry—both lethal and non-lethal– and, of course, a way with gorgeous women, including that va-va-voom Gila Golan, Miss Israel 1961.
Wrote film critic Bosley Crowther in his mixed review in The New York Times: “HERE we go again! Another James Bond! Cancel that. Another brazen travesty of the already self-burlesquing figment of the Ian Fleming super-sleuth! And if anybody in the movie audience thinks that this sort of thing has gone too far and is without sin in giving it encouragement by patronizing the Bond films, let him cast the first stone!
“This time the ape of 007 is a long-legged wizard name of Flint, who is played by elastic James Coburn, a spirited fellow who has already manifested his cool as a killer, both lady and lethal, in ‘The Americanization of Emily’ and ‘Charade.’ And the picture in which he is burlesquing the 007 bit is ‘Our Man Flint.’
Yeah, some of the jokes in the Flint film were dumb, but people did come, so Coburn was back in the tux and turtleneck two years later for in the even cartoonier In Like Flint.
While nobody will ever consider the bigger-than-life Derek Flint outings as serious stuff, the films showed enough steam to push Coburn over the top and into starring roles in the mid-1960s. Along with a series of featured roles in lighter films like Blake Edwards’ military satire What Did You Do in the War Daddy?, the western farce Waterhole #3, and the snaky heist film Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round –“The slickest swingin’est con man who ever took the world for a ride!,” proclaimed the poster– Coburn co-produced and starred in 1967’s The President’s Analyst, one of the wittiest and most subversive films of the era.
In the picture which Roger Ebert called “one of the funniest films of the year along with The Graduate and Bedazzled,” Coburn plays a New York city psychiatrist for LBJ, the President of the U.S., who finds himself being spied on and ordered to ditch his girlfriend by who he thinks is the government. Coburn goes on the run, eluding the forces after him (including “TPC”—you need to see the movie!), finding refuge (he believes) with a typical suburban family, and then hippies in Greenwich Village. He eventually discovers unlikely allies as the heat gets turned up even further on him.
Along with a premise that is genuinely inventive and a script filled with psychedelic surprises, what makes the film successful is watching Coburn—the actor, as well as the character of the unflappable shrink—lose his cool. Even though The President’s Analyst failed at the box-office, the film and Coburn’s performance have gained a strong following over the years.
For his next several roles, the actor chose interesting and often challenging but rarely successful projects. There was Duffy, with Coburn as an aristocratic criminal enlisted to steal a boat with lots of loot; Hard Contract, in which he played an American hitman in Europe; The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, an X-rated Tennessee Williams adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet that Time Magazine’s critic reported “On all counts…fails.”; and, of course, the disastrous big-screen version of Terry Sothern’s erotic satire Candy, which showcased the actor as a diabolical brain surgeon amongst an all-star cast that included Brando, Burton, Matthau and Starr—Ringo, that is.
Whatever box-office clout Coburn had amassed with the Flint films was threatened by appearing in these pictures, but the actor didn’t seem to care.
With the turn of the ‘70s, Coburn showed up on the cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ classic Band on the Run album (with Christopher Lee, among others), because he happened to be in England shooting the thriller The Internecine Project at the time they were photographing the jacket.
He certainly fared better with westerns in that period, and, although none of them were big hits at the time, they have grown in stature over the years.
Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! (AKA: A Fistful of Dynamite) was loaded with a series of major problems before, during and after production, including the firing of director Peter Bogdanovich. In a role intended for Jason Robards, Jr., Coburn turns in one of his sturdiest performances as an Irish demolitions expert getting involved in the Mexican Revolution alongside grubby outlaw Rod Steiger.
In another film plagued with difficulties, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Coburn brought a quiet dignity to his part as the senior lawman enlisted to go knockin’ on heaven’s door to take down his former friend, Kris Kristofferson’s notorious outlaw. Meanwhile, in the brutal The Last Hard Men, Coburn played a renegade outlaw seeking vengeance against lawman Charlton Heston, responsible for the imprisonment and death of Coburn’s wife.
For Walter Hill’s Hard Times, a pseudo-western set during the Depression in New Orleans, Coburn serves up a charismatic promoter pushing bareknuckle boxer Charles Bronson (reunited again!) in street brawls, and in Richard Brooks’ bigger-than-life western adventure Bite the Bullet, James is a drifter and former Rough Rider participating in a marathon horse race.
In between these efforts, Coburn registered three eclectic offerings. In The Last of Sheila, penned by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (!?), he plays an entertainment mogul with a nasty sense of humor who organizes a yacht trip with Hollywood friends (limned by the likes of James Mason, Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon) to uncover the person responsible for his wife’s hit-and-run murder. For the lark Harry in Your Pocket, the actor essayed the part of an expert Seattle-based pickpocket acting a mentor to younger criminal Michael Sarrazin. And in The Internecine Project, Coburn impresses as a financial wizard with criminal dealings who must shut down the people who know of his shady past when he’s appointed to a position aiding the President.
Meanwhile, Coburn and Peckinpah regrouped for 1976’s brutal Cross of Iron, the director’s only combat movie which Orson Welles called “the greatest anti-war film ever made.” Coburn also worked on the WWII-set script which found him as Sergeant Steiner, a fierce German platoon leader battling the Russians, who is taken aback when an aristocratic Prussian officer (Maximillian Schell), obsessed with getting the Iron Cross, becomes his troop’s commander.
Cross of Iron endured funding problems, an edited down American release and spotty distribution in theaters. Yet, it has built a devoted following over the years and, while it has divided audiences, many believe it showcases one of Coburn’s best acting turns.
As for working with the controversial Peckinpah, Coburn candidly said “Sam is, I think, a great filmmaker. Of course, he`s his own worst enemy. Sam is an unusual human being, and he needs to be treated like an unusual human being.
“He can create an atmosphere, whether he`s drunk, sober, p*ssed off or in a rage, or whatever. I mean, for about three or four hours a day, he`s a f**king genius. But the rest of the time he spends wallowing in a kind of emotional reaction to either good or bad memories.”
Thereafter, with the onset of middle age as well as his long grapple with rheumatoid arthritis, the balance of Coburn’s output would become sporadic and unpredictable. There were TV commercials for beer and cars (the “Like a Rock” campaign for Chevy Trucks), voiceover work (Monsters, Inc.), and TV movies and miniseries (including starring as Dashiell Hammett’s detective Hamilton Nash in The Dain Curse).
Coburn wasn’t averse to taking a small part on the big screen, either. Over the years, you could catch him as the owner of the El Sleazo Mexican restaurant in The Muppet Movie, as cattle baron John Chisolm in Young Guns II, as an administrator trying to close the convent in Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, as a CIA honcho in Hudson Hawk, as Commodore Duvall, poker-playing owner of the gambling riverboat in Maverick, and as one of the many cameo performers in Robert Altman’s The Player.
Coburn, who had never been up for an Oscar before, received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 1998’s Affliction, Paul Schrader’s searing drama for which the actor thinned his hair, changed his voice, and artificially added weight to play the abusive, alcoholic father of troubled New Hampshire cop Nick Nolte. In a fitting capper to his wide-ranging career, Coburn won the Oscar. “Some of them you do for money, some of them you do for love,” Coburn said in his acceptance speech after receiving the trophy from Kim Basinger. “This is a love child.”
Following Affliction, Coburn had key roles in a few films: The Man from Elysium Fields, plating a dying writer; American Gun, essaying the role of a father tracing the history of the murder weapon that claimed his daughter; and Snow Dogs, a surprise 2002 hit for Disney, in which he played a crusty mountain man.
The actor passed away of a heart attack in November 2002 while listening to music with his wife Paula at their Beverly Hills home.
The song he was listening to?
“Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holliday.