James Coburn 31/8/1928 - 19/11/2002

"Actors are boring when they're not working. It's a natural condition, because they don't have anything to do. They just lay around, and that's why so many of them get drunk. They really get to be boring people. My wife will attest to that."

James Coburn

On November 19th I have heard that James Coburn passed away after suffering a strong heart attack at his home in LA. He was a great Mind and a great Man.

May his soul rest in peace.

James was born on the 31st of August 1928 in Laurel, Nebraska. He stayed there for 4 years, until the family business became severely affected by the Wall Street Crash (1929) to the extent where they had to move down to California. While in Nebraska, he recalls of breaking a collarbone and snow drift. The family moved into Mrs. Coburn’s sister’s house in Compton. He got interested in acting when he was in the high school, however, he didn’t get started on acting in a professional sense until he was studying to be a director at the university.

Towards the end of the war James joined the US army, but as soon as the war was over he went to study Drama in Los Angeles City College to earn points to go to the University of Southern California. In 1950 he was back in the army again, apparently this time serving in Germany (as some source claims). He returned to his studying in 1952, and enrolled to study Drama at the University of Southern California, originally hoping to be a director.

Nevertheless after he got his degree he was working as an actor. He starred opposite Vincent Price in his debut at La Jolla Playhouse, reached New York and some off-Broadway theatres. He eventually got a television commercial job for the shaving cream, which offered him a good enough salary to enroll himself to the renowned Stella Adler’s private acting school.

After having enough time and experience in New York, James decided to return to Los Angeles in 1958. He then got a role in a TV series “Klondike” thereafter making appearances in numerous TV programs such as “The Rifleman,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Rawhide”.

So he managed to launch a rather stable acting career and in the following year he got married to Beverly Kelly. His film career also began at this point, making a debut in Budd Boetticher’s “Ride Lonesome”.

In 1960, James bumped into Robert Vaughn (an actor friend from his college!) and was informed of the film called “The Magnificent Seven”. While he was in New York, James was well aware of Yul Brynner’s project to remake Kurosawa’s infamous movie into a western and he was rightly motivated by Vaughn’s story to be featured in this film. He immediately asked John Sturges for any vacancies and was offered a role with which everyone was having a quarrel about the salary and what not.

It was a role modeled on Seiji Miyaguchi’s character (Kyuzo), the greatest swordsman- the role James somehow identified with the most. Therefore no matter what he was determined to play this role of Britt, and probably the fact that Sturges and others had to cast them in few hours before actors’ strike helped a lot on the decision too- but James got the role and it became a major breakthrough in his career.

“The Magnificent Seven” was fortunately a great success for new comers such as James himself, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. People were remembering their names. But unlike McQueen, the name James Coburn meant a supporting actor rather than a hero until in 1965 he became a potential rival to James Bond by playing the most flamboyant man on earth in “Our Man Flint?. He got interested in martial arts at this time and was introduced to Bruce Lee. With a shocking experience (of Lee’s famous “inch punch") he became Lee’s student and friend. In 1973 when Lee died tragically James and McQueen attended the funeral together.

1965 made another change in James’ career, and that is an encounter with Sam Peckinpah. They surprisingly got on very well and from “Major Dundee” James was featured in 3 of Peckinpah’s films and in “Convoy” Peckinpah made him a second unit director. With the release of “Cross of Iron” in 1977 both Peckinpah and James made a visit to Japan for promotion.

However even at that point everyone knew about his separation from his wife Beverly and in 1978 they divorced. After this settlement James began suffering from a rheumatoid arthritis to which no definite cure could be found to stop the pain. His career in 80s slowed down as a result of this painful illness, although his appearance on the TV commercial for the cigarette “Lark” in Japan earned him amazing popularity over there.

This tough period went on until he found a herbal cure called MSM, which stopped his pain. From early 90s he gradually got back to the major screen roles such as Chism in “Young Guns II”, Commodore in “Maverick”, and in 1993 he remarried.

In 1999, for all we know a happy moment at last revisited James as he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Glen Whitehouse in “Affliction”. Since then he has reunited with Mel Gibson and Kris Kristofferson in “Payback”, made TV movie “Noah’s Ark” with John Voight. His first year-2000 release was “Missing Pieces” and he duly hosted the Best Supporting Actress Award for the 72nd Academy Award Ceremony. He was currently working on “Mists of Avalon” for TV.

References

James Coburn Official and Unofficial pages