met the suave, slim, silver-haired, six-foot-three, sensationally
baritone-voiced icon in 1994, when we were exiting the premiere of
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, in Westwood, California. We chatted about
the movie and about what he was doing, as we walked across the street
toward the after-premiere party. Five years later, I interviewed Coburn
briefly at the Writers Guild Awards (see below), shortly after his 40
years of creating memorable magic on-camera had finally been rewarded
with a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (which he won a
few weeks later).
My favorite Coburn coup was the delightful 1966 political satire THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, which he produced and starred in—written and directed by unsung genius Theodore J. Flicker (whose 1964 collaboration with fellow-unknown Buck Henry, THE TROUBLEMAKER, is still one of the funniest films that virtually nobody ever saw.) In Flicker’s flick, Coburn flees foreign spies and finally does battle with earth’s ultimate villain: The Phone Company. The audience cheered when Coburn’s shrink-on-the-lam machine-gunned a phone booth and giddily declared, “Everyone hates the phone company!”
The whole country adored Coburn’s wild, sexy, imaginative and howlarious James Bond spoofs OUR MAN FLINT (1966) and IN LIKE FLINT (1967). In them, he romped through the role of super-spy/great lover/electronics expert/ballet instructor Derek Flint, who saves the world first from a minyan of mad scientists and then from an evil band of brainwashing beauties.
In his next-to-last
THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS, Coburn was terrific as a dying literary lion who ignores his sexy young wife’s bedroom athletics with the younger writer (Andy Garcia) who helps him with his final novel. Coburn could get a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom for that nifty performance, as could mesmerizing co-star MICK
JAGGER, portraying a depraved gigolo-with-a-heart.
James Coburn appeared in 94 feature films, 24 TV movies and 73 TV series in his 43-year career. He was born in Laurel, Nebraska on the same day in 1928 as his twin brother Robert, who much later taught philosophy at Ohio State. James was the son of an auto mechanic and a schoolteacher and the grandson of cigar-chomping, Oscar-winning character actor Charles Coburn.
At an early age the family moved to Compton, California. James studied acting at Los Angeles City College and U.S.C. and then made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse, opposite Vincent Price in BILLY BUDD. Coburn served in the army and spent five years in New York, studying acting with Stella Adler, doing plays, working behind the scenes on TV commercials and performing in live TV on STUDIO ONE and GENERAL ELECTRIC PLAYHOUSE.
Coburn returned to Los Angeles and appeared in 53 TV episodes from 1959 to 1964—mostly in Westerns—primarily as a villain or sidekick. He made his big-screen debut at age 31, as an outlaw annoying Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME. In his third film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), Coburn only had 11 lines, but his fascinating presence made him stand out in a cast crowded with stars such as Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson. He gained more notice as an Australian POW in THE
GREAT ESCAPE (1963), and I vividly remember him as a nasty thug threatening Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in CHARADE (1964).
In the mid-60s he finally broke out of his villain/supporting actor-mold with charming leading man parts in films including THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST and the FLINT flicks. In the early ‘70s, Coburn stood out in whodunits such as THE CAREY TREATMENT (1972) and THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973).
His favorite director was Sam
Peckinpah, for whom he starred in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, CROSS OF IRON (which he also co-wrote), CONVOY (whose second unit he also directed) and MAJOR DUNDEE. Coburn once commented, “Sam Peckinpah made his films like a sculptor sculpts a piece of granite or marble, chipping away here, chipping away there and finally revealing what is actually there. Wherever there was no conflict, he liked to make conflict, because that is the nature of film.”
In the late ‘70s, Coburn’s career began to taper off, and then in 1979 he suffered a debilitating double-whammy: a hellish divorce from wife of 20 years Beverly Kelly, and a severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which afflicted him for a dozen years, seriously limiting his physical movement, gnarling one hand, and forcing him to earn most of his living working on voice-overs and (mostly Japanese) commercials.
"That part of my life I want to forget," Coburn once told an interviewer. "It was a long struggle. If it hadn't been for some of my friends and some very knowledgeable people, I'd probably be in a wheelchair right now, taking pills.”
Because little was known about his disease, Coburn began funding research into it, and he claims to have cured himself through a combination of diet, a sulfur-based dietary supplement, deep-tissue massage and electromagnetic treatments. In 1993, he married former TV newscaster Paula
Murad, with whom he spent nine happy years.
In the 1990s, Coburn returned to work, most notably in comedies (SISTER ACT II and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), Westerns (YOUNG GUNS II and MAVERICK) and kid fare (THE MUPPET MOVIE and MONSTERS, INC.).
But the high point of both his comeback and his career was Paul Schrader’s powerful independent film
AFFLICTION. In it, he braved a role that other stars had feared—as the violent, alcoholic father who turned his son (played well by Nick Nolte) nasty—and Coburn won an Academy Award for his magnificently terrifying efforts. He recently confessed to a journalist, “Sam Peckinpah was a genius, and at the same time he was an alcoholic, always working on the verge of breakdown. I thought about that when I did
Often asked to list his favorite roles, Coburn more than once answered, “I did three fantastic roles before
AFFLICTION: that guy with a knife in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Garrett in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and Steiner in CROSS OF IRON. For me other jobs were steppingstones, when I was looking for what I should be doing.”
With the passing of James Coburn, fans of great acting have lost one of our great lights. I’ll miss his genius, his charm, his humor, his zest and his wonderful devilishness.
Alan Waldman spoke briefly with James Coburn
in early 1999 at the Writers Guild Awards,
after Coburn had been nominated
for an Oscar for his performance as
Nick Nolte’s father in AFFLICTION.
You've seen all kinds of scripts over the years. Do you find in recent years that there's a change? How are scripts different now?
Now it's "build a set, blow 'em up," as Billy Wilder
would say. That's the difference. The literature is very thin because of
the nature of the films. You've got a hero with a big gun and you shoot
things and do all of that. Unless you're working on an independent film
like with Paul Schrader (on AFFLICTION), where we had a story--we had something that was about something. It was about relationships; it was about people. And that's what all the great old films were about—THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, all of those things were about people and relationships.
In the last two years it seems like independent films are finally finding a big audience and getting recognized at awards time.
Oh, yes, absolutely, they have a great audience. They just don't make a $140 million, and that's what the studios are concerned about. They want to make a hit. Not that they don't care about the story so much, but the bottom line is, “We gotta make a hit." And that's what they do. Instead of making movies, they're trying to make hits. Sometimes the magic works—to a certain degree.
In AFFLICTION you played the father from hell. That must have been exciting for you as an actor.
Oh yeah, it was. Well, he was the epitome of his son’s affliction; that's what the whole story was about. I mean, there’s a perpetuation of that rage. And Paul put it down in such a rich, beautiful, script. I mean, you could read five pages into it and you couldn't put it down.
|Alan’s 13 favorite James Coburn films
(in order of preference)
|1. THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST
2. OUR MAN FLINT
3. IN LIKE FLINT
4. THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS
6. THE GREAT ESCAPE
7. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
8. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND
9. THE PLAYER
10. WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?
11. THE MUPPET MOVIE
FILMS FOR TWO ADDENDUM:
We are grateful to Alan for this heartfelt tribute to the great James Coburn. One caveat however, please keep in mind that we began FILMS FOR TWO in 1999. Our method of selection is to try to stay current on new releases, and fill in “history” as films appear on our premium cable stations. Therefore, although we’ve seen many of the films he has named above, some of our own favorites have yet to be included in our database (e.g., THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST).
For more by Alan, see his recommendations on 2002’s
HOLIDAY FILMS & his interview with screenwriter Lizzy Weiss in our Monthly Feature archive
(BLUE CRUSH Rips!).
Copyright FILMS FOR TWO (12/12/02)