American actor. 1928 - 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."
"He was a guy who looked like he was casual, but he studied and he worked and he understood character" - Hillard Elkins
James Coburn, with his gravel voice and craggy face, was an on-screen tough guy and off-screen softie. Born in Laurel, Nebraska, on 31 August 1928, his father ran a garage business which suffered badly in the Great Depression. Despite this setback, James determined that he was going to be a success, and made his way to study at the Los Angeles City College, where he studied acting, and later on, drama at the University of Southern California.
He began working on the stage, opposite such greats as Vincent Price, and moved between New York and Los Angeles to work in Studio One and the General Electric Theatre. Even at this early point, he received acclaim, winning a minor award for best supporting actor. He enjoyed himself greatly, throwing himself into one project after another, working in a wide range of productions, but attracting relatively little attention.
It was his move into film which brought him the most attention - he had his big screen debut in the 1958 Bronco, and the following year his magnificent portrayal of Britt in The Magnificent Seven brought him to the attention of both critics and audiences. His first few films were Westerns, and here he carved his name as a hard-faced "tough guy", all the while developing his acting talent.
The Great Escape (1963) brought him to the attention of an even greater public, and he was showered with offers of work, which he willingly accepted, having parts in an average of three films a year before taking the role of Derek Flint on Our Man Flint. This tongue-in-cheek film was designed to cash in on the James Bond fever, and it certainly succeeded. His dry portrayal of the decadent spy drew on a gentle humour which sat (not always comfortably) with his hard man image, but James was convinced that even better things awaited him.
He continued to apply himself in Hollywood, and his filmography includes such 70s greats as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the marine war film Midway, Peckinpah's great Cross of Iron, Bruce Lee, the Legend and, of course The Muppet Movie.
Trouble and treasure in TinselTown
In the 1980s he became increasingly troubled with rheumatoid arthritis in his hands and wrists, and slowed up as a matter of necessity. Later, when the scripts stopped coming in, he determined that he would work to overcome his affliction, which he did using a wide variety of alternative medicines, coming back to do the brat pack movie Young Guns II in 1990.
After that there seemed to be no stopping him. He worked and worked, appearing on the silver screen and in TV land, taking one role after another, until in 1998 he finally won his long-awaited big award.
In the independent Affliction, he played the black-hearted head of an abusive household, and finally won an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. It was about time, according to him,"I've been working and doing this work for, like, over half my life and I finally got one right I guess", and there are many who would agree.
Frequently the sidekick, rarely in the forefront, he is one of those actors that you don't miss until they're gone. His presence on screen was ever magnificent, but he is gone now, having died early this morning (19th November 2002) of a heart attack in his Los Angeles home. His second wife, Paula was at his side.