James Harrison Coburn III was born on August 31, 1928, in the sparsely populated town of Laurel, Nebraska. When his father’s Ford dealership went out of business during the Great Depression the Coburn family packed up and headed west settling in the Los Angeles County city of Compton, California.
Coburn caught the acting bug early in life when he played King Herod in a school play at the age of four. Coburn’s love of acting grew into a love of movies specifically. While in high school he got a job at a local movie theatre.
“It was the desire to do the complete thing. I only took taking acting lessons because my whole thing, really, was to direct. But my first jobs were acting jobs.”
– James Coburn
In 1950, while attending Compton Junior College, Coburn was drafted into the United States Army. While stationed in Texas he worked as a disc jockey while serving as a public information officer.
Early Acting Career
After being discharged from military service Coburn headed to New York City to study acting under Stella Adler. While in New York began to appear in stage plays as well as on television in series such as General Electric Theatre and Four Star Playhouse. When Coburn moved back to Los Angeles in the late fifties, he continued to appear on tv on shows including The Rifleman and Wagon Train.
Coburn made his big screen debut in the 1959 Western Ride Lonesome. He followed that film up with another Western, Face of a Fugitive (1959).
That same year Coburn married Beverly Kelly, a beautiful brunette from Southern California in Mexico. Kelly was supportive of Coburn during these days that he struggled to break through in Hollywood often giving him advice on how he should play a part. Coburn adopted Kelly’s daughter from a previous marriage and two years later the couple produced a son of their own.
Early 60s Success
Coburn continued on television during this period with guest appearances on Bonanza and Perry Mason. He also had two series of his own, both of which were short-lived: Klondike (1960-61) and Acapulco (1961).
In 1960, Coburn got what would be his big break, a role in the John Sturges picture The Magnificent Seven. Coburn was recommended to Sturges by Robert Vaughn, who also starred in the movie.
While filming this classic film in Mexico, an intoxicated valet proceeded to crash Coburn’s Jaguar into a brick wall, totaling the car in front of Coburn and Vaughn as they exited a restaurant after dinner. Coburn then turned to Vaughn and said:
“I’ll tell you what, Roberto, we’re never gonna get a taxi at this time of night.”
While making the film, Coburn formed a close bond with actor Steve McQueen over their mutual love of fast cars. Coburn, an avid fan of Ferraris actually introduced McQueen to the brand. McQueen and Coburn would go on to appear in two more movies together during this period Hell is for Heroes (1962) and The Great Escape (1963), which was also directed by Sturges.
In 1963 Coburn was cast as the villain in the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade. The following year Coburn appeared opposite James Garner in The Americanization of Emily. Coburn took the role originally intended for Garner who assumed the role intended for William Holden when he left the movie just prior to filming. 20th Century Fox was so happy with Coburn’s performance that they signed him to a seven-year contract soon after.
Coburn’s career hit the stratosphere in 1966 when he was cast as Derek Flint in Fox’s James Bond parody Our Man Flint. The following year he appeared in a sequel In Like Flint (1967). Although both films earned at least triple their production budgets, Coburn was bored with the role and didn’t want to make any more films in the series.
“I credit the producer, Saul David, for the Flint films. He was responsible for the whole thing. He also cast me in the role. Of course, it was a spoof of the Bond and all the other spy films released at the time. What I liked about Flint was that he was his own man. He trained himself. We tried to work from that theme. It must have worked … after all the film was a very big hit.”
– James Coburn
For the next couple of years, Coburn appeared in a series of films at studios all over town. This included Waterhole No.3, Duffy (1967), Candy(1968), and Hard Contact (1969). All of them flopped. In 1970, Coburn was effectively dropped by Fox when his $300,000 option was not renewed.
“I’m a jazz kind of actor, not rock’n’roll.”
– James Coburn
Despite all of this, Coburn was having a great time in his personal life. The actor embraced the life of a movie star, traveling the world and throwing lavish parties at his Beverly Hills home. He even bought a pair of pet monkeys that he kept at the house.
Coburn, by this time, was also into Eastern cultures and philosophy. He embraced Buddhism and trained in martial arts with Bruce Lee. When the Karmapa of Tibet came to town with several Buddhist monks, Coburn insisted that they stay at his home.
In 1971, Coburn appeared in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western Duck, You Sucker! Coburn was the original choice for the Clint Eastwood role in A Fistful of Dollars seven years earlier, but his salary demands were too high for the production. This movie was not a commercial success and neither were his next two films The Carey Treatmentand The Honkers, both released in 1972.
Coburn’s next box office success was the Sam Peckinpah Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Arguably Coburn’s finest performance, the film was plagued with problems, including the cast and crew coming down with severe influenza, and the director’s constant abuse of alcohol and cocaine. Nevertheless, the film proved to be a hit at the box office.
“Sam (Peckinpah) was a mad genius. He would shove you right over into the abyss and sometimes he would jump right in after you.”
– James Coburn
1973 saw various ups and downs for Coburn. One of the lighter moments was when he agreed to appear on the album cover for Wing’s Band on the Run alongside the band and other actors, including Christopher Lee. On the other side of the spectrum was the unexpected death of Bruce Lee. Coburn was a pallbearer at the funeral where he also gave the following speech:
“Farewell, Brother. It has been an honor to share this space in time with you. As a friend and a teacher, you have given to me, have brought my physical, spiritual, and psychological selves together. Thank you. May peace be with you.”
– James Coburn
Over the next two years, Coburn directed several episodes of The Rockford Files starring his friend James Garner, as well as appearing in films such as The Last of Sheila (1973), Bite the Bullet (1975) with Gene Hackman, and Hard Times (1975) with Charles Bronson.
Coburn’s personal life was filled with turmoil once again in 1976 when his wife paid him a surprise visit to Greece, where Coburn was filming Sky Riders (1976). She walked in on him during a sexual encounter, effectively ending their marriage. When Coburn returned to the States, he moved from Beverly Hills to Sherman Oaks to live a bachelor’s lifestyle. Eventually, he would settle down, and in 1993, he would marry for a second and final time.
For the rest of the decade, Coburn appeared in a variety of films. Some of the most notable of these included Midway (1976), Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977), as well as The Muppet Movie, released in 1979.
In 1980, Coburn’s life and career changed dramatically. His close friend Steve McQueen died of lung cancer, devastating him. Coburn was also diagnosed with arthritis, which was extremely painful for the actor. This sidelined his career, and he appeared in fewer projects during the 1980s. He was, however, the original choice for the role of Hannibal on the popular series TheA-Team. However, due to health concerns, NBC backed out, hiring George Peppard instead.
Coburn acted more in the 1990s, despite his adversarial pain from arthritis. Some of the films he appeared in included Young Guns II (1990), Maverick (1994), and Hudson Hawk (1991).
“There was so much pain that…every time I stood up, I would break into a sweat.”
– James Coburn
In 1996, Coburn tried MSM, a sulfur compound, to treat his arthritis, which allowed him to live pain-free from that point forward. This allowed him to act more comfortably. He would go on to appear in the scene-stealing role of Fairfax in the 1999 remake of Point Blank (1967). He also appeared in Payback (1999), as well as his Oscar-winning turn in Affliction (1997).
James Coburn passed away on November 18, 2002, from a heart attack while listening to music at home. He was 74 years old.
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