Endowed with a toothy grin and resonant baritone, actor James Coburn went from supporting character player to breezily hip leading man, before gaining critical recognition and an Academy Award late in a career that spanned 50 years. After several years of minor roles - often as a thug - on television series and in feature films, Coburn's big break arrived when he joined "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) alongside fellow cowboy mercenaries Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Even more successful was his third consecutive pairing with McQueen in the WWII adventure "The Great Escape" (1963). He achieved full-fledged movie stardom in the comedy spy spoof "Our Man Flint" (1966), presaging the campy exploits of Austin Powers by 30 years. Although he disliked the role, Coburn relented to the sequel "In Like Flint" (1967), before moving on to more creatively satisfying work and briefly forming his own production company. In what he personally regarded as some of his best work, Coburn collaborated with the volatile director Sam Peckinpah on the films "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973) and "Cross of Iron" (1977). Although both movies would eventually find ardent admirers, sadly neither performed well upon initial release. Twenty years later, just as the sun seemed to be setting on his storied career, Coburn delivered an Oscar-winning performance opposite Nick Nolte in director Paul Schrader's "Affliction" (1998). In a fitting comment on his work and ability, Schrader recalled bracing Coburn for the rigors he was about to face in the role of an abusive alcoholic. After listening to the Schrader's words of encouragement, Coburn replied, "Oh, you mean you want me to really act? I can do that. I haven't often been asked to, but I can."
Born James Harrison Coburn III on Aug. 31, 1928 in Laurel, NE, he was the son of Mylet and James Harrison Coburn, Jr., an auto mechanic whose family had lost their substantial holdings during the Great Depression. After heading out West with his family at the age of five, Coburn grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, where he attended public schools and briefly enrolled at the local junior college prior to enlisting in the Army in 1950. It was while stationed as a soldier in Mainz, Germany that he became interested in film after providing narration for several Army training films. Upon his return to the States, Coburn enrolled in drama classes at Los Angeles City College, where he took part in various school productions and eventually appeared onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse in a production of "Billy Budd" opposite Vincent Price. In 1954, he made the move to New York City, where he studied with Stella Adler and began picking up work in commercials and various televised live plays that included early turns on "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958) and "General Electric Theater" (CBS, 1953-1962). Coburn was back in L.A. by the late 1950s, working on series such as "Wagon Train" (NBC, 1957-1965) and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS, 1955-1965). Although working steadily by the end of the decade, Hollywood seemed content to relegate him to supporting roles as a bad guy in such films as director Budd Boetticher's Western "Ride Lonesome" (1959). Things began to change, however, when director John Sturges cast Coburn in a remake of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's landmark "Seven Samurai" (1954).
After learning about the project from actor Robert Vaughn - a friend and fellow classmate at City College - Coburn wrangled the role of Britt, a knife-wielding mercenary in the action-packed Western, "The Magnificent Seven" (1960). Although given only a handful of lines in the movie, it established the rough-hewn actor as a heroic figure alongside Hollywood tough guys like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Yul Brynner. Despite the film's blockbuster success, it would not equate to overnight stardom for Coburn, then still considered a supporting actor. He made early attempts at getting an ongoing television series off the ground, first by playing a con man during the Alaskan gold rush in the short-lived "Klondike" (NBC, 1960-61), co-starring Ralph Taeger. When that failed, the network moved both Coburn and Taeger to sunnier locales where they played a pair of adventuresome beachcombers in the even less successful "Acapulco" (NBC, 1961). He had better luck back on the big screen, where he reteamed with Steve McQueen as a member of a small squad outnumbered by German forces in the gritty WWII action drama "Hell is for Heroes" (1962), directed by Don Siegel. As much of a step in the right direction as this was for Coburn, it would be in his next collaboration with McQueen that he would find himself co-starring in a true Hollywood spectacular with some of cinema's brightest stars.
Pleased with Coburn's work in "The Magnificent Seven," director John Sturges cast him in the role of Louis "The Manufacturer" Sedgwick in the WWII blockbuster "The Great Escape" (1963), the fact-based story of a massive escape attempt by Allied POWs from a high-security German prison camp. Featuring an all-star cast that included McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, the film, while only drawing modest praise from critics, went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of the year and helped strengthen Coburn's stature as a marquee actor. Villainous roles - something Coburn never shied away from - continued to come his way in projects like the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn romantic thriller "Charade" (1964), in which he played one of three unscrupulous characters willing to do anything to get his hands on the money he thinks Hepburn's dead ex-husband stole. Other supporting roles included a turn alongside Charlton Heston in the Civil War Western "Major Dundee" (1965), directed by the mercurial Sam Peckinpah, whose clashes with both Heston and the studio during the film's production became legendary. For his part, however, Coburn grew quite fond of Peckinpah, and later stated that he felt much of his best work came from his collaborations with the trouble filmmaker.
The following year, Coburn was finally given the chance to carry a film as its leading man in the spy spoof "Our Man Flint" (1966). As the suave and sexy super agent Derek Flint, the actor adroitly skewered the James Bond craze of the day and explicitly influenced comedian Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" films three decades later. Thus, Coburn entered a phase in which he headlined quirky comedies such as the Blake Edwards WWII satire "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" (1966) and the inevitable sequel, "In Like Flint" (1967). In a move that spoke volumes about Coburn's character, he turned down a third outing as Flint - a film series that, despite its financial success, he disliked greatly - in order to pursue more challenging projects. One of those was the conspiracy theory comedy "The President's Analyst" (1967), which he produced under his own banner, Panpiper Productions. Under-appreciated through the years, the film was an incisive satire in which Coburn, as the Commander in Chief's shrink, discovers that the shadowy entity pulling the strings in a global power structure is none other than the phone company. He next attempted to take a page from McQueen's book of cool with a turn as a charming criminal in the lighthearted caper "Duffy" (1968).
After a string of less notable films over the turn of the decade, Coburn teamed with the king of the "spaghetti Western," Italian director Sergio Leone and co-star Rod Steiger for the explosively fun "Duck, You Sucker" (1972) - better known in the U.S. as "A Fistful of Dynamite." He continued with the Western genre in the less bombastic, although equally volatile "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), which paired him once again with Peckinpah. Coburn played Garrett, the past-his-prime gunslinger sent to bring down his former friend, notorious outlaw Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). From the start, the film's production was troubled due in equal parts to the director's debilitating alcoholism and his adversarial relationship with executives at MGM. Suffering from studio-imposed time and budgetary constraints, the hastily edited version released in theaters was disastrously received, severely damaging Peckinpah's already tarnished reputation. That same year saw Coburn leading an all-star cast that included Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, and Richard Benjamin in the glossy, albeit empty, who-done-it, "The Last of Sheila" (1973), co-written by actor Anthony Perkins and stage lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Coburn was dealt a personal blow that summer when his close friend and martial arts trainer, kung fu legend Bruce Lee, died suddenly just weeks before his breakthrough film "Enter the Dragon" (1973) was to be released. For years, he and Lee had worked on a film project based on a story they had co-written, along with screenwriting veteran Sterling Silliphant, entitled "The Silent Flute." Years earlier a training injury of Lee's and scheduling conflicts of Coburn's had derailed the effort, however, with Lee's death, the film that had been tailored with roles for both actors would seemingly never see production. On a lighter note, Coburn joined other notable faces, including horror film legend Christopher Lee, on the iconic album cover of Paul McCartney & Wings' platinum-selling 1973 album, Band on the Run. Returning to the big screen, he once again embraced the role of villain in a paean to the Western "The Last Hard Men" (1976), co-starring Charlton Heston. Despite the disappointments of their last collaboration, he re-teamed with Peckinpah once more for the unconventional WWII drama "Cross of Iron" (1977). In the film, Coburn portrayed a Nazi soldier under the command of a self-serving officer (Maximilian Schell), who finds himself torn between duty and his conscience. Although the movie garnered critical acclaim in addition to box office success in Europe, it was poorly received by U.S. audiences, much to the disappointment of Coburn and his embattled director.
Coburn next made his first television appearance in years as the star of the miniseries "The Dain Curse" (CBS, 1978), a mystery based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Overcoming the inherent difficulties of the novel's exceptionally byzantine plot, the TV movie went on to win an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, in addition to several Emmy nominations. The release of the action-fantasy "Circle of Iron" (1979) was surely a bittersweet moment for Coburn. Based on the long-dormant story for "The Silent Flute," the substandard effort starred an inadequate David Carradine in the role originally intended for Bruce Lee. Ironically, it would earn Coburn his one and only film writing credit. Coburn's professional output tapered off over the next decade, due in large part to the debilitating effects of a 10-year battle with severe rheumatoid arthritis, which he eventually found a modicum of relief from years later with the help of homeopathic therapies. The brief appearances he did make during that period included a cameo as a South American drug lord robbed by James Brolin and his cash-strapped friends in the action-adventure "High Risk" (1981). He was also seen more frequently on television, where he hosted the supernatural anthology series "Darkroom" (ABC, 1981-82), and essayed a ruthless businessman in the drama "Sins of the Father" (NBC, 1985).
By the start of the next decade, Coburn increased his visibility with a lengthy string of supporting character roles. He revisited familiar territory as a cattle baron intent on bringing down Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez) in the Brat Pack Western sequel "Young Guns II" (1990), followed by a turn as a sinister CIA agent in the Bruce Willis box-office disaster "Hudson Hawk" (1991). Coburn also lent his considerable comedic talents to the unworthy sequel "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" (1993), and the needless remake "The Nutty Professor" (1996), starring Eddie Murphy in the role originally perfected by Jerry Lewis. However, two years later and more than four decades into his career, Coburn would stun audiences and critics with his devastating portrayal of an abusive alcoholic in the Paul Schrader psychological drama "Affliction" (1998). As Glen "Pop" Whitehouse, the unrelentingly cruel father of small town sheriff Nick Nolte, the actor delivered what many considered his finest performance, in a dark character study of buried secrets, long-festering wounds, and self-discovery. For his exceptional work in the difficult film, Coburn won his only Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
With renewed vigor, Coburn worked practically non-stop in the years that followed. The veteran actor employed his unmistakable baritone to menacing effect in the Disney/Pixar animated feature "Monsters, Inc." (2001), as the voice of villainous CEO Henry J. Waternoose III. Coburn took on pivotal roles in projects such as "The Man from Elysian Fields" (2002), in which he played a venerated novelist whose wife (Olivia Williams) engages in an affair with a much younger, aspiring writer (Andy Garcia). Despite his recent stature as an Oscar-winning thespian, Coburn seemed happy to take part in less-than-stellar productions, as evidenced by a turn in the sled dog comedy "Snow Dogs" (2002), starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. Proving he still had the gravitas to carry a film, the 74-year-old Coburn starred as a WWII veteran tracing the ownership of the gun used in the killing of his daughter (Virginia Madsen) in director Alan Jacobs' drama "American Gun" (2004). The film would be his last. On Nov. 18, 2002, Coburn died of a heart attack while listening to music and playing his flute at his home in Beverly Hills.