Nationality: American. Born: Laurel, Nebraska, 31 August 1928. Education: Studied acting at Los Angeles City College and University of Southern California; studied acting with Stella Adler in New York. Military Service: U.S. Army during World War II, served as radio operator. Family: Married Beverly Kelly, 1959, children: James IV and Lisa. Divorced, 1979; Married Paula Murad, 1993. Career: 1940s—stage debut at La Jolla Playhouse in Billy Budd; early 1950s—in television commercials and various live drama series including Studio One; 1959—film debut in Ride Lonesome; 1960s-1980s—formed production companies Panpiper, and later Armageddon Productions; 1960–61—in TV series Klondike, and Acapulco, 1961; 1977—began directing with episode of TV series The Rockford Files; 1978—in TV mini-series The Dain Curse; 1981–82—host of TV series Darkroom; 1992—in TV series The Fifth Corner. Agent: Special Artists, 335 North Maple Drive, #360, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
Ride Lonesome (Boetticher) (as Wid); Face of a Fugitive (Wendkos) (as Purdy)
The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges) (as Britt)
Hell Is for Heroes (Siegel) (as Cpl. Henshaw); The Murder Men (Peyser—for TV)
The Great Escape (John Sturges) (as "The Manufacturer" Sedgwick); Charade (Donen) (as Tex Panthollow); The Man from Galveston (Conrad) (as Boyd Palmer)
The Americanization of Emily (Hiller) (as Lt. Cmdr. "Bus" Cummings)
Major Dundee (Peckinpah) (as Samuel Potts); A High Wind in Jamaica (Mackendrick) (as Zac); The Loved One (Richardson) (as immigration officer)
Our Man Flint (Daniel Mann) (as Derek Flint); What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (Edwards) (as Lt. Christian); Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (Girard) (as Eli Kotch)
In Like Flint (Gordon Douglas) (as Derek Flint); Waterhole #3 (Graham) (as Lewton Cole); The President's Analyst (Flicker) (as Dr. Sidney Schaefer)
Duffy (Parrish) (title role); Candy (Marquand) (as Dr. Krankeit)
Hard Contract (Pogostin) (as John Cunningham); Blood Kin (The Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots) (Lumet)
Giù la testa (Duck, You Sucker!; A Fistful of Dynamite) (Leone) (as Sean Mallory); The Honkers (Ihnat) (as Lew Lathrop); The Carey Treatment (Edwards) (as Peter Carey)
The Last of Sheila (Ross) (as Clinton); Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Peckinpah) (as Pat Garrett); Harry in Your Pocket (Harry Never Holds) (Geller) (title role); Una ragione per vivere e una per morire (A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die; Massacre at Fort Holman) (Valerii) (as Col. Pembroke)
The Internecine Project (Ken Hughes) (as Robert Elliot)
Bite the Bullet (Richard Brooks) (as Luke Matthews); Hard Times (The Streetfighter) (Walter Hill) (as Spencer "Speed" Weed)
Sky Riders (Hickox) (as Jim McCabe); Midway (The Battle of Midway) (Smight) (as Capt. Vinton Maddox); The LastHard Men (McLagen) (as Zach Provo); White Rock (Maylam) (as narrator); A Fast Drive in the Country: The Heydays of Le Mans (Maylam) (as narrator)
Cross of Iron (Peckinpah) (as Steiner)
Firepower (Winner) (as Jerry Fanon/Eddie); The Muppet Movie (Frawley) (as El Sleezo Cafe Owner); Goldengirl (Sargent) (as Jack Dryden)
Mr. Patman (Guillermin) (title role); Loving Couples (Smight) (as Walter); The Baltimore Bullet (Robert Ellis Miller) (as Nick Casey)
High Risk (Raffill) (as Serrano); Looker (Michael Crichton) (as John Reston); Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (Valley of the Dolls) (Grauman—for TV) (as Henry Bellamy)
Malibu (Swackhamer—for TV); Digital Dreams (Dornhelm)
Draw! (Steven Hilliard Stern—for TV) (as Sam Starret)
Martin's Day (Alan Gibson) (as Lt. Lardner); Sins of the Father (Sinkel—for TV) (as Frank Murchison)
Death of a Soldier (Mora) (as Maj. Patrick Danneberg); Mackendrick (Quarrie—for TV)
Walking after Midnight (Kay)
Place of Skulls (Logan—for TV); Tag till Himlen (Anderberg); Call from Space (Fleischer)
Young Guns II (Murphy) (as John Chisum)
Hudson Hawk (Lehmann) (as George Kaplan); Helicon (Eng)
The Player (Altman) (as himself); Hugh Hefner: Once upon a Time (Heath—doc) (as narrator); Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232 (A Thousand Heroes) (Lamont Johnson—for TV) (as Jim Hathaway)
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (Duke) (as Mr. Crisp); Deadfall (Christopher Coppola) (as Mike Donan); The Hit List (Webb—for TV) (as Peter Mayhew)
Ray Alexander: A Taste for Justice (Gary Nelson—for TV) (as Jeffrey Winslow); Greyhounds (Manners—for TV) (as John Dolan); A Christmas Reunion (as Santa Claus); Maverick (Richard Donner) (as Commodore)
The Set Up (as Jeremia Cole); The Avenging Angel (Baxley—for TV) (as Porter Rockwell); Ray Alexander: A Menu for Murder (Gary Nelson—for TV) (as Jeffrey Winslow)
Eraser (Chuck Russell)
The Nutty Professor (Shadyac) (as Harlan Hartley)
The Second World War (Dante—for TV) (as Jack Buchan); Keys to Tulsa (Greif) (as Harman Shaw)
Mr. Murder (Lowry—for TV) (as Drew Oslett Sr.); Affliction (Schrader) (as Glen Whitehouse); Payback (Helgeland) (as Fairfax)
The Good Doctor (Orkin—short) (as Dr. Samuel Roberts); Noah's Ark (Irvin—for TV) (as Peddler); Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story (Robe—for TV) (as MorrisGunn); Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hollywood Hero (Baker—for TV) (as Himself)
Missing Pieces (Schenkel—for TV) (as Atticus Cody); Intrepid (Putch) (as Captain Hal Josephson); The Good Doctor (Orkin) (as Samuel Roberts)
Proximity (Ziehl); Monsters, Inc. (Docter and Silverman—animation) (as voice of Henry J. Waternoose)
Convoy (Peckinpah) (second unit d)
Circle of Iron (The Silent Flute) (Richard Moore) (co-story)
By COBURN: articles—
"James Coburn on Acting, Directors, Hollywood, and the Movies," interview with C. L. Hanson, in Cinema (Beverly Hills), December 1965.
"James Coburn: His Life and Hard Times," interview with J. Leydon, in Take One (Montreal), December 1975.
"Becoming Involved," interview with G. Gow, in Films and Filming (London), November 1978.
On COBURN: articles—
"Cool Killer," in Films Illustrated (London), September 1974.
Ecran (Paris), May 1978.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 10 November 1983.
Goodman, Mark, "Return of Our Man Flint," in People Weekly (New York), 17 June 1991.
"Silver Fox," in Variety (New York), 15 July 1991.
Péguillan, Frédéric, "Il Était Sept Fois Dans L'Ouest," in Télérama (Paris), September 19, 1995.
* * *
Coburn began his film career with supporting roles in that most American genre, the Western, and found much success playing quiet but rugged (and usually deadly) gunslingers. His poised, laconic knife thrower in the box office hit The Magnificent Seven prompted director John Sturges to give Coburn an even meatier role in the classic war film, The Great Escape, another genre in which Coburn's screen personal fit comfortably well—although he, and everyone else in the respective casts of both films, were overshadowed by the scene stealing Steve McQueen, who was then on the verge or superstardom. Coburn's role as the one-armed scout in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee and the sheriff in the same director's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are refined and more mature versions of his early Western and War film roles for such directors as Budd Boetticher, Sturges and Don Siegel. As Garrett, Coburn is still quiet, but his face is worn and his whole manner suggests wearily gained experience. He brought the same qualities to his performance as the battle-hardened German soldier Steiner in Peckinpah's grim World War II opus Cross of Iron.
Coburn's association with Peckinpah, a close friend as well as a filmmaker the actor particularly admired, extended to Coburn's taking over some of the directorial chores on Peckinpah's modern day Western Convoy when Peckinpah's alcoholism, drug taking, and other eccentricities rendered him incapable of carrying on.
Coburn branched out from the Western and War film by playing an American hero different from the strong silent type. His roles in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, Harry in Your Pocket, and Hard Times were as talkative con men and hustlers. Coburn's pace, so restrained and controlled in the Westerns, is in high gear in these films. Words fly out of his mouth at such speed that one can barely keep up, let alone understand the plans, logic, or details being given. The gangster film Hard Contract, in which Coburn appeared as a hit man, made use of these same qualities, but the film turned out a pretentious talkathon, rather than the intellectual thriller it was intended to be.
Coburn is not limited to these basic types. Audiences have accepted him in roles that placed him in operating rooms, gambling casinos, and even a boxing gym. His versatility has allowed him to resist being typecast as an action hero, and Coburn's career is noteworthy for balancing lead and character parts. The common denominator of his roles is the character's air of confidence, often coupled with sophistication. This characteristic combination is probably at the root of his success in comic roles which are often parodies of his serious ones. Much like Marvin in Cat Ballou, Coburn can reprise the serious types he has successfully portrayed, playing them for laughs. One of his most popular films, the James Bond spoof In Like Flint, displays this ability. Derek Flint, ace of spies, deftly conquers every obstacle and villain. His victories are achieved so easily that the battles become humorous. This effortlessness must be accepted by the audience, and it is here that the confidence and sophistication come into play, as Coburn makes saving the world look like a relaxed weekend romp in the tropics.
As the Western began to make another of its short-lived comebacks following the success of Costner's Dances with Wolves and Eastwood's Unforgiven, Coburn returned to the genre in which he had made his name early on—in Donner's Maverick, a bloated homage to the classic television series, appearing along with many other movie and television Western stars of the past in a cameo role. Now one of the old guard in Hollywood who has been around long enough to earn mostly life achievement and other career acknowledgment awards, he broke through in 1999 with a bonafide Academy Award nomination (his first) as Best Supporting Actor in Paul Schrader's adaptation of the Russell Banks novel Affliction. For his searing portrayal of Nick Nolte's alcoholic, abusive father in that film, Coburn was voted a shoe-in for taking home the prize by Hollywood odds-makers. And they were right. He did.
—Ray Narducy, updated by John McCarty