James Coburn Profile
* Films in Bold Type Air on 8/4
Coburn grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton and acted in college before making his professional stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse opposite Vincent Price in "Billy Budd". By the early 1950s, he was in New York, where he studied with Stella Adler and worked behind-the-scenes in TV commercials while also acting on some live TV, including "Studio One". Coburn was back in L.A. by the late 50s, working on "Wagon Train" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", but after almost a decade with his professional actors' cards, he had not clicked. Little by little, Hollywood discovered him as a villain, and in 1959 he played such in Face of a Fugitive and "Ride Lonesome" on the big screen, adding "The Magnificent Seven" in 1960. In 1963, he portrayed an Australian POW who successfully reaches freedom in Spain in "The Great Escape" but was back as a villain, this time as one of the mob out to get Audrey Hepburn's late husband's money in "Charade" (1964). He was still playing supporting roles like the one-armed scout for Charlton Heston in Major Dundee (1965) until he turned into a spirited hero in "Our Man Flint", playing the lead spy for an organization called Z.O.W.I.E, launching his career as a leading man. The films were the precursers for the hugely popular "Austin Powers" movies decades later.
In the 70s, Coburn moved into whodunits, including The Carey Treatment (1972), in which he was a doctor trying to clear a friend, and "The Last of Sheila" (1973), an ensemble piece in which he was the power broker who calls the potential suspects together for games on his yacht. Though Coburn's box office appeal tapered and he suffered from the debilitating effects of a 10-year battle with severe rheumatoid arthritis , he found lucrative work in the 80s doing TV commercials, particularly in Japan. By the late 80s, he returned in character parts: a cattle rancher after Billy the Kid in "Young Guns II" (1990); the mysterious and deadly agent leading "The Candy Bars" in "Hudson Hawk" (1991); the scrooge who wants to shut down St. Francis Academy in "Sister Act II: Back in the Habit" (1993);and the philanthropist who may or may not give $10 million for Sherman Klump's (Eddie Murphy) research in the 1996 remake of "The Nutty Professor". He offered what many felt was the performance of his career, though, in a striking turn as the abusive, alcoholic father of Nick Nolte in Paul Schrader's "Affliction" (1998), a role which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Television credits followed: "The Cherokee Kid," "The Second Civil War," "Proximity" for HBO, and Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Noah's Ark."
Coburn also had several attempts at TV series. He was a gambler in "Klondike" (NBC, 1960-61), one of the beachcombing action stars of "Acapulco" (NBC, 1961), and the host of the occult series "Darkroom" (ABC, 1981-82). He also appeared in the TV miniseries "The Dain Curse" (CBS, 1978) and the TV-movie "Sins of the Father" (NBC, 1985). But, for the most part, his TV output has been sporadic since his film career clicked with the "Flint" movies. Coburn, however, has hawked Schlitz beer in TV commercials, done voice-overs, and also frequently narrated commercial documentaries, including the 1996 award-winning "Arctic Kingdom: Life at the Edge" (NBC) and "Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days" (2001). Toward the end of his career Coburn became a familiar figure in non-fiction television and movies, recalling his collaborations with filmmakers and co-stars from his past, an able raconteur with a host of stories about friends such as Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, John Sturges and Akira Kurosawa. He also used those trademark menacing vocals to excellent effect in the Disney/Pixar animated feature "Monsters, Inc." (2001), playing Monsters, Inc. CEO Henry J. Waternoose III. While his Oscar® win did not eliminate Coburn's penchant for slumming frequently in B-level material (Disney's insipid 2002 sled dog comedy "Snow Dogs," for example), the canny actor proved he did have one more fine performance in him, playing a WWII veteran following the trail of the weapon that killed his daughter in director Alan Jacobs' "American Gun," a film that was making the festival circuit at the time of the actor's death in 2002.
Biographical data supplied by TCMdb