Family & Companions
An Oscar®-winning character actor from Hollywood's Golden Age, Charles Coburn was as well-recognized as the stars whom he supported, and from whom he often stole the show. At times, in a distinction unusual for a character player, he was given star billing. Specializing in hardened businessmen with a soft heart, the cigar-smoking, monocled actor did not enter movies until he was in his mid-50s, but still enjoyed a film career that lasted almost 30 years.
Born June 17, 1877, in Savannah, Georgia, Coburn was full of Southern charm -- and so well spoken that he was sometimes mistaken by audiences as being British. He had begun in theater as a "program boy" and by age 17 was manager of a Savannah theater in 1901. He made his Broadway debut in 1901 and, five years later, organized the Coburn Shakespeare Players with his first wife, Ivah Wills. Coburn made his movie debut in the title role of Boss Tweed (1933) but did not sign a Hollywood contract until after his wife's death in 1937.
Coburn had another lead in The Captain Is a Lady (1940), the touching story of an aging sea captain who poses as a female so he can live with his wife (Beulah Bondi) in a poor house for old women. The fortunes of the couple change after the captain helps rescue a shipwrecked schooner. One of Coburn's best-remembered roles came in the Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Lady Eve (1941), in which he plays Barbara Stanwyck's card-sharp father and helps her fleece naive millionaire Henry Fonda
For another of his roles that year, that of the world's richest man in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Coburn received his first Oscar® nomination as Best Supporting Actor. The third-billed Coburn thoroughly dominates Unexpected Uncle (1941), playing a retired tycoon who poses as the uncle of a lingerie saleswoman (Anne Shirley) to help her land a millionaire. Coburn is again a wealthy uncle, and something of a fraud, in George Washington Slept Here (1942), the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman Broadway hit as adapted for the talents of Jack Benny. Coburn won his Oscar® for The More the Merrier (1943), in which he plays a volatile yet lovable business executive forced by the wartime housing shortage to share a Washington D.C. apartment with Jean Arthur.
Oscar®-nominated yet again for The Green Years (1946), Coburn continued his film career energetically through the 1950s, memorably playing Marilyn Monroe's sugar daddy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and making his final screen appearance as a guest star in Pepe (1960). He also remained active in television and on the stage, giving his final performance in a stock production of You Can't Take It With You in Indianapolis only a week before his death in 1961.
by Roger Fristoe
Cast (Feature Film)
Moved to New York to pursue acting career
First acting job, "Quo Vadis" in Ames, Iowa
Met Ivah Wills
Founded Coburn Shakespeare Players with Ivah Wills
Appeared at the White House before President Taft
Moved to Hollywood
Feature film acting debut, "Lord Jeff"