The fact that James Coburn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in “Affliction” (1998) testifies to his remarkable durability. The long-legged actor who comically pedaled a much-too-small bicycle to freedom in “The Great Escape” (1963) was, in fact, bedridden for over a year in the early 1990’s due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. But Coburn’s determination should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the actor’s work over his long career. His trademark toughness was tempered by a toothy smile always showed that James Coburn the man was as resilient and comical as James Coburn the actor.
James Coburn, Jr., was born August 31, 1928, in Laurel, Nebraska. From an early age, Coburn learned the value of being strong and facing hard times with humor. The Great Depression wiped out his father’s garage business, leaving the family in desperate straits during his boyhood. Coburn, with his lean good looks, gravitated towards acting and majored in drama at the University of Southern California. Like many actors of his generation, he later studied in workshops with noted teachers Stella Adler and Jeff Corey. Coming of age in the 1950’s, he found work in television most often as a cowboy or bad guy. “The Rifleman,” “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza,” and “Perry Mason” were just a few of the classic 1950’s television shows on which he appeared.
By the 1960’s Coburn was moving into feature films. Directors liked his dynamic blend of sexiness and humor, and cast him in macho movies like “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) and “Hell is for Heroes” (1962). He made a splash in “The Great Escape,” holding his own on the screen with heavyweights like Steve McQueen and James Garner. Ironically, this most American of actors was cast as the Australian character Sedgwick. But it is Coburn, not McQueen or Garner, who makes it safely out of the camp to fight another day.
If Coburn was not quite a movie star at this point, he was a beguiling presence who added an affability to high-testosterone, big budget fare. Finally, stardom found him in the role of Flint, a post-James Bond parody. “Our Man Flint” (1965) and “In Like Flint” (1967) captured the wildness of 1960’s movie making in all its goofy glory, and stands as precedent for the modern spy genre satire, “Austin Powers.”
While Flint was the high point of his leading man years, Coburn continued to work in a mixed bag of films. “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” (1966), “The President’s Analyst” (1968), “The Honkers” (1971) and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) represent some of his best work. He also performed in TV roles, most notably in “Murder, She Wrote” and “Picket Fences.”