Smile When You Say That: James Coburn (1928-2002)

Some actors can seem as familiar as one’s own phone number, but then convention or circumstances removes them from the public radar. Many people were pleasantly reminded of James Coburn’s long and satisfying career when he won his sole Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as the altogether unsympathetic and abusive father in Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998). The part afforded him a rare opportunity also to sway the audience’s opinion against him, for, despite the variety of villains and scalawags Coburn portrayed, he remained a consistently ingratiating presence throughout his career.

It was hard to think of Coburn as a typical heavy, given his lanky physique, toothsome smile, and commanding bass baritone voice; all conveyed a grace and savoir faire that mitigated even the most malevolent behavior. You had the feeling the man possessed an undeniable center of gravity that could allow him to prevail effortlessly in the midst of abject chaos.

His striking entrance in Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite (1972), epitomizes the Coburn persona. He plays an Irish revolutionary, enamored of high explosives, who meets up with a ragtag band of Mexican bandits and erstwhile freedom fighters led by Rod Steiger during the volatile era of Villa and Zapata. All at once, he emerges, gliding in slow motion on a vintage motorcycle through wisps of smoke, only his Cheshire cat grin visible as evidence of his amusement over the consternation he has caused. The film’s title is his cautionary admonition to Steiger and his brood, before he sets off yet another stick of dynamite.

Coburn’s entry into show business was far less explosive. He was the son of an auto mechanic and schoolteacher. He grew up in Compton, Los Angeles, California. After serving in the army, he trained with Stella Adler in New York City and took advantage of the ample opportunities to exercise his craft on live television broadcasts. He first appeared on the screen in one of Budd Boetticher’s lean and laconic Randolph Scott Westerns, Ride Lonesome (1959), and a year later, broke through as part of the star-studded ensemble in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), the film offered Coburn little dialogue, but ample opportunity to display his physical grace, as he dispatched his enemies with a swiftly hurled bowie knife. For a time he subsumed his skills in action narratives that involved ensemble casts, such as Sturges’ WWII prisoner of war classic, The Great Escape (1963) and Don Siegel’s blistering combat feature, Hell Is For Heroes (1962).

Coburn was elevated to leading man in the mid-1960s, when his laidback charm appealed to viewers’ predilection for anti-authoritarian protagonists. He played this sort of role in the now unfortunately overlooked caper film, Dead Heat in a Merry-Go-Round (1966), and again in the spy spoof Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967). The films made a strenuous effort to piggyback on the James Bond phenomenon. They now seem more than a bit dated, even Coburn’s zestful command of the requisite gadgets and guns can raise an occasional smile. That self-awareness helps to undercut the unpalatable misogyny of some of the films that followed, including the comic Western, Waterhole No. 3 (1967), in which his character refers to rape is referred to as “assault with a friendly weapon.”

Coburn’s skill with broad satire was best illustrated by the riotous The President’s Analyst (1967), one of the decade’s most well conceived comedies. The titular physician finds himself the object of interest on the part of both foreign and domestic spies, only to discover the institution truly running the world is the phone company.

By the mid-1970s, U.S. moviegoers became less attuned to over-the-top lambasting of the powers that be, and Coburn’s work took on a more solemn tone. His most memorable appearances were in films by Sam Peckinpah, as Coburn became the combative director’s representative of middle-aged despair over the collapse of social values and prevalence of mindless aggression. The actor had played a minor role in Peckinpah’s second studio feature, Major Dundee (1965), butchered by the studio so that its analysis of imperialist expansion into Mexico paled before the star power of Charlton Heston’s protagonist.

In the messy yet immeasurably moving Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972), Coburn brings dignity to the conflicted sheriff who kills the legendary gunfighter. Again, however, the studio chopped up Peckinpah’s carefully laid out structure, rearranging the flashbacks or excising them altogether. The initial release included some of the most melancholy gunplay I’ve ever witnessed, but it failed to show how both Garrett and the Kid never acted as free agents, remaining instead the vehicles of political and social forces beyond their control. Thankfully, Peckinpah’s original conception is available for viewing For all its flaws of characterization — Kris Kristofferson lacks the aura the role of the Kid demands — it remains one of the key films of the 1970s and one of the best American Westerns ever.

Less well known and engaging in its own way is the other collaboration between the director and Coburn: Cross Of Iron (1976) is a German-funded, international co-production that conveys the futility of war as potently as Pat Garret does the erosion of the frontier. Coburn distinctly displays the weariness of the professional soldier, and Peckinpah’s longstanding penchant for calculated savagery brings to the battle sequences a ferocious audacity.

Cross of Iron was one of the last films that challenged Coburn’s talents or that offered him a commanding leading role. Age and, sadly, a decade-long battle with rheumatoid arthritis, kept him off the screen or forced him to abandon roles that challenged his waning physical powers. When interviewed, Coburn dismissed without dismay most of his pictures. The raw energy and lack of any diminishment of his character’s villainy in Affliction reinforced in the audience — and Coburn himself, perhaps, as well — that his power to command the screen was always near at hand. We now have his career-long record at both comedy and drama to remind us of his incontestable talent, whether playing a sly smart-ass like Flint or a tired, conflicted authority figure like Garrett.