From the Archives: James Coburn, 74; Actor Won an Oscar Late in His Career


James Coburn, the big, versatile leading man with a toothy grin who appeared in such films as “Our Man Flint” and “Affliction,” for which he won an Academy Award, died Monday afternoon at his Beverly Hills home. He was 74.

Coburn died of a massive heart attack while listening to music with his wife, Paula, his manager, Hillard Elkins, said late Monday.

“He died too early, but he died in his wife’s arms,” Elkins said. “It’s a pity and a loss for all of us.”


The tall, ruggedly handsome actor won his best supporting actor Oscar in 1999 after overcoming a decade-long struggle with arthritis that left one hand crippled.

Born in Laurel, Neb., on Aug. 31, 1928, Coburn grew up in Compton and majored in acting at Los Angeles City College. He also attended USC. He made his professional stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse playing opposite Vincent Price in “Billy Budd.”

In the early 1950s, he studied with Stella Adler in New York and worked behind the scenes in television commercials. By decade’s end, he was working in Los Angeles in “Wagon Train” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

After playing macho sidekicks and villains in numerous Westerns and action films, he caught the public’s attention in 1960 as the knife-throwing Britt in “The Magnificent Seven.”

In 1965, he played the supporting role of a one-armed scout for Charlton Heston in “Major Dundee.”

Coburn hit his stride as a leading man in the late 1960s James Bond spy spoofs “Our Man Flint” and “In Like Flint.” He produced the comedy thriller “The President’s Analyst” in 1967.

His box-office appeal diminished in the late 1970s. He all but disappeared from the camera’s eye in the 1980s with the onset of arthritis, which he claimed to have healed by taking pills with a sulfur base. But he added a distinctive voice to a variety of television commercials and had a lucrative career, particularly in Japan, during that period.

In the late 1980s, he returned to character roles. He played a cattle rancher in “Young Guns II,” a mysterious and deadly agent in “The Candy Bars,” a scrooge who wanted to shut down St. Francis Academy in “Sister Act II: Back in the Habit” and a philanthropist in the 1996 remake of “The Nutty Professor.”

But 1998 was an exceptional year for Coburn, when he won raves for his role as the abusive, alcoholic father of Nick Nolte’s character in Paul Schrader’s “Affliction.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, left, Judi Dench, James Coburn and Roberto Benigni back stage at the Academy Awards.
Gwyneth Paltrow, left, Judi Dench, James Coburn and Roberto Benigni back stage at the Academy Awards.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times )

Winning on his first Oscar nomination in a career that spanned four decades, Coburn cradled the golden statuette in his arm backstage at the 71st Academy Awards and crowed, “Whoopee! It’s nice!

“You can’t describe the feeling,” he said. “You can’t really describe it because it’s not even an emotion. It really hasn’t settled in yet. I was moved so much I could hardly talk up there.”

Television credits followed: “The Cherokee Kid,” “The Second Civil War,” “Proximity” for HBO, and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s “Noah’s Ark.”

His recent film credits include “Snow Dogs” and “Monsters Inc.” In current release, he stars in “The Man From Elysian Fields,” and another movie is working its way into distribution, “American Gun.”

Coburn lent his talents to more than 100 films in all. Among his personal favorites were “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and “The Iron Cross,” both of which teamed him with his friend, the late director Sam Peckinpah.

“There’ll never be another like him,” Elkins said. “When we were kids, he and I and Steve McQueen hung out together. Those two made an impression on generations, past, present and future.”

In addition to his wife, Coburn is survived by two children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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