James Coburn appeared in more than 70 films and over 100 television roles. He was known early in his career as a tough guy, in part because of his roles and also because of his deep voice. This distinctive voice later in life provided him a steady income through commercial and voice-over work. In his long career, he was only nominated once for an Academy Award, in 1999, only three years before his death.
“Some of them you do for money, some of them you do for love,” he said in his Oscar acceptance speech as Best Supporting Actor for Affliction. “This is a love child.”
Even though the tough guy label seemed to stick to him, he appeared in a lot of Westerns and action films where he used his brains instead of his brawn. He appeared as a syndicate boss in the film Payback, where he suffered the indignity of having Mel Gibson shoot up his luggage. “That’s just plain mean,” his character said. That was sometimes typical of his onscreen characters, they might have been tough guy roles but he did not play them that way.
In the 1960s, he graduated from mainly television work to major supporting and starring roles in feature films. His film roles were as secret agent Derek Flint in two films, he played the president’s analyst in a film of the same name, a conman pulling off a robbery in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, an immigration officer in the cult film The Loved One, a seeker of buried Army gold in Waterhole #3, a brain surgeon in the sex-comedy romp Candy, an Army Lieutenant in the war comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? , a hitman in Hard Contact, a CIA agent in Charade, a Navy officer in The Americanization of Emily, a weary GI in Hell is For Heroes, a POW in The Great Escape, and one of the Magnificent Seven.
Whether he was playing a straight dramatic role or engaged in a light-comedic film, he gave you the same level of energy. Coburn, from his quiet character in the Magnificent Seven, would often appear enigmatic, mysterious. Steve McQueen could give you that muted, almost vacant look; Coburn was more intense and steely. Both used dialogue to a minimum.
This enigmatic quality was perfect for the 1960s; the decade was enigmatic and enigmatic was in great demand. Coburn didn’t possess the star power of his buddy Steve McQueen but he was easier to employ. Coburn was no McQueen knock-off, he came with his own mystique and swagger.
In the 1970s, he continued to appear in many films, some in starring roles and others in supporting or co-starring roles. He was a working actor. He wasn’t traditionally handsome but had a very striking appearance, his steely eyes, tall slender frame and premature gray hair, added to a distinguished look.
Three of his best film in the 1970s were in Westerns: Duck, You Sucker; Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid; and Bite the Bullet. Coburn had many starring roles during the decade but these were his best films.
Duck, You Sucker. In Sergio Leone’s tale of the Mexican Revolution, Coburn played a motorcycle riding dynamiter. Not Leone’s best film, a much paler version of his classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Coburn and Rod Steiger do the heavy lifting, particularly a scene-chewing Steiger playing a Mexican bandit. Coburn is an ex-Irish Republican Army revolutionary, in 1913 Mexico, who is a mining blaster, a handy thing in a revolution. They form an unlikely alliance with the Mexican Revolution as the backdrop.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Sam Peckinpah’s fable, set to Bob Dylan’s music, Peckinpah’s last Western, good but not great. Coburn plays Pat Garrett, on the trail of Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Hey, these were the 70s. Violent and unforgiving, sad and downbeat, but not quite the visceral experience of The Wild Bunch. Kristofferson has the more glamorous role but Coburn is the moral spine of the film, whatever morality was in the 1880s.
Bite the Bullet. Richard Brooks’ long distance horse race, one of his best films and a pure delight. Coburn plays one of the contestants, a co-star of Gene Hackman who’s character is the star of the film. Coburn turns in an understated but solid performance. He doesn’t have a lot to do except to be Hackman’s buddy in fights and a visit to the whorehouse.
Coburn starred in other films like The Carey Treatment and Cross of Iron, films by Blake Edwards and Sam Peckinpah respectively, but neither made much of a ripple. No matter, Coburn moved on to the next project. There would always be a next project, even when he was slowed by rheumatoid arthritis, but he found a successful treatment and carried on.
“He was of that 50’s generation. He had that part hipster, part cool-cat aura about him. He was one of those kind of men who were formed by the Rat Pack kind of style.”
— Paul Schrader, writer and director