James Coburn was an actor whose style allowed him to comfortably embrace drama, action, and comedy roles, and many of his best-known performances found him blending elements of all these styles in roles that overflowed with charisma and a natural charm.
Born in Laurel, NE, on August 31, 1928, Coburn relocated to California as a young man, and first developed an interest in acting while studying at Los Angeles City College. After appearing in several student productions, he decided to take a stab at acting as a profession, and enrolled in the theater department at U.C.L.A. Coburn earned his first notable reviews in an adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, staged at Los Angeles' La Jolla Playhouse, which starred Vincent Price. In the early '50s, Coburn moved to New York City, where he studied acting with Stella Adler, and began working in commercials and live television. In 1958, Coburn won a recurring role on a Western TV series called Bronco, and scored his first film role the following year in Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, starring Randolph Scott. For a while, Coburn seemed to find himself typecast as a heavy in Westerns, most notably in The Magnificent Seven, and later starred in two action-oriented TV series, Klondike (which ran for 18 weeks between 1960 and 1961) and Acapulco (which lasted a mere eight weeks in 1961). However, after a strong showing in the war drama Hell Is for Heroes, Coburn finally got to play a big-screen hero as part of the ensemble cast of 1963's The Great Escape. In 1964, Coburn got a chance to show his flair for comedy in The Americanization of Emily, and in 1965 he appeared in Major Dundee, the first of several films he would make with iconoclastic director Sam Peckinpah.
In 1966, Coburn finally hit full-fledged stardom in Our Man Flint, a flashy satiric comedy which put an American spin on the James Bond-style superspy films of the period. Coburn's deft blend of comic cheek and action heroics as Derek Flint made the film a major box-office success, and in 1967 he appeared in a sequel, In Like Flint, as well as two similar action comedies, Duffy and the cult film The President's Analyst (the latter of which Coburn helped produce). Moving back and forth between comedies (Candy, Harry in Your Pocket), Westerns (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and dramas (The Last of Shelia, Cross of Iron), Coburn was in high demand through much of the 1970s. He also dabbled in screenwriting (he penned a script for his friend Bruce Lee which was filmed after Lee's death as Circle of Iron, starring David Carradine) and directing (he directed an episode of the TV series The Rockford Files, as well as handling second-unit work on Sam Peckinpah's Convoy). By the end of the decade, however, his box-office allure was not what it once was, although he remained a potent draw in Japan.
Coburn remained busy in the 1980s, with supporting roles in theatrical films, larger roles in television projects, and voice-over work for documentaries. In 1979, Coburn was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and in the mid-'80s, when his illness failed to respond to conventional treatment, he began to cut back on his work schedule. But in the 1990s, a holistic therapist was able to treat Coburn using nutritional supplements, and he began appearing onscreen with greater frequency (he also appeared in a series of instructional videos on gambling strategies, one of Coburn's passions). He won a 1999 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his intense portrayal of an abusive father in Paul Schrader's film Affliction, and the award kick-started Coburn's career. He would work on more than a dozen projects over the next two years, but Coburn then succumbed to a heart attack in 2002. Coburn was survived by two children, James H. Coburn IV and Lisa Coburn, his former spouse Beverly Kelly, and Paula Murad, his wife at the time of his death.