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Date of Birth: - 31 August 1928
Date of Death: - 18 November 2002 (heart attack)
Birth Name: - James Harrison Coburn Jr.
James Harrison Coburn was born in Laurel, Nebraska, the son of Mylet S. (née Johnson) and James Harrison Coburn, Jr., who had a garage business that was wiped out by the Great Depression. Coburn was of Scots-Irish and Swedish descent. He was raised in Compton, California, attended Compton Junior College, and enlisted in the United States Army in 1950, serving as an Army truck driver and also was an occasional disc jockey on an Army radio station in Texas. Coburn also narrated Army training films in Mainz, Germany. He attended Los Angeles City College, where he studied acting alongside Jeff Corey and Stella Adler, then made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in Billy Budd. Coburn was selected for a Remington Products razor commercial when he was able to shave off eleven days of beard growth in less than 60 seconds while joking that he had more teeth to show on camera than the other 12 candidates for the part.
Coburn's film debut came in 1959 as the sidekick to Pernell Roberts in the Randolph Scott western Ride Lonesome. He appeared at least twice in The Restless Gun, in episodes entitled "The Pawn" and "The Way Back", the latter with Dan Blocker.
Coburn also appeared in dozens of television roles including episodes of Bonanza. The first of which was The Truckee Strip (1959) where he played the role of Pete Jessup, the embittered foreman of Luther Bishop who the Cartwrights had a land dispute with. Cap from the Truckee Strip by me
The second of Coburn’s Bonanza episodes was The Dark Gate (1961), where he starred as Ross Marquette, and old friend of Adam’s who in his irrational and very erratic behaviour accuses Adam of having an affair with his wife. Cap from The Dark Gate by me
In third of his Bonanza episodes, The Long Night (1962), Coburn’s role is that of Elmer Trace a convicted killer and murderer who isn’t bothered about getting Adam hung in his place. Cap from The Long Night by me
His first major film role was when he was cast as the knife-throwing, quick-shooting Britt in the The Magnificent Seven (1960) and then came The Great Escape (1963) where he starred alongside Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.
Coburn seen far left with his co-stars in The Magnificent Seven In The Great Escape Coburn played Australian POW Sedgewick
Regular film roles came then for Coburn, including appearing in Major Dundee (1965), the first of several films he appeared in directed by Sam Peckinpah. The next two years were a key period for Coburn, with his performances in the spy spoof Our Man Flint (1966) and Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966). Coburn followed up in 1967 with a Flint sequel, In Like Flint (1967), and the political satire The President's Analyst (1967). The remainder of the 1960s was rather uneventful for Coburn.
Movie poster from Our Man Flint
The 1970s saw Coburn appearing again in several strong roles, starting off in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), alongside Charles Bronson in the Depression-era The Streetfighter (1975) and as a disenchanted German soldier on the Russian front in Peckinpah's Cross of Iron (1977). Towards the end of the decade, Coburn was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which hampered his health and work for many years. After conventional treatments failed, Coburn turned to a holistic therapist, and by the 1990s he was once again appearing in both film and TV productions. He had supporting roles in Young Guns II (1990), Hudson Hawk (1991), Sister Act 2 (1993), Maverick (1994), Eraser (1996), The Nutty Professor (1996), Affliction (1998) and Payback (1999). Coburn's performance in Affliction earned him an Academy Award, and he was also nominated for the Screen Actors Guild and the Independent Spirit Awards.
Coburn collecting his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of an abusive and alcoholic father in Affliction
At 70 years of age, Coburn's career received another shot in the arm, and he appeared in another 14 films, including Snow Dogs (2002) and The Man from Elysian Fields (2001).
Coburn's passions in life included martial arts (he trained with martial arts legend Bruce Lee and he, along with Steve McQueen, was a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral), card playing, fast cars and enjoying fine Cuban cigars. During his 45 year acting career Coburn appeared in nearly 70 films and made over 100 television appearances.
Coburn married Beverly Kelly in 1959; the couple had two children, Lisa (stepdaughter) and James Jr., before divorcing in 1979. Coburn was married again in 1993 to Paula Murad, who became his widow when he died of a heart attack on November 18, 2002 while listening to music in his Beverly Hills, California home.
James Coburn with his wife Paula taken in their Beverly Hills home
"When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on for so long in the first place."
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