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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

January 21, 2014

James Coburn

A brief profile of an ageless and versatile actor for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

The last time I profiled Maggie Smith, Keishon, who blogs at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog (check it out), thought that something had happened to the grand dame of cinema. I guess I conveyed that impression by writing about Maggie Smith out of the blue. 

James Coburn in Eraser
Last evening, I watched action film Eraser (1996) and saw a familiar face—James Coburn—who at 6' 2" and 74 is still going strong. (Addendum: Sergio in comments has brought it to my notice that Coburn died in 2002, a fact I clearly overlooked.) As head of the US Federal Witness Protection Programme, he orders US Marshal John Kruger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), a key witness to a scam in a company that manufactures secret weapons for the military. The mastermind, US Marshal Robert DeGuerin (James Caan, who I mistook for Armand Assante), is a friend of Kruger and he wants both Kruger and Lee out of the way. The conspiracy, if exposed, can rattle skeletons on Capitol Hill.

Coburn with his peers from The Great Escape.
This is not about Eraser, it is about Coburn, and I realise just how little I know about this fine actor with the rugged look and a winning smile. He has been hovering around the periphery of my cinematic vision for some years now, cast in secondary roles as both good and bad guy, in films like Eraser, Snow Dogs, The Nutty Professor, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The only earliest film I remember Coburn in is The Great Escape made over fifty years ago. He didn’t have a beard then.

That’s how long James Coburn has been around. I’ve probably seen him in some of his other films between then and now but don't remember any. I went through his filmography and found only one familiar exception, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, a western he starred alongside Bud Spencer and Telly Savalas. He also had a sound television career.


How well do you know James Coburn? Which of his early films do you remember most?

32 comments:

  1. Coburn is a character actor that honestly, I've never paid much attention to even though he has a strong presence on the screen. Thanks for spotlighting him as I had no idea his film career spanned 5 decades. There are some great character actors out there so its good to spotlight them and remind us about them.

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    1. Keishon, you're welcome. Not much of a spotlight really as I know very little about the actor, hence this sketchy writeup. I don't think I've seen Coburn in a lead role except alongside other lead actors. I agree, there are some terrific character and secondary actors out there and I hope to write about them in future posts.

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  2. I always liked Coburn. I particularly remember him in the "In Like Flynn" movies

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    1. Charles, thanks for mentioning the term "In Like Flynn," a term I hadn't heard or come across before. I read about its origins, its attribution to Errol Flynn. I can see why it would apply to Coburn's movies.

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  3. For some reason I always confuse him with Lee Marvin. They are really two very different actors. In westerns, his best known role is as Pat Garrett in Sam Peckinpah's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. He was also in the cast of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Earlier, he did a lot of work in TV westerns and played a gawky young man in a Randolph Scott western, RIDE LONESOME.

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    1. Ron, there's another fine actor who is worthy of a profile. I don't think I've seen Coburn in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. On the other hand, I completely forgot that he acted in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN which I've seen many times in the past. An unpardonable mistake, as I see it. I'm not familiar with Coburn's work in television which appears to be more impressive than his film career. Thanks for highlighting RIDE LONESOME.

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  4. Sadly Cobun is no longer with us (he died in 2002) but was a wonderful screen presence whether as the knife-wilding cowboy in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVENT, the supercool secret agent Derek Flint (a role he parodied beautifully opposite Bruce Willis in HUDSON HAWK) or as the monster father in AFFLICTION. He was especially good as the IRA member with a penchant for explosives in Sergio Leone's exxentric classic, DUCK, YOU SUCKER. There were gaps in his career due to problems with arthrities but he remains a true icon of the cinema - great choice Prashant.

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    1. Sergio, thank you, and it comes right back to you for setting the record straight. I don't know how I overlooked Coburn's death in 2002 or the fact that he was one of the seven cowboys in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a movie I've always enjoyed watching. I haven't seen the other three films you mentioned; they all sound good. Coburn was definitely one of the "icons" of cinema.

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  5. My favorite Coburn film is a late one: AFFLICTION where he did an outstanding job of playing a horrible father. Based on the Russell Banks book. A great adaptation but not a fun two hours.

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    1. Patti, I'm going to have to see AFFLICTION for the sake of watching Coburn rather than for its off-putting theme. The book is new to me as well.

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    2. Here's another vote for AFFLICTION. The excellent cast includes Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek.

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    3. Ron, I hope to watch the film on cable soon and I agree with the cast being "excellent."

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  6. Oh, I always loved James Coburn, Prashant. Thanks for writing about him today. I loved him especially in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and in his starring role in IN LIKE FLINT with Lee J. Cobb and in BITE THE BULLET and THE LAST OF SHEILA and even as one of the smarmy bad guys in CHARADE. He was always a stand-out wherever he was cast. He was so tall and cool and craggy....Sigh!

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  7. P.S. I was thrilled when he finally won his Oscar. :)

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    1. Yvette, you're welcome. I can imagine how you'd have profiled Coburn, with more authority and lots of pictures. Except for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which I failed to mention, and CHARADE, I haven't seen the other movies you mentioned though BITE THE BULLET rings a bell somewhere. I need to watch some of his early films.

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  8. You've heard about most of the films from others here, but he did a tv version of Michael Crichton's A CASE OF NEED (written as Jeffery Hudson) that I enjoyed quite a bit.

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    1. Robert, thank you for writing as well as for recommending A CASE OF NEED. Michael Crichton's influence is far-reaching. I'll look for both the television film and the book.

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  9. We play a game at home when we watch TV, trying to recall what we have seen secondary actors/actresses in The guys whose name you can't quite remember but whose face is familiar. I think Coburn was probably a bit more than just a support, albeit never a lead - always recognisable.

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    1. Col, that's a nice little game. I ought to be playing it too as actors I see on television flitter in and out of my mind's eye all the time. Coburn is an example. I have never seen him in a lead role. Lee Van Cleef was another such actor.

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    2. Someone usually ends up cheating by going on the net and looking it up! (Me!)

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    3. Col, I usually make it a point to read all about the movie and the actors after watching it. I like facts and trivia.

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  10. Prashant, Steve Buscemi is another big favourite of mine, rarely the star but he always shines. I like Harvey Keitel also, Danny Trejo, as well....a fairly long list.

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    1. Col, it's been a while since I saw Harvey Keitel in a film. I think I last saw him in NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS. I know I've seen Buscemi and Trejo somewhere but I can't quite place them. Their faces look familiar.

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    2. Its been awhile for Harvey Keitel. He was one of the first to support the talent of Quentin Tarantino (flying him over to Hollywood on his own dime as the story's told). I found Reservoir Dogs very depressing. I couldn't watch it a second time. Some secondary actors I've been wondering about have died like Stanley DeSantis who had a small role as Louis B. Mayer in The Aviator. Just found that one out this year. I love Buscemi as well.

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    3. Never got tired of watching RD. Off to look up DeSantis, someone I'm not at all familiar with....unless recognition dawns once I've seen a photo...

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    4. Keishon and Col, I've never watched RESERVOIR DOGS fully. Since this discussion I've found out that both Keitel and Buscemi were in the film. In 2002, it was remade into a Hindi film called KAANTE (THORNS) by a director you might say is the Indian equivalent of Tarantino. DeSantis is new to me as well.

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  11. Buscemi...I loved in Big Fish, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, The Wedding Singer to mention a few. Does also voiceovers in a lot of animated stuff.

    Trejo...Spy Kids, Animal Factory, Dusk Til Dawn

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    1. Col, I loved FARGO and wrote about it long ago. I thought Frances McDormand was really good, especially the way she spoke.

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  12. Prashant, I like James Coburn, and one of my favorite movies is The Great Escape. I had forgotten what other movies I liked him in but the comments reminded me: The Magnificent Seven... that I need to watch again soon. And Charade.

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    1. Tracy, I loved THE GREAT ESCAPE too. Steve McQueen dominated the film from start to finish. I've been meaning to watch THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and the other non-Coburn western MACKENNA'S GOLD too. These are true classics. I also remember watching RETURN OF THE SEVEN which, I think, only had Yul Bryner from the original cast.

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  13. I'm a BIG fan of Coburn and couldn't just pick one. I reviewed DUCK, YOU SUCKER for Criminal Element which will run the article in the coming weeks. An early favorite (and forgotten film) is Sky Riders from '76. Also like his later performances in PAYBACK and AFFLICTION.

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    1. David, I look forward to reading your review of DUCK, YOU SUCKER. I've discovered much about Coburn and his through the many comments here. Hopefully, I'll be able to watch some of his early films.

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