James Coburn, the rugged actor who reveled in playing rakish men of action and slyly humorous villains and overcame a debilitating illness to win an Academy Award for his performance in ”Affliction” in 1998, died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 74.
A spokeswoman for Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles said Mr. Coburn was in cardiac arrest when he arrived there.
A man of lean good looks, Mr. Coburn first established his reputation in ”The Magnificent Seven” in 1960 and went on to star in more than 80 movies, many of them Westerns and action films, including ”The Great Escape,” ”Charade,” and ”Our Man Flint.”
His lanky body and Mephistophelean laugh led directors to type him as a villain, and though he became well known for those roles he never made it to the front rank of Hollywood stars.
In the early 1980’s, he developed rheumatoid arthritis so severe that it hampered his career for most of a decade. After a long and difficult recovery, he appeared in television commercials and in some films his admirers felt were beneath him.
But in 1999, he received an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his role as Nick Nolte’s alcoholic father in Paul Schrader’s acclaimed film ”Affliction.” Although many critics hailed it as the best performance of his career, he found it difficult to find work afterward.
Mr. Coburn was born in Laurel, Neb., the son of an auto mechanic and schoolteacher, and grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton.
He served briefly in the Army, where he worked as a radio service operator, and made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse opposite Vincent Price in ”Billy Budd.” He moved to New York City in the mid-1950’s to study acting with Stella Adler, appearing in plays and some television dramas on programs including ”Studio One” and ”General Electric Theater.”
He made his film debut as an outlaw in a Randolph Scott Western, ”Ride Lonesome,” in 1959. By that time he was a veteran of the genre, having done at least 40 television shows, most of them Westerns. He appeared in another Western, ”Face of a Fugitive,” the same year.
Continue reading the main story
But it was his role as the knife-throwing Britt in ”The Magnificent Seven,” where he appeared with Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, that first put him on the map. He had few lines, but his gaunt physique and bass-baritone voice had a powerful impact. Soon he was playing in Sam Peckinpah Westerns, including ”Major Dundee” and ”Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” He continued to play mostly supporting roles until the crime drama ”Dead Heat in a Merry Go Round” (1966).
His fame reached a new level with his portrayal of Derek Flint in the James Bond spoof ”Our Man Flint” (1966) and its sequel in the following year, ”In Like Flint.” In 1967 he starred in ”The President’s Analyst,” a satire he also produced.
Despite his menacing screen personality, Mr. Coburn said he had never been in a real physical fight. He did take some martial arts lessons from Bruce Lee, a friend at whose funeral he served as a pallbearer in 1973.
In the 1970’s Mr. Coburn’s box office appeal waned, and a bitter divorce in 1979 preceded the onset of his arthritis. He eventually defeated the illness with dietary supplements after experimenting with a number of alterative treatments. But he struggled to find film work in the 1980’s, and earned much of his money doing television commercials, especially in Japan.
In the 1990’s he returned to character roles, appearing as an enemy of Billy the Kid in ”Young Guns II” and a philanthropist in the 1996 remake of ”The Nutty Professor.”
His marriage to Beverly Kelly ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Paula Murad, two children, Lisa and James Jr., and two grandchildren.
PROC. BY MOVIES