James Coburn: Sam Peckinpah was a genius for four hours a day the rest of that time he was drunk. He called himself “a working alcoholic
I interviewed James Coburn in late 1998 for the cover story of the February 1999 issue of Venice Magazine. I had grown up watching Coburn on the late show, but also seeing him on the big screen, first-run. Meeting him was a thrill as he entered the living room of his manager, the late Hilly Elkins’, home in Beverly Hills. Coburn was elegant, charming and had the grace of a cat. The only thing that revealed the health problems that had nearly done him in were his gnarled hands, the result of severe arthritis. We spoke about his role in Paul Schrader’s newest film, “Affliction,” which would earn him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Later, as I walked Coburn to his Acura NSX sport coupe, he bid me a warm farewell.
Several months later, I encountered him again at The Independent Spirit Awards, in Santa Monica. I went up to greet him and was given a cold shoulder. This was my first experience with interviewing an actor who was a charmer when “working” and then running into him/her in public later and being reminded of my inferior position in the pecking order. I have no idea what was going on with him that day, but being that I was barely 30 years of age, I took his snub very personally, and let it stew for a quite a while. A couple years after that, he approached me at a Venice Magazine party, offering his hand: “Hey there!” he exclaimed. “I never did tell you how much I enjoyed your article.” We chatted for a few more minutes, then went our separate ways. I have no idea if he was being genuine that final time I saw him, or if he was “acting,” and at this point, I don’t care. I got to sit and spend time with one of the screen’s greats who’d worked with the screen’s greats.
Suffice to say, they don’t make ’em like Jim Coburn, cool daddy, anymore.
James Coburn was born August 31, 1928 in Laurel, Nebraska. His father, an auto mechanic, moved the family to Compton, California in the early 30’s at the height of the depression, in hopes of finding a better life for his family. Young Coburn stayed in Compton through high school. Following military service in the Army, Coburn studied acting at Los Angeles City College, USC, and with the legendary Stella Adler in New York. He then returned to Southern California, where he made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in Billy Budd. Following some work in commercials and live TV, Coburn made his film debut in 1959 in Ride Lonesome, a Budd Boetticher-directed horse opera starring Randolph Scott. He then hit paydirt with his supporting role in the smash hit The Magnificent Seven in 1960, following this with the classic The Great Escape in 1963. Coburn continued doing solid supporting work in film and TV throughout the early 60’s, finally earning leading man status as superspy Derek Flint in Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). He formed his own production company in 1967, Panpiper, producing the critical and cult favorite The President’s Analyst, a brilliant social and political satire that is now widely regarded as one of the seminal films of the 1960s. Coburn also did three films with ultra-violence guru Sam Peckinpah: Major Dundee (1965), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and the WW II drama Cross of Iron (1977) which showed the war from the German P.O.V., and directed second unit for Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978).
Coburn’s screen persona gave Americans what Sean Connery gave to the English: an urbane, sophisticated hero, who can let loose a one-liner, dry martini or deadly karate chop in the blink of one eye, while winking at us, the audience, with the other. His cat-like grace and steely intensity made him one of the top box office stars of the 60s and 70s, and Coburn still retains a strong following of fans as the 1990s come to a close.
Coburn has appeared in dozens of films. Just a few other noteworthy ones include Don Seigel’s Hell Is For Heroes (1962), Charade (1963), Paddy Chayefsky’s The Americanization of Emily (1964), Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker! (1971), Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet, and Walter Hill’s Hard Times (both 1975). A near-fatal bout of rheumatoid arthritis slowed Coburn down in the late 70’s, just when he was reaching the peak of his career. After focusing his considerable discipline on building (or re-building) his body, Coburn now happily declares that he is “pain free.” Seeing the silver-maned, elegant Coburn stroll through the garden of the Beverly Hills home where this interview took place, one would never guess this was a man who was near death once upon a time. The lithe, cat-like grace is still there, as is the charm, easy laugh, and ten thousand watt smile that has been captivating the movie-going world for nearly 40 years. The foremost thing on Coburn’s mind these days is his latest film, Paul Schrader’s Affliction. In it, he plays Pop Whitehouse, father to Sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte).
ffliction is the searing, much-talked about film that deals with domestic violence as it’s passed down through the generations of a family like a cancerous heirloom. Coburn’s venomous performance has critics and the public alike buzzing “Oscar.” If nominated, it would be a first for Coburn, who, at 70, seems less like an old veteran gunning for a last lap around the track, than a seasoned pro whose powers are every bit at their peak when he enters the ring. There goes the bell. Round one.
Your character Pop Whitehouse is one of the most loathsome villains to grace a movie screen in recent memory. Did you have trouble shaking him off once the picture wrapped?
JAMES COBURN: Not really, because I got it all out. It’s really when you can’t get it out or when you’re doing it on stage and you have to do it over and over again that it can be troubling. But I learned long ago how to get rid of it by doing it! (laughs) You get it out. Villains are really fun to play because they’re usually meatier characters, because they’ve made decisions that haven’t all been very good ones, (laughs) and are paying the price, with a little karma attached. They have something to say, I think. I never play them as a “bad guy.” I play them like I have something to accomplish. In Affliction, it was “I have to get my boys to be men! If they’re not strong men, by God, I’ll beat the shit out of them!” That’s what makes him seem so savage — it’s that conflict. Scripts without conflict are really boring. Characters without conflict are really boring to play, because you’re always trying to catch up with something. And this one was just loaded with conflict. Paul (Schrader) said to Nick and I in the beginning “I’m just gonna let you two guys go after each other!” And we did. We went for it. It was great fun. I’d like to do it all over again.
Is it difficult to go to such a dark place as an actor?
It’s sometimes difficult to find, initially. But as actors, we don’t have to be who we’re playing. That’s one of the good things about being an actor. But, if you let yourself get locked into that, where that character becomes your essence, that’s scary. There was an old film called A Double Life (1947), starring Ronald Coleman, where he became so infected with Othello, that he actually performed it for real, with his own Desdemona. Stella Adler, who I studied with, said “Actors act. They don’t have to be their roles.” On Affliction, we were all joking around between takes, then when we went back to it, boom! We were right back into it again, because it was written so well. It was very straight-on. There was no ambiguity about the characters, and it’s really fun and enriching when that happens. As actors that’s what we try to do, enrich our own beings by absorbing impressions, then generating it out through our craft and giving it to the audience. Truth is obvious, it’s always obvious, isn’t it? Screenplays sometimes hide the truth, which isn’t necessary. You have to give audiences some credit. You don’t have to play around the truth. And what Pop Whitehouse was saying, even though you might hate him for it, was the truth! He knew exactly who he was. He was, nevertheless, afflicted, but he was also very honest.
What was it like studying with Stella Adler?
Great. I actually studied with Jeff Corey out here first. His philosophy was more improvisational. Get away from your ego, get away from lines, things like that. Learn how to play the action of the scene, that’s what improv is really about. Stella, on the other hand, was into style. The style of Shakespeare, modern styles. She’d show you how to do it. You’d see her transform into a raving hag and then into a little girl. Drop of a hat, bang. That’s what I mean about acting. You don’t have to live it. As long as the character doesn’t inhabit you, that’s the kick of acting. De Niro studied with Stella. She was furious with him for putting all that weight for Raging Bull. (laughs)(imitating Stella) “What are you doing to yourself?! You’ll ruin your health!” (laughs). She was very demanding, very hard on women especially. She would just strip you down, peel your ego right off your skin.
Who was in your class at Stella’s?
Warren Beatty was in my class. He played piano in this Irish drama we did called Red Roses for Me. I played an Irishman (in an Irish brogue) “Aye, what’s goin’ on over here?!” (laughs) There were a couple others, but Warren went on to the most prominence. From there, I went onto live TV. The first thing I ever did was with Sidney Lumet. That’s how I paid my rent, that and commercials. I once did a Remington Rand commercial where I shaved off eleven days of growth, live on-camera, in less than a minute! (laughs)
You did a couple Twilight Zones also. What was Rod Serling like?
Serling was very tight-lipped. He had a jaw that never completely opened up! (laugh) But I really loved him. He was a sweet guy. I was always running into him when he was going back to D.C. to “do somet.
By Alex Simon, Contributor proc. BY Movies