The film world was in mourning yesterday for one of the last of the old-school tough guys. James Coburn, a consummate professional and magnetic screen presence throughout his long career, died at his home in Los Angeles after a heart attack. He was 74.
Appearing in a string of macho movies in the Sixties and early Seventies, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Coburn enjoyed a return to the limelight with his Oscar-winning turn as an abusive father in the 1998 film Affliction. At the time of his death, he was picking up interesting parts again after a fallow period in the Eighties and Nineties.
He suffered a coronary late on Monday while listening to music with his wife in their living room. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Beverly Hills but was pronounced dead on arrival.
"He died too early, but he died in his wife's arms," his long-time business manager and friend, Hillard Elkins, said. "It's a pity and a loss for all of us."
Coburn was one of a generation of actors, along with Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin, who brought a raw physicality to their work that communicated directly to audiences, irrespective of how much they actually said. In his breakthrough role as a knife-thrower in The Magnificent Seven, he had precisely 11 lines.
Trained as a method actor by Stella Adler, he knew exactly how to use his imposing frame and gravelly bass-baritone voice to great effect. Whether times were good or bad – and they were frequently the latter, thanks in part to his reputation as a bruiser both on the set and off – he never stopped working. When he could not find good film parts, such as his collaborations with the director Sam Peckinpah on Cross of Iron, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Major Dundee, he happily took on bad parts. When film work dried up, he wasn't afraid to tackle television.
The only thing that threw him was the crippling onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the Eighties. Ever the fighter, Coburn clawed his way back to recovery thanks to a mixture of spiritual meditation and mineral remedies. His left hand remained gnarled, but usable. In person, Coburn was rambunctious, charming and a compelling story-teller. Appalled by the superficiality of the film business, he remained true to his craft and wasn't afraid to lambast those who made films but failed to understand them.
"People think acting is just about learning your lines and letting them go," he said in an interview with The Independent last March.
"All these amateur directors care about is 'Did they get their lines out? Shall we print it? OK!' But it's not just about the words. The acting comes between the words, how you react. You can't act with your ego, you have to search deeper."