Roger Ebert Home

Coburn said it all with that famous grin

He was sometimes accused of taking it easy during the early years of his career, but James Coburn, who died Monday at 74, had a strong finish.

The man who joked and grinned his way through "Our Man Flint" and its sequels won an Academy Award in 1997 for his performance as a brutal patriarch in "Affliction." And he is superb as a dying writer in "The Man from Elysian Fields," which is currently in theaters.

In that film, Coburn has a conversation with Andy Garcia, as a younger writer who asks him what he'd like to come back as in another lifetime. "I could never have it better than I have in my own lifetime," he replies, and there is the temptation to hear Coburn speaking through the character.

Coburn's credits included some of the best-known movies of his time, from "The Great Escape" to "The Magnificent Seven" (where he had few lines but stole the show with a knife scene). Like many actors, he enjoyed doing voice-over work for feature-length animation, and scored a success last year as Henry J. Waternoose, the CEO of "Monsters, Inc."

He talked to me about his work, his personal style and his health during a rambling interview at the 1980 Toronto Film Festival. Here is the text of that interview:

* * * TORONTO, Canada--James Coburn is one of those movie stars who inspire an instinctive reaction in a lot of people. They seem to believe he's getting away with something. Maybe it's that grin, the one that somehow suggests that fate has given Coburn a free lifetime pass. In the 1960s, that decade when the generation under 30 seemed drenched in euphoria, Coburn's grin hinted that he was . . . well, always stoned. Now it is 1980, and the grin still hints at the same thing. James Coburn is not, however, always stoned. He just looks that way; it's part of his image.

At this moment, in fact, Coburn may be the cleanest-living star in Hollywood. He sits in a duplex hotel suite in Toronto and holds out his hand and flexes it.

"See that? A few months ago, I could not make a fist. I had arthritis so bad I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs. I was down in Mexico doing a cameo role in a Western, and they had to hoist me onto the horse, and riding on the horse was excruciatingly painful. Me! I was always so healthy."

Being an archetypal Southern Californian, Coburn refused to accept his fate. In Southern California there is a folk belief that the human body will wear indefinitely if you tune it as carefully as your Mercedes.

Coburn therefore placed his body at the disposal of the state's healing industries: "The first thing I did was to get completely detoxified. No drugs, no booze, no caffeine, no nicotine, nothing. Then I went on a water fast, which tapered into an organic fruit juice fast. I underwent acupuncture. I had deep muscle massage. I did meditation. I used megavitamin therapy. I underwent a program of high colonic irrigation. Essentially what I was doing was completely, cleaning out my body, getting rid of the garbage."

Did it work?

"For me, it worked. The arthritis is gone. I can move again. For anybody else, who knows?"

In the 1960s, I told him, when the James Coburn image first became famous through movies like "Our Man Flint," there was the sense that you were always into things like meditation, Eastern philosophical systems, deep meanings, all the flower child things. What's interesting is that you've never really changed that image . . .

"I meditate, I take good care of myself, sure. I try not to get too involved in the details."

There were always reports that you'd used LSD.

"That's right. I took LSD several years before it became popular and well known. There was a doctor who was experimenting with its effects, and I got involved as one of the subjects - this was before my acting career had even started to take off. I had a lot of trips. It was all very . . . interesting."

When Coburn's acting in a movie, there's a strange feeling sometimes that he's kidding the movie, as if there's some level of subtle self-parody going on. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson observes: "Increasingly, he was the best thing in his movies, smiling privately, seeming to suggest that he was in contact with some profound source of amusement."

"Really?" said Coburn. "Part of that may just be that I'm feeling well. You can sense that in a movie, if the actor is feeling well and not pushing himself. Apart from that, I just try to do the job. I try not to get too involved. You have to find a way to concentrate. You're on the set, there's often a long wait between the times you're actually shooting, they're taking pains to get everything else perfect, and then suddenly it's your turn and you're expected to create this whole moment out of the air. I try to focus my mind, put myself wholly into it, do it, and then forget it. Walk away from it. You never really know when you're on a set how things are going to work out, anyway. There are so many other people involved in the end product, that any attempt to sit there in front of the camera and figure it all out and second-guess is just futile."

Coburn was in Toronto for the world premiere, at the Festival of Festivals, of his new movie, "Loving Couples." It's a changing-partners sex farce, with Coburn and Shirley MacLaine playing a married couple who are both doctors. MacLaine treats a young man (Stephen Collins) who has hurt himself in a fall. She falls in love with him and begins to have an affair. Meanwhile, the young man's girlfriend (Susan Sarandon) finds out about the affair, spills the beans to Coburn, and, as they share their mutual misery, they fall in love, too. Disaster strikes when both illicit couples meet during an out-of-town weekend at a resort hotel.

"What do I know about all of this?" Coburn asked. "Not much. I recently got divorced, after 17 years. Marriage is something everyone should make one real try at, I think. Seventeen years is a real try. Now there's a woman I'm seeing, but she's in London and I'm in Los Angeles and we both have careers, which is just fine, because it means we can meet for two or three intense weeks and then split for three or four months, and we enjoy the intimacy without the involvement. I like being free."

Coburn's most famous role was, of course, our man Flint, and he said he's getting a little tired of people still coming to him after all these years with jokes involving trick cigarette lighters. The Flint films came after some early-1960s supporting roles in movies like "The Magnificent Seven," where he had no dialogue but an unforgettable bit with a knife, and "The Great Escape." Flint made Coburn into a world star: "In Marrakech, little kids were coming up to me in the casbah, asking me where my harem was."

But Coburn's own favorite movies, he said, were made by his favorite director, Sam Peckinpah, who used him for the first time in "Major Dundee"--a 1965 Western that was not widely seen at the time, but has become, in retrospect, one of Peckinpah's masterpieces. He used him again in "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), a revisionist version of Western history, and in "Cross of Iron" (1977), a war movie made under great difficulty in Yugoslavia, and released to a puzzled critical reception.

From the Yugoslavian experience, however, comes Coburn's favorite story about Peckinpah: "Sam would simply hole up on the weekends with a whiskey bottle. So we went to him and said, 'Come, on, Sam! We're only a few hours' drive from Venice. Let's go look at the gondolas.' Sam came along. But when he got to his hotel in Venice, he went straight upstairs and stayed there. The next day, in the lobby of the hotel, I ran into Federico Fellini. I told him Sam was upstairs. Fellini insisted on being taken to meet him. He said Peckinpah was one of his favorite directors.

"So, we went upstairs. I knocked on Sam's door. Sam growled, 'Who is it?' I said it was me. He said to come in. We walked in. He was lying stark naked on top of his bed with a bottle in his hand. 'Sam,' I said, 'I'd like you to meet Federico Fellini.' Sam opened his eyes, sat straight up in bed, said, 'Thank you so very much for giving us all those wonderful films,' and fell back on the bed again. And that was the historic meeting of two great directors."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Way We Speak
Find Me Falling


comments powered by Disqus