Quintessential Cool

A Conversation with James Coburn

by Timothy Rhys
Photo by Deverill Weekes

Photo by Deverill WeekesJames Coburn himself will tell you that it's sometimes hard to separate the actor from the characters he plays, and since no one in Hollywood has played the Cool Customer longer or better than Coburn, he probably knew exactly what I was expecting as I drove to the Beverly Hills home of his longtime friend and manager, Hilard ("Hilly") Elkins, for the interview I'd scheduled right after I saw Affliction last fall. The first thing I noticed was the voice --the rich, booming, God-on-a-mountain voice. He was in another room, just finishing a voice-over for a new movie, and as he spoke I recalled some of the characters I'd seen him play over the years. From the impossible-to-ruffle knife thrower, Britt, in one of my favorite boyhood movies, The Magnificent Seven, to the silky smooth Commodore in Maverick, he has made a career of cool, setting a new standard for every actor who follows him. He's fun to watch, but more than that, even in a cameo, he is a performer who demands to be watched. (See Payback for a prime example.) The only problem I ever had with Coburn is that I never saw enough of him. And I never understood why, since he's one of the few actors whose movies I'll watch for no reason other than that he's in them. Although I was aware of his crippling bout with rheumatoid arthritis in recent years, it still seemed to me that he was never fully appreciated by Hollywood. That all finally changed in March, of course, when he was recognized with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Glen Whitehouse in Affliction.
When he strode out to greet me, I was a bit surprised because, although he fills the room with his presence, as advertised, apart from the imposing height, toothy grin and father-of-all-pitch-men voice, the first thing I noticed about James Coburn was not the coolness, but the warmth of the man.

Timothy Rhys (TR): You shot affliction in Montreal, didn't you?
James Coburn (JC): Yes, we did. The crews up there are good, the people are great. And Montreal itself is really extraordinary.
TR: I've been to the Montreal Film Festival the past few years. A lot of good movies are coming out of that city.
JC: That's right. Nick (Nolte) shot three or four films up there last year. He did a fantastic job in this movie, didn't he?
TR: Absolutely. It was one of your nicest performances, too, I thought.
JC: Yeah, it was good. Good writing, good director, good people to work with.
TR: Had you worked with Schrader or Nolte before?
JC: No, I hadn't worked with any of them before. You know, Nick and Schrader put the whole thing together themselves. Took them seven or eight years to do it.
TR: When did you come on?
JC: After they had it together. They called me up and said, "Read the script." I said, "Do I have to?" (laughs). You get an opportunity to work with those kind of people, the script can't be too bad. Schrader's body of work is really extraordinary. His writing, especially. This is probably his beat film, directorially.
TR: I think it is. The characters were fascinating and that's what it's all about.
JC: It's his most complete picture. The others were always a little ragged. This one has a kind of an O'Neill dynamic to it. It's relentless, like a runaway locomotive--it just keeps going and going.
TR: You were really brutal in this film.
JC: Yeah--like you said, it was a wonderful character. But you know, I didn't think he was a bad guy. He was trying to stimulate his kids to be somebody else, to be men.
TR: it was actually touching at the end when he said, "You're of my blood." He was so proud, for the wrong reasons.
JC: (in his booming, God-on-the-mountain voice)"Love? Hell, I'm made of love!" (laughs)
TR: That's a great line. Was that in the book?
JC: I'm not sure, but it fit. It was great. And that was an extraordinary scene, wasn't it? To be stamped on and humiliated, pulling his own teeth, going through this whole goddamned thing he's going through. And then I say, "By God, I know you!"
TR: You're proud that he's a chip off the old dysfunctional block. Did Schrader rehearse you much?
JC: Oh yeah, we had a whole week of rehearsal before we started shooting. We'd go through the scenes and set up some idea of what we were going to do. We didn't nail anything down, because it doesn't work that way. Sidney Lumet likes to nail it down, and then you can't do it anyplace. And it doesn't give the opportunity for a dynamic to really build, because something takes place--the divine accident. If you nail it down too much you eliminate the possibilities.
TR: You have to trust yourself.
JC: As long as you know where you're going, you can be free within that form. Schrader knows how to deal with that dynamic. He likes actors. Many times he'd say, "You know, I'm just going to let you guys go with it." He never held us back.
TR: Did it come together quickly when he started rolling, or did he do a lot of takes?
JC: Three takes was about the most we'd ever do. He covered a lot in some scenes.
TR: It all seemed amazingly natural.
JC: That's the way it was written. He writes for people talking, not for people reading. A lot of writers have the tendency to write "right," and then you have to say writer's words. There's a special technique, writing for actors. You can say so much more with so much less if you know the character. Schrader doesn't write a lot of exposition. He lets the character play that stuff out. He extracted from the book the real essence of it.
TR: When I interviewed Schrader a couple of years ago, he told me the best way to prepare for being a director is to learn to play a good game of chess. I thought that was fascinating. He said if you practice until you can see maybe 20 moves ahead in your mind, then you'll be able to set up your shots, because you'll know how they all edit together.
JC: When I first started working -- I think The Magnificent Seven was my third film -- John Sturges was the director. He'd been an editor before he became a director, and you could walk into his office and see the whole film laid out and storyboarded. As an actor you'd know exactly what you had to do -- but within that form he never told you anything.
TR: So you found the process helpful?
JC: Oh, yeah. Because you don't have to search around when you know what's necessary. Young directors today, they don't know what a f**ing storyboard is. They just turn the cameras on and say "Let's try it this way". They keep shooting and shooting. "Oh yeah, I like that one. Let's try another. How about let's try it a little faster this time. No, actually that was a little too fast, can we slow it down some?" Christ.
TR: Sounds pretty frustrating.
JC: They don't know what they want. If they did, they could say, "OK, this is the objective of a particular scene. This is where we want to go." I mean, it should be written down. Any good actor can read the thing and say, "OK, now I know what we've got to do."
TR: For the most part directors aren't getting their material from literature anymore. Schrader stands out because he's a prolific reader and writer. There aren't many young directors with his kind of background.
JC: But they don't even attempt to tell a story. They've got to shoot someone.
TR: There's more form that substance.
JC: That's right -- style without substance.
TR: John Sturges was a great director. You've directed some yourself, haven't you?
JC: I've directed a little bit, y yeah. Television. TV's not very exciting.
TR: I attended a Budd Boetticher retrospective recently, and was lucky enough to see Ride Lonesome. That was your first movie, wasn't it? You were very --
JC: --Skinny.
TR: Yeah, tall and skinny. But it was a very dynamic part for you. As always, you...demanded to be watched. From that point on you did a lot of westerns.
JC: That's right. The next one I did was for Columbia. Throughout this time, I was doing a lot TV and Joel McCrae had a western show. So when The Magnificent Seven came up, I--
TR: --That was an amazing movie.
JC: Yeah, The Magnificent Seven was really kind of a miraculous event that took place in my life. The first Japanese film I'd ever seen was Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. I went back for a week, taking friends of mine to see it. I just sat and absorbed all of Kurosawa's genius at work. And that character, the great swordsman, for some reason I identified with him. And then I moved back to California, ran into an old friend, and he says "I'm doing The Magnificent Seven." I said, "You're doing what?"
TR: You knew it was based on Samurai?
JC: When I was in New York I'd heard that they were going to do something based on Kurosawa's work. I found out Yul Brynner had just gotten it away from Anthony Quinn. He took it to Sturges to start putting it together. So this was on a Thursday and there was an actor's strike coming up. All films that were going to start soon had to be cast by midnight, Saturday. So I immediately called my agent and said I gotta see Sturges because of this character. This was about 2 p.m. Friday and so I walked in there and he said, "We have to case one of the seven." I said, "Is it the swordsman?" He says, "Yeah, the guy with the knife." I said, "That's the one -- that's the character I want to play!" He says, "Well, there's some other guys we're seeing, too." So I went home and at 3 p.m. I get a call and he says, "Come on back over and get your knives." (Laughs)
TR: So it all came together kind of miraculously. And it turned out to be a huge success.
JC: yeah, it was. Because it was the essence of the thing that we went for. And that'll take you through every time. The only thing we really couldn't get was that ending of an era, where the greatest swordsman in the country was shot in the back with a gun. We couldn't do it.
TR: A lot of your great roles were in westerns, as recently as Maverick.
JC: Yeah. Maverick was the last western I did. I've done a lot of other kind of--
TR: --I know you have. I love westerns, is why I ask. Were you partial to those roles early on? Did you seek them out at all?
JC: The Peckinpah film, yeah. They were really hard work. But I loved them.
TR: I have to tell y you what a great voice you have. When I came in today I think you were doing some voice-over work. Do you do a lot of that these days?
JC: Thanks. Yeah, I was doing something for a television film, Vengeance, that an old friend of mind is directing. There's a voice offstage, and he thought, "Let's get Coburn to do it!"
TR: He called the right guy. So you get a lot of calls to do voice-overs?
JC: Oh yea, sure. Like Chevy trucks--that "like a rock" thing. All kinds of weird stuff.
TR: You were born in Nebraska, and you went to L.A. City College?
JC: I grew up in Compton. I was the only child; we came here in 1932, I guess it was. Had my fifth birthday out here, and we were staying at my mother's brother's place because the depression wiped us out. So we got in our silver Model A Ford -- great car -- and I guess it took four or five days to get out here.
TR: You remember it?
JC: Oh, yeah. Vivid memories of traveling out here; it was great. After the army I went to LA City College to earn some more grade points so I could get into USC. I wanted to direct. So I started working in the City College drama department. And it was so much fun -- I dropped all the other classes. After two years there I went back to New York. I got my Equity card doing "Billy Budd."
TR: What attracted you to directing? That's not the usual thing young guys wanted do back then. Now it's in vogue, but you were kind of ahead of your time.
JC: It was the desire to do the complete thing. I only took taking acting lessons because my whole thing, really, was to direct. But my first jobs were acting jobs. First job I went out on in new York I got, and when I came back, the first job I went out on, I got.
TR: It was easy for you.
JC: Yeah. A week after I got to New York I was a "New York Actor" (laughs) When I came back and started doing westerns I was ready because in New York the first thing I'd gotten was a GE Theater thing that Hume Cronyn and Eva Gabor were doing. And in two days Hume Cronyn taught me a whole thing technique. He was very patient. It wasn't until three or four years ago that I had an opportunity to thank him. Now I'll help a kid on the set who's wondering what the f*** he should do. If he doesn't have a big ego. If he understands you must submit to the work. You don't, and it's all bullshit.
TR: Who are some of your favorite directors you've worked with?
JC: Well, Peckinpah, of course.
TR: Of course.
JC: And Schrader. I loved working with him; he was really good. And Leone. And Sydney Lumet was really something. And Sturges Poor John, he really got screwed.
TR: How so?
JC: Well, The Magnificent Seven. Yul Brynner had a deal that he'd get 20 percent of the gross. And we shot the opening where Eli Wallach played this seemingly benevolent general. Ferris Webster (the editor) put it together and it was great. You wanted to strangle the sonofabitch, he was so obsequious. But when Brynner saw it he said, "That doesn't give me anything to play against." He wanted Wallach to play a real bad guy, so he could play the king. John always gave his top actors whatever they wanted. So he went to the company and they said, "No, we like it the way it is. You wanna shoot it over you're on your own." So he borrowed a million dollars against his house.
TR: You're kidding! Just to please Brynner?
JC: Re-shot the whole thing. And he never got the money back; he lost his house. And Yul kept collecting that 20 percent. John got nothing.
TR: John shouldn't have rolled over so easy.
JC: No, you're right. But that was his nature, see. He was brought up in the old school, where if you didn't have the actor you didn't have anything. The actor was everything.
TR: They still are.
JC: Yeah, well, to a degree. Now they have ants, though. And they have rugrats, and pigs, and bugs of all kinds. They finally figured out a way to get rid of the actor. Studios have been trying to get rid of the actor for a long time and now they can do it. They got animation. NO more actor, although for now they still have to borrow a voice or two. Anyway, I find it abhorrent.
TR: So you're not a big tech buff.
JC: NO, I don't know how it would enhance my life. It seems to take away from the actual living of your life. There are people that get so into this thing; it's like television.
TR: You can get addicted to it.
JC: Yeah, my daughter, she's making programs, the whole thing. To me, it's just a drag.
TR: Well, it's seductive because it opens up the universe for you. You can tap into anything you want.
JC: But it's all...fake. I don't know. So you get pictures, you get information. Ever hear of an encyclopedia? That's always been available. The only thing you don't get in encyclopedias are the opinion of amateurs all over the world!
TR: (laughs) The cinematography in Affliction is beautiful. In MovieMaker lately we've been running some articles on digital video. I think many more people will become storytellers because the technology isn't so expensive or difficult--
JC: --Everybody wants to make movies, but very few people know how to make them.
TR: Right, but don't you think this might facilitate the learning --
TR: --It's a world of amateurs. There are amateur actors making millions of dollars, amateur cinematographers, amateur directors...Jesus! These amateur directors can get deals for anything. Another comic book? Oh, very good.
TR: How old is your daughter? And do you have other children?
JC: MY daughter's just 40; my son mist be 36.
TR: Are they in "the business", too?
JC: yeah, my son's a sound mixer, working all the time. It's good for him; he's had some hard times doing all the things people did growing up in Beverly Hills -- strung out on this, that, not learning how to do anything. I always say, learn to do one thing well and it can save your life!
TR: It's hard, though, when you have so many seductive options wide open in front of you.
JC: Knowing both sides, though, it's better clear.
TR: So you're completely sober these days?
JC: Oh yea, I even stopped smoking.
TR: Really? Because in so many of your great parts you were chewing on a cigar.
JC: Yeah, cigars are great -- I love 'em! But I stopped smoking, stopped buying them. For no reason except it's a really stupid habit.
Taking in and blowing out smoke? And now you see girls smoking cigars. It got to be such a fad. Girls on the covers of magazines, smoking cigars. Give me a break. I didn't want to be a part of that. I don't like "popular".
TR: You're a contrarian, which is one of the reasons why you're so cool. And you're still a pretty huge screen presence, you know. Even in a cameo you bring this bigger-than-life quality to a scene.
JC: Personality. Gotta have some kind of personality and you don't wear your personality on your body. It's gotta come from someplace. Like Stella (Adler), she was all about "What's your style?" Everything has style.
TR: You can communicate so much with just a sneer. Or the narrowing of your eyes. You're a natural film actor. Well, it seems natural -- you probably worked hard to achieve all that. But you just seem to capture your characters effortlessly.
JC: You learn something after 40 years of trying!
TR: When you're doing a movie, what do you do to capture a character, in your face I mean?
JC: You don't waste energy. And a lot actors waste it. They're thinking about their next line or how they're going to say it. You don't act with your lines. The words come out of an action. You play to a person and you can relate to a person without staring at them. Good actresses, like Sissy Spacek, will do that.

***To be continued***