Yul Brynner may have been the star of ”The Magnificent Seven” going in, but when the Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s epic ”Seven Samurai” was released in 1960, audiences suddenly started paying attention to most of the other six: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, and a flinty Nebraska born actor named James Coburn. With ”Seven” out in a special edition DVD package, we sat down with Coburn — now a silver haired Hollywood vet and Oscar winner for 1998’s ”Affliction” — and asked him to take a look back.
You were one of the few cast members familiar with the Kurosawa film, correct?
I saw it in New York when I was studying back then. I was absolutely thrilled and shocked; I took people to see it for a week straight. The character of the great swordsman was the character I related to. I thought, My God, why don’t they make movies like this in America? Cut to a year later, I’d come back to California and I ran into Robert Vaughn. I said ”What’re you doing?” And he said ”I’m doing ‘The Magnificent Seven.”’ I said ”What?! Has it been cast?” He says ”No, I think there’s still some characters.” … So I went over to see [director] John Sturges, and John said, ”Yeah, there’s one of the seven that hasn’t been cast yet.” I say, ”Is that the guy who’s the great swordsman in Kurosawa’s film?” and he says, ”Yeah, yeah, that’s right.” I said, ”That’s the one I wanna play, John.” … He says, ”I’ll let you know by 3 o’clock.” So at 2:30 I get a call from him: ”Come on over and pick up your knives.”
Is it true that McQueen tried to steal the movie out from under Brynner?
What he tried to do was compete with him, because Steve was a competitor. He was afraid of having it taken away from him rather than trying to steal it from you. And Yul didn’t pay any attention to it at all, just went ahead and did his own trip. He was the king, and Steve was kind of a pretender. So Steve just finally accepted it.
Were you surprised at the popularity of your character, given how little he said?
I had 11 lines. That was it. But it was all action. It doesn’t matter how many lines you’ve got: It’s how you perform, what performance you put forward. I got most of mine from the guy [Seiji Miyaguchi] that did it in Japan. He didn’t have to say anything. He just did it.
Any idea what Kurosawa thought of the remake?
I met him a couple of times. He said ”I wish my film made as much money as yours!” I don’t know if he liked it or not.
The only one of the seven who didn’t become a star was Brad Dexter. Is it true that he got the part because he was a pal of Sinatra’s?
Every chance Frank got, he would get him in a film. So there was this character in ”Seven” and Frank asked John [Sturges] if he would hire Brad, and John said sure. Strange cat — he lived with his mother. He probably still lives with his mother. And he’s the guy that everybody forgets about.
You won an Academy Award for playing a really scary, abusive father in ”Affliction.” Where did that performance come from?
Actually, I got it all from the book [by Russell Banks]. I had no idea it was so pronounced in our society. It was amazing; people came up to me and said, ”That’s my father, you played my father!”
What do you say in response?
I say ”Thank you.”