James Coburn, 1928-2002

By Bruce Fretts and Daniel Fierman
Updated November 29, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

James Coburn was at home when the heart attack happened on Nov. 18. He was listening to Billie Holiday with his wife, Paula. According to his manager, he died in her arms. He was 74 and damn near the last of a breed.

There was a time in Hollywood when there were more men like Coburn. Men of spirit and legendary toughness. Coburn knew these men and called them friends: He was a favorite of Sam Peckinpah. A frequent costar of Steve McQueen. A student of Bruce Lee. He made his name playing rogues and roughnecks in movies like 1960’s classic Western The Magnificent Seven, 1963’s WWII drama The Great Escape, and 1966’s James Bond spoof Our Man Flint. ”I think they’re calling the roll. There are only four of the Magnificent Seven left,” says costar Eli Wallach. ”James was the tall, silent hero. So commanding. So full. He was a great actor.”

Yet in the late ’70s, Coburn disappeared to nurse a body that had betrayed him — rheumatoid arthritis ran riot, crippling his right hand. ”It took me about 15 years to really work again,” he told EW in 1999. ”Movement [was] pain. I was turning to stone.” Crediting his recovery to sulfur pills, he emerged in the ’90s in a series of paycheck films like Hudson Hawk and The Nutty Professor until Paul Schrader offered him the role of the abusive Glen ”Pop” Whitehouse in his adaptation of Russell Banks’ Affliction. ”Coburn had that casual, in-the-groove mentality that was so much a part of masculine identity in the late 1950s,” says Schrader. ”He always kept that.”

Ironically, Pop’s furious darkness would lead Coburn into the light of his first Oscar in 1999. Accepting for Best Supporting Actor, one of old Hollywood’s last tough guys trembled, fought tears, and said, ”I finally got one right, I guess.” — Daniel Fierman, with additional reporting by Bruce Fretts

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