James Coburn was an actor whose style allowed him to comfortably embrace drama, action, and comedy roles, and many of his best-known performances found him blending elements of all these styles in roles that overflowed with charisma and a natural charm.
Born in Laurel, NE, on August 31, 1928, Coburn relocated to California as a young man, and first developed an interest in acting while studying at Los Angeles City College. After appearing in several student productions, he decided to take a stab at acting as a profession, and enrolled in the theater department at U.C.L.A. Coburn earned his first notable reviews in an adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, staged at Los Angeles' La Jolla Playhouse, which starred Vincent Price. In the early '50s, Coburn moved to New York City, where he studied acting with Stella Adler, and began working in commercials and live television. In 1958, Coburn won a recurring role on a Western TV series called Bronco, and scored his first film role the following year in Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome, starring Randolph Scott. For a while, Coburn seemed to find himself typecast as a heavy in Westerns, most notably in The Magnificent Seven, and later starred in two action-oriented TV series, Klondike (which ran for 18 weeks between 1960 and 1961) and Acapulco (which lasted a mere eight weeks in 1961). However, after a strong showing in the war drama Hell Is for Heroes, Coburn finally got to play a big-screen hero as part of the ensemble cast of 1963's The Great Escape. In 1964, Coburn got a chance to show his flair for comedy in The Americanization of Emily, and in 1965 he appeared in Major Dundee, the first of several films he would make with iconoclastic director Sam Peckinpah.