COBURN, James

(1928–2002)
   After a short career in television, the University of California at Los Angeles–trained actor played significant supporting roles in Westerns throughout the 1960s, getting his first big break as the knife-throwing member of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. His career moved beyond that of supporting actor when the urbanely suave actor began playing a spy of international intrigue in the Flint series, beginning with Our Man Flint(1966), which were spoofs of the popular James Bond movies. If Coburn could pull off a spy-movie spoof, why not a Western one? So, in 1967 he starred in Waterhole \#3, a comic send-up of the Western genre in which he played a card shark. In a famous scene, Lewton Cole (Coburn) is called out on the street for a classic quick-draw showdown. The challenger stands in the street, ready to draw fair and square. Cole looks outside, steps out of the saloon, sizes up the situation, shrugs, walks over to his horse, pulls out a high-powered rifle, and blasts away. The man falls, aghast at this violation of the code of the West. Of course, we all laugh.
   After Waterhole \#3, Coburn, like other American Western actors, headed to Europe to play in spaghetti Westerns. His best was another Western comedy, this one by Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck,You Sucker!) (1971). Here he played a happy-go-lucky political revolutionary in Mexico, whose specialty is pyrotechnics. The film celebrates explosions—lots of explosions, everywhere. Coburn’s entrance on-screen is probably his most memorable scene. Carefully placed, carefully timed explosions are going off up and down the road, and through the smoke comes Coburn, riding a super-modern, super-cool, turn-of-the-century motorcycle. Ennio Morricone’s sound track, with its usual unidentifiable sound effects set to music, highlights a classic Coburn moment—the Western hero doing nothing if not with style.
   The film is typical Leone but lighter. In 1973 Coburn played Sheriff Pat Garrett in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, his last major Western. Coburn, however, continued film acting for many years, and his deep gravelly voice made him ideal for voiceovers. Even in aging roles toward the end of his career, Coburn maintained his smoothly sophisticated persona.
   See also GENRE FILMS AND WESTERNS.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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