James Coburn was an interesting actor for me because he flawlessly jumped the gap between old school silver screen Hollywood and the post mid 90’s Hollywood we know today, so you’re just as likely to spot him in a Turner Classic western flick as you are to hear his deep, comforting voice in a colourful Disney/Pixar film. He had a rumbling intensity that lent itself to alpha tough guy roles early on in his career and later on blossomed into a winking joviality that saw him land many roguish old rascal types. He was one of the greats, and these are my top ten personal favourite performances of his!
10. WitSec Chief Beller in Chuck Russell’s Eraser
He turns a quick extended cameo into something fun and memorable in this underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger SciFi romp. Arnie spends the whole film battling his treacherous former boss (James Caan) and just when Coburn’s big shot CEO shows up we think he’s going to be an even *bigger* bad than Caan but he turns out to be a pretty solid dude, acting as a Deus Ex Machina of sorts to bail the entire situation out.
9. Mr. Waternoose in Disney/Pixar’s Monsters Inc.
Here he explores his playful side as one of the antagonists of this animated classic. Waternoose is CEO of Monsters Inc., a cranky spider-crab thing who only has the company’s interests at heart and acts in a callous, unforgiving manner given blustery gusto by James and his baritone boom.
8. Thunder Jack in Disney’s Snow Dogs
Another Disney one! This is admittedly not the greatest film, a silly city slicker in the Arctic vehicle for Cuba Gooding Jr. James is a curmudgeonly surrogate father who whips him into shape and gives him a good dose of tough love along the way. I have a soft spot for this since it’s one of the first films I ever saw in theatres as a kid, James is terrific fun in it and the squabbling banter he has with Cuba is a treat for kids.
7. Derek Flint in Our Man Flint and In Like Flint
Long before Mike Myers ever spoofed James Bond in Austin Powers, Coburn starred as slick super-spy Derek Flint in these films and they are kind of all over the friggin place. Super 60’s vibe, full of sexy chicks and dastardly villains and James makes a simultaneously klutzy and suave parody of 007.
6. Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’ in John Sturges’s The Great Escape
This classic WWII flick sees a gigantic ensemble cast full of multiple big names try and get out of a German POW camp with James playing a logistical expert and tools provider with that classic sly glint in his eye.
5. Britt in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven
Strong silent type and expert knife thrower, Britt is one of the less show-boaty and understated among this classic band of antiheroes, but definitely one of the most memorable. James looked like he had some First Nations background which adds to the rugged western flavour here. He’s kind of like the Mads Mikkelsen knife throwing character in Antoine Fuqua’s (who also coincidentally directed the Magnificent Seven remake) underrated King Arthur (a film I will always champion) : low key, man of few words, but deadly as all hell and super charismatic.
4. Jack Buchan in Joe Dante’s Second Civil War
Alongside Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog this is one of THE most criminally overlooked political satires of all time, and I imagine that both films were deliberately buried in terms of marketing because they’re just a *bit* too close to the way things sadly actually work in the world and those in charge didn’t want too many people exposed to such dead-on, accurate material. James plays advisor to the president during a time of ludicrous crisis and his perpetual exasperation at having to rationalize postponing executive decisions because they interrupt POTUS’s favourite soap opera is priceless, as an actor he truly understood comedy and had a gift for it.
3. Justin Fairfax in Brian Helgeland’s Payback
This wry neo noir sees Mel Gibson’s career criminal Porter going on a cynical rampage to get some money he was jewed out of, and Coburn is one of the powerful underworld bosses in his way. Fairfax hilariously seems to have little interest in Porter or the serious situation though, he’s just returned from vacation and is more concerned about his fancy luggage than any intruders with guns. James makes hysterical work of line delivery like “That’s just mean, man!!” When Gibson blows a bullet hole through his suitcases. It’s a juicy, eccentric cameo and brings some comic relief to the table.
2. George Caplan in Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk
Talk about an underrated, misunderstood gem of a film. Bruce Willis is Hawk, the worlds greatest cat burglar on his craziest mission yet and up against all kinds of kooky cartoonish villains. Coburn’s Caplan is an ex military prick with a huge attitude problem, a mercenary for hire who commands a private unit of weirdo operatives named after candy bars like ‘Kit Kat.’ James understands this bizarre material and turns George into a rapscallion of a villain, whether he’s terrorizing local town folk or reminiscing about his Cold War spy days where he was ‘getting laid every night.’
1. Glen Whitehouse in Paul Schrader’s Affliction
This is the role that landed him an Oscar and it’s well earned. Affliction is the bleak, difficult tale of the Whitehouse clan, an ill fated New England family presided over by Coburn’s volcanically abusive, black hearted patriarch, a man who seems to reap poisoned soul food out of terrorizing his own family. He’s a mean, crass, violent old fucking rotten bastard but James is too good of an actor to play him one note. Glen is a monster but there’s shades of humanity when his wife passes, albeit briefly. There’s gnarled self hatred, a booze soaked, misanthropic nature to him and many other carefully calibrated aspects that make this one of the best pieces of acting in film.