In His Seventh Life Cycle, Our Man James Coburn Gets Good Vibes from Sufi and Suds
Some people still don’t recognize James Coburn. Despite his silvery hair, ropey smile, sonorous voice, cobalt-blue eyes, to say nothing of the silk shirt unbuttoned to the tanned sternum, his gold chain, lapis ring on his little finger and the patchouli fragrance that precedes him like an olfactory shock wave. “They say, ‘Hey, now, ain’t you Mr. Marvin?’ ” Coburn jokes. “Sometimes I say, ‘Damn right,’ and sign Lee’s name. He gets the same thing.”
Coburn takes the fans’ confusion with the same easy stride (“Pacino will learn”) that he’s already shown in 40-odd movies (The Magnificent Seven, Our Man Flint) over 20 years. Now the scene is shifting to television, where this week Coburn stars as Dashiell Hammett’s Hamilton Nash in The Dain Curse on CBS. Yet all six hours of the miniseries may not bring Coburn the popularity or bucks (a reported $1 million) he will earn in commercials as the laconic cowpoke who electrifies a black-tie soirée by ordering Schlitz Light.
“If you’re cool enough you can work your way through,” he muses. “I’ve always applied that theme to my work.” And life. Long (6’2″) and lean (173 pounds), Coburn emits Marin County psychobabble like little balloons. His various head trips have included Sufi meditation (“It’s based on love as a creative expression”), fasting (“You feel totally cleansed”), biorhythms (“Negative emotions are a turn-off”) and a 1959 experiment with LSD (“I wanted to find where I was in a state of consciousness”).
Even his age—50 this August—fits in. “It will be my seventh life cycle,” he explains. “Now it’s time to really go to work. I can practice a kind of discrimination in people, in material, in making choices.” That reevaluation apparently includes his 18-year marriage to wife Beverly, from whom Coburn was amicably separated last year. Since then, he’s denied a thing with Neile Adams McQueen (Steve’s ex), but has openly squired English singer-songwriter Lynsey De Paul, 29, who was previously bold-faced in the columns with Ringo Starr, Dudley Moore and David Frost. Lynsey has insisted “there’s no big wonderful romance,” but Coburn’s agent Robert Littman says, “Lynsey and Jim are very close.”
When in L.A. Coburn still stays with his wife, their son, Jim, 17, a high school student, and Beverly’s daughter, Lisa, 21, a singer. “I love Beverly a lot and don’t want to do anything to hurt her,” he explains. “She’s a creative woman, one of my greatest teachers in life.”
He started in Laurel, Nebr., as the only child of a Ford mechanic. During the Depression the family packed up when Jim was 5 and hit the road for Compton, Calif. Coburn wanted to be a jazz drummer, but a job at a neighborhood theater “hooked” him on movies. After an Army hitch he took drama on the GI Bill at L.A. City College. He then headed for New York to study with Stella Adler in a class that included Warren Beatty. “In those days,” he says, “I started on an inner technique of living and educating myself.” His first big job was a Remington commercial, in which he shaved an 11-day stubble and made $25,000 in residuals. What he didn’t owe went into a Manhattan theater venture “that was, of course, a failure.”
Back on the Coast, Coburn broke into movies in 1959 with Randolph Scott in Ride Lonesome before making an indelible impression as the knife-throwing Texan in The Magnificent Seven. “That role elevated me. I started playing featured heavies. I died a lot. It was marvelous.” With the two Flint films, Coburn ascended into the $500,000-per-flick class.
The dough helped pay for the 22-room “bastardized Moroccan-style” mansion for Beverly and the children. Though Coburn disdains material excess, he keeps two sleek Ferraris in the garage, since he considers speed a form of meditation. “The faster you go the more you concentrate on not doing anything but driving.”
Coburn is currently shooting Firepower in Antigua with Sophia Loren and O.J. Simpson. His directing credits include a Rockford Files segment he did last season for his friend James Garner and a second-unit stint on Sam Peckinpah’s forthcoming Convoy. Like Redford, Coburn has his producing credentials in order with a 1967 success, The President’s Analyst.
“I travel in a rarefied atmosphere,” Coburn observes. “I don’t have a chance to touch down. When I get to New York—bang!—out of the plane and into the limo. Whoosh—I’m whisked to the 47th floor and—pshoo—when I come out I put on the shades and run down the street. I try to keep my life peaceful. So I generally travel alone and walk fast.”