June 17, 1991 12:00 PM

BACK IN THE ’60S AND ’70S, IN MOVIES like Our Man Flint and The President’s Analyst, James Coburn was the raffishly elegant, Bonded-in-America tough guy who could seduce a comely double agent and karate-chop the opposition while the champagne cooled.

But suddenly, 11 years ago, the wine fizzled. The slender, athletic Coburn, then 52 and in the midst of a painful divorce from his wife of 20 years, found himself in such physical agony one day that he couldn’t even make it to the bathroom. “I was sweating and in pain, and I finally said, ‘To hell with it,’ ” the actor recalls. ” ‘I’m just going to lie here and wet the bed.’ ” Then he said, ” ‘Get up, you jerk. You’ve got a lot of things to do in your life.’ ”

The problem was acute, crippling arthritis. A longtime friend, actor R.G. Armstrong (Pruneface in Dick Tracy), remembers the moment when he came by Coburn’s Hollywood Hills bungalow and found his pal virtually unable to move. Says Armstrong: “The doctors had told him that he might as well get ready to spend the rest of his life either stiff in bed or stiff in a wheelchair.” But Coburn wasn’t ready to give in. “Doctors feed off diseases,” he says with a triumphant, Flintish grin. “I’ve always looked for alternatives to take care of myself.”

With that, Coburn embarked on a 10-year regimen of dieting, physical therapy and exercise that has slowly but effectively resurrected his life and his career. Now 62 and in the pink, Coburn has a new romantic interest at home and is back on the screen in Hudson Hawk, as a sinister government agent named George Kaplan. (Unfortunately it was beyond even Coburn’s revived powers to save the $50 million Hawk from dying hard at the box office.)

Coburn has long been involved with alternative philosophies, an interest that helped him through his darkest days. A native of Laurel, Nebr., he went to New York City in the mid-’50s to study acting with Stella Adler. It was there that he became interested in meditation and, as he now puts it, “any kind of esoteric knowledge.” When arthritis set in, this interest eventually led him to investigate holistic medicine.

As his star rose steadily through such epics as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and spy spoofs including Golden Girl (1979), his health—and his personal life—began to falter. His legs started to ache during the filming of Loving Couples in 1980. A doctor diagnosed his condition as rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed painkillers. Then came divorce from his wife, Beverly, in 1980, which left him deeply angry. (The pair has one son, James, now 30, a film-sound engineer.) Coburn thinks the trauma of the split played a critical part in his illness. “I was giving away everything I had put together,” he says, “and this emotional conflict was turning me to stone.”

That’s when Armstrong found him struggling to pull himself together and decided to help. “He probably saved my life,” says Coburn. It was Armstrong who introduced Coburn to deep-tissue massage techniques he had learned following a shoulder injury. He put him on a swimming regimen and even helped him write a screenplay. Says Armstrong: “I had to get the blood flowing, get him up and moving and get him thinking.” Next came electromagnetic therapy to ease the tension in his muscles. Finally a restricted diet eliminated foods to which he was allergic (e.g., wheat and dairy products). More important to Coburn was his emotional healing. “What I had to do,” he says, “was forgive the thing that had caused me the pain. With me, it was the divorce.”

By 1986 Coburn had regained control of his body. He made an Australian film, Death of a Soldier, and worked his way back into the eyes of the American public through a string of TV commercials, pitching everything from Acura automobiles to a bank in North Carolina. Last year he got a call from Joel Silver, producer of Hudson Hawk. “Joel said he’d seen everything I’d been in,” says Coburn, “and told me, I like the baggage you guys bring with you.’ I’ve worked on 40-some films in my career, so I guess it’s that reputation he was talking about.”

Coburn’s mood on location was brightened by the presence of his new love, Paula Murad, 34, a former Washington, D.C., television news-woman whom Coburn met last year during Carnival at a Los Angeles nightclub. She has since moved in with Coburn and helps him maintain a six-hour-a-week exercise regimen. Indeed, Coburn felt so fit during the filming of Hawk that he did many of his own stunts—and took nothing but aspirin for the aches at night.

Nearly recovered from his ordeal, Coburn has some advice for his Hawk costar Bruce Willis. “Bruce is on top of the heap right now,” he says, “but he has a tendency to let the pressure get to him.” Coburn has learned to know better. “You can’t be too serious about all this,” he says. “You can make yourself sick.”



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