In the near-legendary 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven," gunslinger Yul Brynner gathered a small band of fighters with the special skills to take on an army of Mexican bandits. They were played by a group of actors with the special talent to become stars, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn, who died Monday at age 74.
Coburn gave an electrifying performance in the movie. He was a willful loner, peerless with a gun or knife, who lived and died according to his own secret code of honor. At the end, mortally wounded, he flung his knife into a wall and collapsed under it, symbolically placing his own tombstone.
Using his career momentum from "The Magnificent Seven," Coburn continued his climb up the Hollywood ladder in the 60s with meaty supporting roles in movies like "Charade" and "Major Dundee."
Ironically, he reached the top rung with inferior material, the spoofy James Bond rip-offs "Our Man Flint" and its sequel, "In Like Flint." These juvenile action pictures diminished him as an actor by typecasting him as a swashbuckling ladies man.
Maintaining status through the 1970s became difficult as Coburn grew older and his scripts got weaker. By the 1980s he hit bottom when crippling arthritis virtually incapacitated him.
In the 1990s, with his condition improved, Coburn returned to the screen in supporting roles that culminated in 1998 with his Oscar-winning performance as Nick Nolte's alcoholic, abusive father in "Affliction," proving he still could still summon the compelling, steely remoteness he had in "The Magnificent Seven."
Oscar night was an occasion of total fulfillment for Coburn, who beamed as he gripped the Academy Award tightly in his arthritic hand. He knew he had come all the way back in a movie world that had once practically forgotten him. "Affliction" wasn't Coburn's last film, but it will be remembered as the triumphant climax of an acting career that survived many ups and downs.
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