"Something to drink?" the waiter asked.
"Beer," the first man said.
"Me too, beer," the second man said.
"And you, sir?" the waiter asked.
James Coburn was standing now, looking hard, like a knife stuck in an oak tree. His eyebrows were barbed wire. His hair, the color of slush. His voice began in the basement.
"Beer," Coburn said.
And this, of course, was the moment you wait for, when life imitates art, when what goes around comes around, when the moon comes over the mountain. a
(Say it, Say, "Schlitz . . . Light.")
"Whatever," Coburn said.
(Cut. Shoot the scene over. Coburn orders a beer. Take Two. Okay, say it, say "Schlitz . . . Light.")
"C'mon, man," Coburn said. "I don't drink that s--."
He started to laugh, laugh lines stretching from the top of his forehead to the bottom of his jaw, a distance about the length of an aircraft carrier. Deep lines. Straight and thin, like Venetian blinds. Creases, the kind you'd find in a gabardine suit after 200 pressings.
"Schlitz . . . Light," he said.
He pressed his hand to his head to keept himself from exploding.
"When they came to me to do the commerical I thought I placed conditions which were impossible to grant," he said. "I demanded an enormous sum of money. I told them I'd only say the product's name; they couldn't use my name; I had to play a character." He arched his eyebrows so high, he almost had to peel them off the ceiling. Hey, man, it's their money. "as commercials go, they were pretty good. They sold a lot of beer, man -- initially. But the beer was so bad . . ."
The waiter came back with Heineken.
Coburn poured it down the middle and smiled. The Character of Cool
None of the following matters: He is 51 years old. He was born in Nebraska, moved near Los Angeles when he was 5, began acting after he got out of the service, always wanted to play the drums like Gene Krupa and dance like Fred Astaire, plays the flute for relaxation and is negotiating a settlement so he can divorce his wife of 17 years.
What matters is his look. He looks cool. He is one of those men who could walk out of a coal mine disaster looking like he'd just come from a second fitting at Hart, Schaffner and Marx. The man drinks cool. The man eats cool. When he chews, he uses one tooth at a time. He could probably fix an air conditioner just by laying hands on it.
What matters is his face. What a face. An all-time face. Lines. Creases. Crevices. Sir Edmund Hillary should climb his face. Large teeth. Narrow eyes. The kind of fact that seems to know and chooses not to tell. A three-card monte face. A face that could be on the cover of GQ and the wall of a post office.
"My face?" Coburn asked.
Your face, sir.
"Well, it changes from character to character," he said. "The face is something you can't do much about. I just think of it as my, well, my face. As time goes on it just gets more and more, well, whatever it is. I look at my face now, and I look back at my old films and see my face then, and now, well, it seems like a different face, man."
(He says "man" a lot. California.)
"I didn't think I was handsome enough to be an actor of any note when I was younger," he said. "At that time you just couldn't get a job unless you were Tony Curtis. So I concentrated on character. I always played characters who were older, men, I been old all my life. But by the time I started doing movies I was 30 and by then how you looked wasn't as important as what you did. By then guys like Rod Steiger were big actors. I don't think my face limits me. I've played everything from psychiatrists to rodeo riders. I know people say I'm too funky or too ethnic or too rough, but I think I can play anything. I've tried to play everything. Maybe they all come out the same."
But now he had a long, brown cigar. Razor thin.
Even the exhalation was cool. The Guy With the Knife
The big break was "The Magnificent Seven."
"It grew into a classic," Coburn said. "It's the only classic I was ever in. I don't think I'll ever do anything as lasting. Nothing better ever happened to me."
Talk about great faces. Yul Brynner. Steve McQueen. Eli Wallach. Charles Bronson. ("Charlie once told me that he was so poor as a kid, he had to wear his brother's hand-me-downs. Hand-me-downs shirts. Hand-me-down pants. Even hand-me-down shoes. The trouble was that Charlie was bigger than his brother, so the shoes were too tight. Maybe that's how he got that face, walking around in shoes four sizes too small.")
Coburn played the guy with the knife.
If you saw it, you couldn't forget it.
"I wanted that part so bad," he said. "I read for the director on the last day of testing, and he told me I had a part. There was only one left -- the guy with the knife. Well, I practiced throwing that knife so much, until overhand from 20 feet I could stick it in the knot of a tree trunk. I must have ruined two dozen sets of knives practicing. Knives were illegal in California, so they had to be smuggled in up from Tijuana. Man, I got so f--ing good with that knife."
From that time on, and it's 20 years now, he was always a leading man. Even a star with "Our Man Flint" films, though probably no longer a star. Just a leading man.
"What's a star, man?" he asked. "That's someone else's label. I'll tell you who I think is a star. Brando's a star. De Niro's a star. McQueen's a star. Streisand. Bobby Dylan." (Bobby?) "I never considered it. I wanted to work. Make movies. Act. I'm very satisfied. It doesn't matter what people say or think as long as I can make movies and work. I compromise a lot because I like to work. I'd rather work than sit around the house. I sit around as long as I can stand it, and then I pick something to do. If I have nothing else to do and it seems good -- maybe a good director, a good cast, a big budget, a great location -- I'll jump in there. I pick up the script and read it. If I like the story, I do it. I never read for just my character. Maybe that's why I made so many poor choices."
"The Last Hard Man."
"Raid on Fort Holman."
"Last of the Mobile Hot Shots."
"Ever hear of them?" Coburn asked. No.
"Didn't miss much."
Not that there haven't been some good films. "Americanization of Emily." "Waterhold No. 3." "The President's Analyst." "Hard Times." Coburn has made a good living -- now it's up to $1 million a year -- making a lot of B-films and playing a lot of essentially slippery characters. Hustlers. Pickpockets. Con men. Men named "Speed." And it's okay with him. No hassles, man.
Now we come to a philosophy section. Coburn is enamored of that kind of California Zen that grows ever outward from the seed of a mung sprout and produces things like: "The mystery -- if there is a mystery -- is something only I know and can't say because it's still a mystery." (Earth to James? Come in James.) "The movies are the real reality. I'm most happy when I'm filming. When I'm involved in the process. I really don't give a f--- about the result of doing anything. It's only in the doing of it. gThe working. The process. The evolution. The rest of it is just marking time. Waiting for Godot."
Sometimes he talks like Leonard Nimoy looks.
You know, man? Nirvana and Lost Roles
At this point there are certain roles he is unlikely to get. You won't see him as a Jewish labor organizer, or as an Italian cop. But there are two he said he could have had that might have made him Mondo Boffo. He said he could have been R. P. McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And he said he could have been Sundance in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
"I wanted them both," Coburn said. "I said I'd do them both. It just didn't work out."
For years, Kirk Douglas tried to put "Cuckoo's Nest" together, but he couldn't get the proper package. When he finally gave the property to his son, Michael Douglas cast Jack Nicholson in the role. "I would have done the role, but honestly, I never understood it," Coburn said. "Then I saw Jack do it, and I said, 'Of course, that's it.' I wanted Sundance, and I thought I had it. But then they brought Redford in, and my agent didn't have the power to stop it. I got so p--ed off, I changed agents."
"I don't question what's there, man. Whatever's there is okay."
James Coburn said that in his perfect nirvanic ecstasy he would be in a very high place, maybe a Moorish monastery, with lots of music around and no one else there except someone to milk the cows and cook the food. There would be solitude. Lots of solitude. You see, "You enter alone, and you go out alone. You have to get used to it."
When he stood up, his feet barely touched the ground.