There were bigger movie stars than James Coburn and even a few better actors. But it's doubtful that any of them either had or communicated as much fun with his work as the lean, leering craftsman of the screen who died Monday at 74.
Coburn was a rare study in contrasts: a genuine screen presence equally adept at portraying jaunty heroes and truly chilling, reptilian villains; an artist of comedy whose obvious delight in his own performance was often the best part of the joke.
He won his only Oscar in 1999 as the abusive, alcoholic father of Nick Nolte in "Affliction," but true Coburn fans treasure just as much or more the gemlike, often smaller character parts he crafted in more than 100 earlier films -- the squinty-eyed, knife-throwing Britt in the epic western "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), the sadistic half-breed Zach Provo in "The Last Hard Men" (1976), the hilariously embattled White House shrink in "The President's Analyst" (1967).
In Stanley Donen's classic, Hitchcock-like comedy-thriller "Charade" (1963), Coburn's sneering, drawling Tex is just one of four villains stalking Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant around Paris. But he manages to be the hands-down scariest, as well as the funniest (which isn't easy), and even ends up the most gruesome corpse, with his head tongue-out and popeyed in a plastic bag.
With the latest James Bond film due to open Friday, it's good to remember that no one, not even Mike Myers as Austin Powers, ever parodied Bond with the grace and genuine wit of Coburn in "Our Man Flint" (1966) and "In Like Flint" (1967).
While lesser actors might have opted for burlesque, Coburn imbued super-agent Derek Flint -- scientist, philosopher, martial arts expert, gourmet chef, etc. -- with so much genuine intellectual passion that he's both twice as funny and almost believable.
When CIA director Lee J. Cobb calls on him to save the Republic once again, Flint struggles to fit the assignment into his busy schedule: He's been in Moscow for the ballet.
"You went to Russia just to see a ballet?" says Cobb, incredulous.
"Not to see it. To teach it!" Flint replies, and the way Coburn evokes impatient dismissal of the subject is the stuff of both genius and delight.
Nobody could have called Coburn handsome, but he exuded a kind of languid, amused sexuality. Combined with his lean, angular face and toothy, vulpine grin, it gave his wenching in films like the "Flint" pictures and "The President's Analyst" a kind of boyish mischievousness that let him get away with outrageous lines and situations.
Even in the 1960s, only Coburn could describe the not-exactly-brutal rape in the comic western "Waterhole #3" (1967) as "assault with a friendly weapon."
It was a measure of Coburn's talent that his characterizations were notable for both the leisurely, laconic quality of many of his western roles (like his reluctantly pursuing sheriff in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" ), and the fierce, kinetic energy he exuded in works like the "Flint" films and "The President's Analyst."
One of the best of the latter is the too-little-known "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), one of the most intelligent -- as well as funniest -- antiwar films of all time.
In it Coburn and James Garner play young Navy PR officers assigned by a deranged admiral to film the D-Day invasion of Normandy from the beach ("The first dead man on Omaha Beach has got to be a sailor!").
Garner panics, certain that they'll be killed. But Coburn's character, a master of Navy red tape, explains that he can keep them off the beach by writing their orders and dispatching them on such a labyrinthine bureaucratic path that the invasion will be over before they're approved.
The speed and zest with which Coburn, gazing ceilingward, conjures up and details a paper maze right out of Kafka is such a tour de force that Garner eventually interrupts to protest: "Well, don't get carried away with the sheer artistry of it." That line was written by Paddy Chayefsky, but it would be meaningless without Coburn's rapturous, self-mesmerized performance.
There are precious few actors whose work lives in the memory like that, decades after it was seen. There was an instantly seductive quality about Coburn's art that made his performances almost always fascinating even when the movies surrounding them were not.
Who remembers a 1973 whodunit called "The Last of Sheila," co-written, if you can believe it, by actor Anthony Perkins and songwriter Stephen Sondheim?
As best I can recall it involved a sort of Agatha Christie-style house party on a yacht in the Mediterranean during which Coburn, as a despotic Onassis-style billionaire, invites guests who need his money even though they loathe him and he knows it.
That's all I remember from seeing it years ago. Except for one irresistible scene where Coburn is being lowered down the side of the yacht in the ship's lifeboat-tender prior to visiting a nearby Greek isle.
"Look at that!" he calls, directing his guests toward the magnificent view. Islands, he says, are fabulous to own because "for a couple of million you can buy one and be absolute king to a couple of shepherds and their flocks."
He's thought about buying an island, he announces grandly, as the smaller vessel descends toward the water. "But then I say to myself: Shepherds, you don't deserve a king as magnificent as I!"
We film hounds probably didn't deserve Coburn, either. But, by God, he was fun. And a large part of that was because he knew -- and loved -- just exactly how much fun he was.