James Coburn has been to the Oscars before, but only as a presenter. Will it feel different as a nominee? ”Oh, sure — you get a better seat,” growls the 70-year-old actor. There’s one other attraction: ”My wife has never been to the Oscars, and she’s always wanted to put on a pretty dress and show off her nice ass.”
Despite bringing this macho presence to more than 60 films, from Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to war movies (The Great Escape) to comedies (Our Man Flint), Coburn never landed the kind of career-defining role that captures the Academy’s attention — until Affliction. As ”Pop” Whitehouse, the patriarch who passes an alcoholic, abusive legacy on to his son (Nick Nolte), Coburn fills up the screen as never before. Physically transforming himself into an imposing monster, he wore heavy padding (”Jesus Christ, I looked like I weighed about 400 pounds!”), thinned his hair (”It took months to grow out”), and raised his famously resounding voice into a pinched, higher register — all of which stripped Pop of Coburn’s trademark charm. ”He’s the antithesis of who I am,” the actor concludes.
The comeback seems all the sweeter to Coburn, who overcame a 15-year battle with arthritis that threatened to end his career. ”That was really an affliction,” he says. But a combination of deep-tissue massage, electromagnetic treatments, and a dietary sulfur compound brought him back to action. ”Now I’m out there swinging,” says the star, who appears opposite Mel Gibson in Payback and is suddenly fielding several other offers. ”I’m meeting with a director today for a Hallmark Hall of Fame kinda number,” he reports. ”But I don’t know, it’s a little too sentimental for me — I hate that self-pity kinda crap.” Pop would be proud.