Time means a lot to me because you see I am also a learner and am often lost in the joy of forever developing.—Bruce Lee
I’ve just been interested in self evolution, you know, to evolve yourself to your highest possible potential.—James Coburn
Here’s a guy with membership in The Magnificent Seven. He actually escaped in The Great Escape. Perhaps relatedly, he’s one of the “convicts” in Clive Arrowsmith’s playful cover photo for the 1973 Paul McCartney and Wings album Band on the Run. He owned, drove, and raced Ferraris. He had some pretty slick friends, i.e. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and Sam Peckinpah (who tapped him for four movies.) He had a cameo in The Muppet Movie and was the voice of Henry J. Waternoose III, CEO of a firm called Monsters, Inc. in the film of the same name. And in 1999 he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Affliction.
James Coburn: 45 years in television and movies, over 70 films and an Academy Award to his credit, one of Hollywood’s icons of cool….
How did he achieve such style? His beguiling mix of grace and grit? How did he attain such consummate cool?
Certainly Coburn had the looks. Atop that tall, lanky body sat a striking mug, something of a cross between Peter O’Toole and Lee Marvin—a propitious blend. He had the voice too, gravelly yet wonderfully soothing. (Even the U.S. Army knew a good thing when they heard it as Coburn would narrate several training films as a young soldier in the early 1950s.) And the man applied himself to his art from the beginning, studying acting at Los Angeles City College.
But there’s another source—pretty damned cool in its own right—which enriched James Coburn’s compelling persona: he was very close friends with martial arts legend and fellow film star Bruce Lee. (Friends even unto death, Coburn and Steve McQueen were two of the pallbearers at Lee’s funeral.)
Coburn and Lee were both artists (that term “martial-artist”—somehow the adjective diminishes the noun.) In a way their friendship complemented their endeavors: Coburn was an actor who developed a deep interest in the martial arts, Lee a martial-artist who became an actor.
Lee tutored Coburn in his own self-evolved martial art style, Jeet Kune Do (a phrase of such compact poetry in Cantonese, it means “the way of the intercepting fist.”) On YouTube you can watch black-and-white home footage of the two practicing and sparring.
A meteoric and all-too-brief film phenom himself, Lee, like Coburn, aspired to his art early in the game. “Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth,” Lee once said. “To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.”
Though Lee was 12 years younger, Coburn spoke of him with the admiration and respect befitting an elder. Equals in friendship, Lee was Coburn’s teacher. In an interview Coburn did with Johnny Grant on the television segment Backstage in Hollywood (also available on YouTube), you can hear his appreciation movingly delivered:
Bruce Lee was a great friend of mine. We used to work out together for a long time. He was very close—we were very close friends. [Grant interjects: “He was an interesting gentleman.”] Bruce? Oh yes, he was a groovy guy. I was very sorry to see him go. [Grant asks: “What do you think made him so unique?”] Ah, well he related everything, his whole life was related to martial arts. He lived, breathed, thought, moved . . . everything was dedicated to his, the highest principle of his own self evolution—he created himself. Bruce Lee was a little Chinese guy who demanded of himself great excellence. I mean, he was a true artist in that respect, he created, he created himself. And that’s what I think, he was an unusual man. He was beautiful. I don’t know what to say about him, you know, because . . . the perfection that he achieved was awe-inspiring…. [Laughing] I mean he was the fastest moving person you’ve ever seen! He was amazing, really amazing, and it’s a great loss. A loss to me: I miss him daily.
He was beautiful. That’s the line I find particularly moving. A simple enough phrase, and yet for one man to say it of another…. There are whole philosophies and many hard-won insights implicit in that brief declaration. In a way, it’s a perfect validation of the goal for which both men strove: beauty. Isn’t it beauty, after all, that the artist hopes to achieve? James Coburn and Bruce Lee achieved it threefold: in their arts, their friendship, and in themselves.