James Coburn

re. obituary of James Coburn (Independent November 20 2002)

Further to your obituary of James Coburn (Independent November 20 2002), something which does not really appear there is the extent to which Coburn’s work as an actor was informed by a rare alertness into contemporary culture. It was the fact that your obituary mentioned that he was “listening to music at home” when he died that reminded me of the following incident.

The American composer Alvin Lucier told me about an occasion several years ago when he was performing some of works within the context of an installation at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Alvin’s work is austere in the extreme, and events move very slowly, and states of affairs, both sonic and visual, change imperceptibly.

In the course of one of these performances he looked up and was startled to find James Coburn standing quietly at his side, observing and listening with great concentration to what was going on. He stayed for some time, watching attentively at how the piece evolved.

What is remarkable is not only that James Coburn may well be the only Hollywood actor who knew the location of the Serpentine Gallery and took the trouble to visit it, but also that he appears to have been alert and interested in areas of music which even critics find problematic. This could well have contributed to his undoubted ability to imbue even the most banal roles with intelligence and even self-deprecation.