Born June 19, 1877 in Macon, Georgia to Scots-Irish American parents, Charles Coburn began his show business career as an usher and doorman in a Savannah theatre which he became manager of in 1895 at the age of 18. By 1901 he was already starring on Broadway in the first of twenty-seven plays he appeared in through March, 1937. He and actress Ivah Wills formed the Coburn Players in 1905 the year before their marriage. The Coburns would have six children born between 1907 and 1913. Coburn made two films prior to Ivah’s death from congestive heart failure at the age of 55 in 1937, but his Hollywood career began in earnest when he moved to Los Angeles after her death.
Cast as the town doctor in 1938’s Of Human Hearts in support of James Stewart and Beulah Bondi, it was as Stewart’s upper-crust father and Bondi’s overbearing husband in the same year’s Vivacious Lady that established the fussy persona that he would play to perfection for the remainder of his career.
Memorable as the department store owner in 1939’s Bachelor Mother and as Cary Grant’s disapproving father in the same year’s In Name Only, Coburn really hit his stride with 1941’s The Lady Eve and The Devil and Miss Jones, earning the first of three Oscar nominations for the latter.
He turned nasty for 1942’s Kings Row and In This Our Life, playing the sadistic doctor who cuts off Ronald Reagan’s legs in the former and Bette Davis’ lecherous uncle in the latter.
Coburn’s delightful turn as the merry matchmaker in 1943’s The More the Merrier found the 66 year-old actor at the height of his popularity with an Oscar for his performance to prove it.
One of the few character actors Hollywood also provided with leading roles in major films, Coburn received top billing as Dean Stockwell’s great-grandfather in 1946’s The Green Years for which he received his third and final Oscar nomination, albeit in the supporting actor category in the ensemble drama despite his star billing.
The actor kept busy with a supporting role here as in 1947’s The Paradine Case and a lead there as in 1948’s Green Grass of Wyoming. By 1950 he made his first foray into television and in 1952 he was back on Broadway in The Long Watch while still appearing on screen in such popular films as Has Anybody Seen My Gal and Monkey Business.
1953 provided him with major supporting roles opposite John Wayne in Trouble Along the Way and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Mostly on television after that, he did make an occasional film such as 1959’s John Paul Jones in which he played Benjamin Franklin.
Married to second wife Nydia Natzka in 1959, his young wife gave birth to his seventh child in 1960, 47 years after the birth of his last child when the actor was 83 years old. They divorced on May 12, 1961 and the actor died of a heart attack on August 30, 1961. Charles Coburn was 84 years old.
VIVACIOUS LADY (1938), directed by George Stevens
Coburn was over 60 when he moved to Hollywood after the death of his first wife and promptly established his screen persona as the incorrigible stuffy old man with his portrayal of James Stewart’s father and Beulah Bondi’s husband in this delightful screwball comedy.
The final confrontation between Coburn and the newly independent Bondi is a classic.
THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941), directed by Sam Wood
Coburn has fun with his stuffy old man persona as he plays a department store owner who goes undercover to determine what it is his employees have against him in this beloved comedy classic in which he holds sway over a cast that includes Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings and Spring Byington at their best.
Coburn received the first of his three Oscar nominations for his performance.
THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), directed by George Stevens
One of the best comedies of its day and still one of the best films about the home-front during World War II, Stevens’ film pokes fun at the housing shortage in Washington, D.C. in which patriotic Jean Arthur decides to rent out part of her small apartment to a middle-aged transplant form the Midwest.
Coburn delights as the winking matchmaker who rents out half of his half of the apartment to irreverent Joel McCrea and promptly acts as Cupid to bring Arthur and McCrea together.
Coburn is at the pinnacle of his Hollywood career in his Oscar winning role.
THE GREEN YEARS (1946), directed by Victor Saville
This faithful translation of A.J. Cronin’s novel is beautifully handled with a dream cast beginning with Coburn as young protagonist Dean Stockwell’s great-grandfather, a happy-go-lucky charmer who goes against the grain of his tightfisted son-in-law played by Hume Cronyn.
The superb cast also includes Gladys Cooper as Cronin’s mother, Selena Royle as his wife and Cronin’s real-life wife Jessica Tandy as his daughter. The film suffers a bit from the changeover to stoic Tom Drake as the grown version of Stockwell’s exuberant boy, but Coburn holds your interest throughout in the role for which he received his third Oscar nomination.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), directed by Howard Hawks
Probably the role in which more people today have seen the actor than any other, Coburn is perfectly delightful as the elderly roué after Marilyn Monroe in Hawks’ somewhat skewered version of the Broadway musical.
For another look at the versatile actor in a film from the same year, check out his beleaguered Catholic priest who hires John Wayne to coach his school’s football team in the same year’s Trouble Along the Way.
CHARLES COBURN AND OSCAR
- The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) – nominated Supporting Actor
- The More the Merrier (1943) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
- The Green Years (1946) – nominated Best Supporting Actor