August 18, 2013 by smumcounty
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1877, Charles Coburn began his love affair with acting doing odd jobs at the local Savannah theater, handing out playbills, working as the doorman, and lastly at the age of 17 working as theater manager. He received his first part in that theater as a bit player in “The Mikado”. At the age of 19, he moved to New York where he tried to break onto the Broadway stage receiving his first professional stage role in a traveling company for “Quo Vadis”.
In 1905, he founded his own theater company, The Coburn Shakespearean Players. He met his future wife, Ivah Wills, that same year when they both played in a production of “As You Like It”. They were married the following year and went on to jointly produce a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays. The Coburn Players toured extensively, playing mostly in the Midwest and South especially at college campuses and often performing outdoor productions. One noteworthy distinction for The Coburn Players was to put on the first production of Shakespeare at The White House when in 1910 they performed “As You Like It” at the request of First Lady Nellie Taft. The company was disbanded in 1917 so that Charles could dedicate his time to Broadway theater.
After Ivah’s death in 1937, Charles moved to Hollywood where he started his second career as a character actor at the age of 60. He was in great demand throughout the 40’s and 50’s often playing a gruff businessman or other authority figure with a heart of gold. Unusual for a character actor he was sometimes given star billing as in “The Devil and Miss Jones” in 1941 for which he garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing a businessman who goes undercover as a shoe clerk in his own department store in order to ferret out union agitators. Two years later he won that Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The More the Merrier” in 1943 in which he portrayed a retired millionaire who plays Cupid to two people he shares an apartment with during a housing shortage.
Other notable films included “Kings Row”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “The Lady Eve” in which he played against type portraying conman and card sharp Handsome Harry Harrington, and “The Green Years” for which he garnered another Oscar nomination.
The monocle he often wore was no affectation, correcting a deficiency he had in only one eye. “No point having two window panes where one will do,” he would explain.
A devoted thespian to the end, Charles Coburn’s last role was in a stage production of “You Can’t Take It With You” in Indianapolis, Indiana just a week before he died of a heart attack in 1961. He was 84 years old.
“The Lady Eve” (1941)
“The More the Merrier” (1943)