Coburn first acted in a production of 'Billy Budd' at university. His studies complete, Coburn decided to try acting as a career. He worked on the stage in New York, and did some live TV, before making his film debut as an outlaw in 'Ride Lonesome' in 1959. Playing the knife-throwing Britt in the 'Magnificent Seven' only a year later, Coburn became famous. He had few lines but his physical presence, while surrounded by other macho actors, spoke volumes. His build and craggy face were perfect for that of a heavy in Westerns, and he became typecast.
Extending his repertoire to war films, Coburn got to be hero as part of the assembled cast of 'The Great Escape'.