What race was James Coburn? Was he part Asian?

Recently I watched the ridiculous In Like Flint, a spy spoof starring James Coburn. Throughout the film, I found myself wondering about the ethnic background of Coburn. He is a very interesting-looking man. He had extremely strong facial features, and there is definitely something about him that looks “exotic” to me.

Here you can see for yourself a wide array of pictures of Coburn.

Here, specifically, and here, I really think he looks part Japanese.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society via Wikipedia says he’s Scots-Irish and Swedish.

Well, actors sometimes have a way of changing their bios, though I don’t know why he would have done that. (It also says he grew up in Compton.)

I hate to just quote Wiki but it does say he was born in Nebraska and of Scots-Irish and Swedish descent. No reason to doubt that.

One thing that may be telling regarding any potential asian ancestry, both Coburn and Steve McQueen were students of Bruce Lee. Both told Lee that in Hollywood he’d never be able to gain either of their star status because Lee was Chinese.

Here’s the actual article by the New England Historical Society guy:


It’s true that he’s got a bunch of unknown ancestors, but I think those are the Swedish ones before they came to America. He wasn’t Japanese, he just squinted a lot.

I always conflate him with Lee Marvin. They looked a lot alike, and played similar kinds of roles. I never thought either of them looked particularly Asian.

I came in to make this same comparison. The long upper lip primarily. Their voices had similar qualities as well. Good voiceover types.

Conflate :confused:

Well, that’s a neat trick. He should’ve played Japanese parts.

At least they wouldn’t have had to use that ridiculous tape trick to make him look Japanese.

He doesn’t look terribly Asian to me, but he does look rather Swedish. I don’t see a reason in those photos to assume that he has hidden Asian ancestry.

He looks more part Native American (Indian) to me in those pics

I agree that he has a bit of a funny look. But sometimes people’s features combine in certain ways so that they resemble members of other races, even though they may not have any mixed ancestry. See Bjork for another example.

He looks pretty run-of-the-mill white guy to me. I only looked at your last two links, and I’ll note that he’s pretty old in the shots, and old people often have features that are showing age rather than race.

Maybe he had some Sami ancestry on is Swedish side.

Coburn’s Swedish roots may include ethnic Sami (aka Lapp) people. A good portion of Sami have epicanthic folds on their eyelids, though not as pronounced as those of East Asian peoples.

Actors are surprising. I was always amazed at David Carradine, who played Kwai Chang Caine on the TV show Kung Fu . He also plsyed Atahualpa the Incan Emperor in Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun*, and I could see how he would’ve been perfect. But as far as I know his ancestry was completely western
Even more surprising, as I’ve noted before, is Khigh Dheigh, who played a variety of roles as Chinese and Japanese charavcters, including Wo Fat on Hawaii Five O and Judge Dee in the TV movie Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders. But he had no asian anestry at all, being British - North African . His professional name was a fanciful transliteration of his real initials – K.D. for Kenneth Dckerson. He was born in New Jersey, and I never woulda guessed that he wasn’t of Chinese ancestry.

*But he didn’t get to play him in the movie, more’s the pity. Christopher Plummer, who played Pizzaro on stage, wanted to play him in the film. He did a great job, but Plummer doesn’t look at all Incan. Or Spanish, for tht matter. Robert Shaw played Pizarro in the film.

Warner Oland, famous for playing Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu in the 1930’s, was also Swedish.

It’s in the shape of his eyes, especially his eyelids. They kinda sag a bit toward the edges.

I have a similar look. Even though I have no Asian ancestry, my eyes look a bit like that, too, especially if I’m tired. I have been asked if I am part Asian. I certainly see it myself.