12/02/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
It would have pleased James Coburn to know that even in his final moments, moviegoers were enjoying his trademark gruffness. As his latest film, The Man from Elysian Fields, played in theaters on Nov. 18, Coburn suffered a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home while listening to Billie Holiday with his wife, Paula Murad, 47, and died in her arms. Acting, the 74-year-old said, is "what I do best. It's the only thing I can really do. Actors are boring when they're not working."
Not this bass-baritone bad boy. From the moment he flashed his steely blue eyes in 1960's The Magnificent Seven, the Nebraska native established himself as an icon of what Fields director George Hickenlooper calls "the masculine male." He certainly didn't suffer fools. "If you tried to b.s. him," says Alan Jacobs, who directed him in American Gun (due in '03), "he'd say, 'That's a lot of crap.' " At home, a 20-year marriage to Beverly Kelly son James IV, 41, works on film crews in L.A.; stepdaughter Lisa, 45, does the Web site for Gene Simmons) ended in 1979, and he suffered crippling rheumatoid arthritis. But the winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for '97's Affliction never gave up. Says Jacobs: "He was a class act."