James Coburn Was No Stranger To Seven Samurai Before The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges' 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven" was a Yul Brynner vehicle from the jump — it was he and actor Anthony Quinn who had acquired the rights to remake Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" epic as a western. To fill out the rest of the hired guns tasked to protect a Mexican village, the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" filmmaker would reunite "Never So Few" stars Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson as, respectively, a drifter and a broke mercenary. Robert Vaughn would play a traumatized war veteran, while Brad Dexter and "German James Dean" Horst Buchholz would round out the crew. James Coburn was last to come aboard.

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2001, Coburn revealed that he was one of the few cast members who had caught the original Kurosawa film beforehand. He would subsequently spend "a week straight" taking friends to see it:

 "Cut to a year later, I'd come back to California and I ran into Robert Vaughn. I said 'What're you doing?' And he said 'I'm doing 'The Magnificent Seven.” I said 'What?! Has it been cast?' He says 'No, I think there's still some characters.' ... So I went over to see [director] John Sturges, and John said, 'Yeah, there's one of the seven that hasn't been cast yet.' I say, 'Is that the guy who's the great swordsman in Kurosawa's film?' and he says, 'Yeah, yeah, that's right.' I said, 'That's the one I wanna play, John.' ... He says, 'I'll let you know by 3 o'clock.' So at 2:30 I get a call from him: 'Come on over and pick up your knives.'"

The great swordsman role is that of Kyūzō, played by frequent Kurosawa player Seiji Miyaguchi. Sturges' western re-imagining would see Kyūzō reborn as Britt, a knife-throwing virtuoso.

Blades vs. bullets

James Coburn was late to the "Magnificent Seven" party, with most of the titular seven having already been cast. He would beat out two competitors for the role of Britt: Sterling Hayden, the baritone star of "The Asphalt Jungle" and Stanley Kubrick's heist thriller "The Killing," and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" lead John Ireland. Coburn told The Guardian in 2000 that he snagged the role just under the wire:

"This was on a Friday afternoon and it had to be cast by Saturday night because an actors' strike was going to take place then. Any film that wasn't cast by Saturday midnight, you couldn't do it ... It was a real thrilling gig to get that, because it was a role that I always coveted."

Coburn would go on to lean into the coveted role using his acting experience and the techniques he acquired under the tutelage of Stella Adler, quickly learning how to throw knives for the part. Despite Coburn being one of the last actors cast, the character Britt is the fifth of seven professional gun-slingers recruited to protect a Mexican village from Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his cronies in "The Magnificent Seven." Of them all, Britt's onscreen introduction is the greatest (see below), ending in one arrogant gunman's hard lesson: Never disturb a man in the middle of a good nap.