James Coburn

James Harrison Coburn III[1] (August 31, 1928 – November 18, 2002) was an American actor who was featured in more than 70 films, largely action roles, and made 100 television appearances during a 45-year career.[2]

James Coburn
Coburn as Anthony Wayne in The Californians (1959)
James Harrison Coburn III

(1928-08-31)August 31, 1928
Laurel, Nebraska, U.S.
DiedNovember 18, 2002(2002-11-18) (aged 74)
Resting placeWestwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Westwood, California, U.S.
EducationCompton Junior College
Alma materLos Angeles City College
Years active1957–2002
Notable work
The Magnificent Seven
Hell Is for Heroes
The Great Escape
Our Man Flint
Duck, You Sucker!
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Cross of Iron
    Beverly Kelly
    (m. 1959; div. 1979)
      Paula Murad Coburn
      (m. 1993; his death 2002)
      AwardsAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actor
      Affliction (1997)

      Coburn was a capable, rough-hewn leading man, whose toothy grin and lanky physique made him a perfect tough guy in numerous leading and supporting roles in westerns and action films,[3] such as The Magnificent Seven, Hell Is for Heroes; The Great Escape; Charade, Our Man Flint, Duck, You Sucker!, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Cross of Iron. In 1997, Coburn won an Academy Award for his supporting role as Glen Whitehouse in Affliction. In 2002, he received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries nomination for producing The Mists of Avalon.[4]

      During the New Hollywood era, Coburn cultivated an image synonymous with "cool"[5] and, along with such contemporaries as Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood, he became one of the most prominent "tough-guy" actors of his day.

      Early life

      James Harrison Coburn III was born in Laurel, Nebraska on August 31, 1928, the son of James Harrison Coburn II (1902–1975)[6] and Mylet S. Coburn (née Johnson; 1900–1984).[7] His father was of Scots-Irish ancestry and his mother was an immigrant from Sweden. The elder Coburn had a garage business that was destroyed by the Great Depression.[8] Coburn himself was raised in Compton, California, where he attended Compton Junior College.

      In 1950, Coburn enlisted in the United States Army, in which he served as a truck driver and occasionally a disc jockey on an Army radio station in Texas. Coburn also narrated Army training films in Mainz, Germany.[9] Coburn attended Los Angeles City College,[10] where he studied acting alongside Jeff Corey and Stella Adler, and later made his stage debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in Herman Melville's Billy Budd.[11]

      Early career


      Coburn's first professional job was a live television play for Sidney Lumet.

      He was selected for a Remington Products razor commercial in which he was able to shave off 11 days of beard growth in less than 60 seconds,[12] while joking that he had more teeth to show on camera than the other 12 candidates for the part.[13]

      Coburn's film debut came in 1959 as the sidekick of Pernell Roberts in the Randolph Scott western Ride Lonesome.[14] He soon got a job in another Western Face of a Fugitive (1959).

      Coburn also appeared in dozens of television roles including, with Roberts, several episodes of NBC's Bonanza. Coburn appeared twice each on two other NBC westerns Tales of Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson, one episode in the role of Butch Cassidy, and The Restless Gun with John Payne in "The Pawn" and "The Way Back", the latter segment alongside Bonanza's Dan Blocker.[15] Butch Cassidy aired in 1958.

      Coburn's third film was a major breakthrough for him - as the knife-wielding Britt in The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges for the Mirisch Company. Coburn was hired through the intervention of his friend, Robert Vaughn.

      During the 1960 to 1961 season, Coburn co-starred with Ralph Taeger and Joi Lansing in the NBC adventure/drama series, Klondike, set in the Alaskan gold rush town of Skagway.

      When Klondike was cancelled, Taeger and Coburn were regrouped as detectives in Mexico in NBC's equally short-lived Acapulco.

      Coburn also made two guest appearances on CBS's Perry Mason, both times as the murder victim; in "The Case of the Envious Editor" and "The Case of the Angry Astronaut," respectively. In 1962, he portrayed the role of Col. Briscoe in the episode "Hostage Child" on CBS's Rawhide.

      Supporting actor in films

      Coburn in Charade (1963)

      Coburn had a good role in Hell Is for Heroes (1962), a war movie with Steve McQueen. Coburn followed this with another war film with McQueen, The Great Escape (1963), directed by Sturges for the Mirisches; Coburn played an Australian. For the Mirisches, Coburn narrated Kings of the Sun (1963).

      Coburn was one of the villains in Charade (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. He was then cast as a glib naval officer in Paddy Chayefsky's The Americanization of Emily, replacing James Garner, who had moved up to the lead when William Holden pulled out. This led to Coburn being signed to a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox.[16]

      Coburn had another excellent support role as a one-armed Indian tracker in Major Dundee (1965), directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Charlton Heston.

      At Fox, he was second-billed in the pirate film A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), supporting Anthony Quinn. He had a cameo in The Loved One (1965).


      Coburn became a genuine star following the release of the James Bond parody film Our Man Flint (1966), playing super agent Derek Flint for Fox. The movie was a solid success at the box office.

      He followed it with What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), a wartime comedy from Blake Edwards which was made for the Mirisches; Coburn was top billed. The film was a commercial disappointment. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) was a crime movie made at Columbia.

      Back at Fox, Coburn made a second Flint film, In Like Flint (1967), which was popular but Coburn did not wish to make any more. He went over to Paramount to make a Western comedy, Waterhole No. 3 (1967), and the political satire The President's Analyst (1967). Neither film performed particularly well at the box office but over the years The President's Analyst has become a cult film. In 1967 Coburn was voted the twelfth biggest star in Hollywood.[17]

      Over at Columbia, Coburn was in a swinging sixties heist film, Duffy (1968) which flopped. He was one of several stars who had cameos in Candy (1968) then played a hitman in Hard Contract (1969) for Fox, another flop.

      Coburn tried a change of pace, an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970) directed by Sidney Lumet, but the film was not popular.

      In July 1970 Richard F Zanuck of Fox dropped the $300,000 option it had with Coburn.[18]

      In 1971, Coburn starred in the Zapata Western Duck, You Sucker!, with Rod Steiger and directed by Sergio Leone, as an Irish explosives expert and revolutionary who has fled to Mexico during the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. In 1964 Coburn said he would do A Fistful of Dollars if they paid him $25,000, which was too expensive for the production's tiny budget.[19] Duck You Sucker, also called A Fistful of Dynamite, was not as highly regarded as Leone's four previous Westerns but was hugely popular in Europe, especially France.

      Back in the US he made another film with Blake Edwards, the thriller The Carey Treatment (1972). It was badly cut by MGM and was commercially unsuccessful. So too was The Honkers (1972), in which Coburn played a rodeo rider.

      Coburn went back to Italy to make another Western, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1973). He then re-teamed with director Sam Peckinpah for the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he played Pat Garrett. In 1973 Coburn was voted the 23rd most popular star in Hollywood.[20]

      In 1973, Coburn was among the featured celebrities dressed in prison gear on the cover of the album Band on the Run made by Paul McCartney and his band Wings. Coburn was one of the pallbearers at the funeral of Bruce Lee along with Steve McQueen, Bruce's brother, Robert Lee, Peter Chin, Danny Inosanto, and Taky Kimura. Coburn gave a speech: "Farewell, Brother. It has been an honor to share this space in time with you. As a friend and a teacher, you have given to me, have brought my physical, spiritual and psychological selves together. Thank you. May peace be with you"[21]

      Coburn was one of several stars in the popular The Last of Sheila (1973). He then starred in a series of thrillers: Harry in Your Pocket (1974) and The Internecine Project (1975). Neither was widely seen.

      Decline as star

      Coburn began to drop back down the credit list: he was third billed in writer-director Richard Brooks' film Bite the Bullet (1975) behind Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen. He co-starred with Charles Bronson in Hard Times (1975), the directorial debut of Walter Hill, but it was very much Bronson's film. The movie was popular.

      Coburn played the lead in the action film Sky Riders (1976) then played Charlton Heston's antagonist in The Last Hard Men (1976). He was one of the many stars in Midway (1976), then had the star role in Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron (1977) playing a German soldier. This critically acclaimed war epic performed poorly in the United States but was a huge hit in Europe. Peckinpah and Coburn remained close friends until Peckinpah's death in 1984.

      Coburn returned to television in 1978 to star in a three-part mini-series version of a Dashiell Hammett detective novel, The Dain Curse, tailoring his character to bear a physical resemblance to the author. During that same year as a spokesman for the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, he was paid $500,000 to promote its new product in television advertisements by saying only two words: "Schlitz. Light."[22] In Japan his masculine appearance was so appealing he became an icon for its leading cigarette brand. He also supported himself in later years by exporting rare automobiles to Japan.[23] He was deeply interested in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and collected sacred Buddhist artwork.[24] He narrated a film about the 16th Karmapa called The Lion's Roar.[25]

      Coburn starred in Firepower (1979) with Sophia Loren, replacing Charles Bronson when the latter pulled out. He had a cameo in The Muppet Movie (1979) and had leading roles in Goldengirl (1980) and The Baltimore Bullet (1980). He was Shirley MacLaine's husband in Loving Couples (1980) and had the lead in a Canadian film, Crossover (1980).

      Final years

      In 1981, Coburn moved almost entirely into supporting roles such as those of the villains in both High Risk (1981) and Looker (1981). He hosted a TV series of the horror-anthology type, Darkroom, in 1981 and 1982. He supported Walter Mondale's campaign in the 1984 presidential election.[26] Coburn also portrayed Dwight Owen Barnes in the PC video game C.E.O., developed by Artdink as a spin-off of its A-Train series.[27]

      Because of his severe rheumatoid arthritis, Coburn appeared in very few films during the 1980s, despite continuing to work during his final years. This disease had left Coburn's body deformed and in pain. "You start to turn to stone," he told ABC News in an April 1999 interview. "See, my hand is twisted now because tendons have shortened." For 20 years, he tried a host of both conventional and unconventional treatments, but none of them worked. "There was so much pain that...every time I stood up, I would break into a sweat," he recalled. Then, at the age of 68, Coburn tried methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), a sulfur compound available at most health food stores. The result, he said, was nothing short of miraculous. "You take this stuff and it starts right away," said Coburn. "Everyone I've given it to has had a positive response." Though the MSM did not cure Coburn's arthritis, it did relieve his pain, allowing him to move more freely and resume his career.[28][29]

      Coburn was in a four-year relationship with British singer-songwriter Lynsey de Paul from the late 1970s. They co-wrote her songs "Losin' the Blues For You" and "Melancholy Melon" that appeared on her 1979 Tigers and Fireflies album.[30] Coburn returned to film in the 1990s, where he appeared in supporting roles in Young Guns II, Hudson Hawk, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Maverick, Eraser, The Nutty Professor, Affliction, and Payback. His performance as Glen Whitehouse in Affliction earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[31] He also provided the voice of Henry J. Waternoose III in the Pixar animated film Monsters, Inc..


      Bob Bondurant teaching Coburn in 1972

      Coburn's interest in fast cars began with his father's garage business and continued throughout his life, as he exported rare cars to Japan.[10] Coburn was credited with having introduced Steve McQueen to Ferraris, and in the early 1960s owned a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso and a Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California SWB. His Spyder was the thirteenth of just fifty-six built. Coburn imported the pre-owned car in 1964, shortly after completing The Great Escape.[32]

      Cal Spyder #2377 was repainted several times during Coburn's ownership; it has been black, silver, and possibly red. He kept the car at his Beverly Hills-area home, where it was often serviced by Max Balchowsky, who also worked on the suspension and frame modifications on the Mustang GTs used in the filming of McQueen's Bullitt. Coburn sold the Spyder in 1987 after twenty-four years of ownership. The car was restored, had several owners, and was sold in 2008 for $10,894,400 to English broadcaster Chris Evans. At that time it set a new world record for the highest price ever paid for an automobile at auction.[33]

      Over time he also owned a Ferrari Daytona, at least one Ferrari 308 and a 1967 Ferrari 412P sports racer.[34] From 1998 until his death, Coburn did the voiceovers for Chevrolet's Like a Rock commercials.

      Personal life

      Coburn's grave marker

      Coburn was married twice. His first marriage was to Beverly Kelly, in 1959; they had two children together.[35] The couple divorced in 1979 after twenty years of marriage.[36]

      He later married actress Paula Murad Coburn, on October 22, 1993 in Versailles, France; they remained married until Coburn's death in 2002,[36] both he and his wife Paula set up "The James and Paula Coburn (charitable) Foundation".[37]

      Coburn was a martial arts student and a friend of fellow actor Bruce Lee. Upon Lee's early death, Coburn was one of his pallbearers at the funeral on July 25, 1973.[38]


      Coburn died of a heart attack at the age of 74 on November 18, 2002 while listening to music at his Beverly Hills home.[36] Less than two years later, Paula died of cancer on July 30, 2004, at age 48.[39]

      Critical analysis

      In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson states that "Coburn is a modern rarity: an actor who projects lazy, humorous sexuality. He has made a variety of flawed, pleasurable films, the merits of which invariably depend on his laconic presence. Increasingly, he was the best thing in his movies, smiling privately, seeming to suggest that he was in contact with some profound source of amusement".[40] Film critic Pauline Kael remarked on Coburn's unusual characteristics, stating that "he looked like the child of the liaison between Lt. Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly".[41] George Hickenlooper, who directed Coburn in The Man from Elysian Fields called him "the masculine male".[42] Andy García called him "the personification of class, the hippest of the hip", and Paul Schrader noted "he was of that 50s generation. He had that part hipster, part cool-cat aura about him. He was one of those kind of men who were formed by the Rat Pack kind of style."[43]



      1959Ride LonesomeWhit
      Face of a FugitivePurdy
      1960The Magnificent SevenBritt
      1961The Murder MenArthur TroyTelevision film
      1962Hell Is for HeroesCpl. Frank Henshaw
      1963The Great EscapeFg. Off. Louis Sedgwick, "The Manufacturer"
      CharadeTex Panthollow
      Kings of the SunNarratorUncredited
      The Man from GalvestonBoyd Palmer
      1964The Americanization of EmilyLt. Cmdr. Paul "Bus" Cummings
      1965Major DundeeSamuel Potts
      A High Wind in JamaicaZac
      The Loved OneImmigration Officer
      1966Our Man FlintDerek Flint
      What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?Lieutenant Christian
      Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-RoundEli Kotch
      1967In Like FlintDerek Flint
      Waterhole No. 3Lewton Cole
      The President's AnalystDr. Sidney SchaeferAlso producer
      CandyDr. A.B. Krankheit
      1969Hard ContractJohn Cunningham
      1970Last of the Mobile Hot ShotsJeb Thornton
      1971Duck, You Sucker!John H. MalloryRenamed A Fistful of Dynamite for U.S. release
      1972The Carey TreatmentDr. Peter Carey
      The HonkersLew LathropSteve Ihnat
      A Reason to Live, a Reason to DieColonel PembrokeRenamed Massacre at Fort Holman for U.S. release
      1973Pat Garrett and Billy the KidPat Garrett
      The Last of SheilaClinton Green
      Harry in Your PocketHarry
      1974The Internecine ProjectRobert Elliot
      1975Bite the BulletLuke Matthews
      Hard TimesSpeed
      1976Sky RidersJim McCabe
      The Last Hard MenZach Provo
      MidwayCapt. Vinton Maddox
      1977White RockNarrator
      Cross of IronSergeant Rolf Steiner
      1978California SuitePilot in Diana Barrie's Film on AirplaneUncredited
      The Muppet MovieEl Sleezo Cafe OwnerCameo
      GoldengirlJack Dryden
      1980The Baltimore BulletNick Casey
      Loving CouplesDr. Walter Kirby
      Mr. PatmanPatman
      SuperstuntTelevision film
      1981High RiskSerrano
      LookerJohn Reston
      Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the DollsHenry Bellamy
      1983MalibuTom WhartonTelevision film
      Digital DreamsTelevision film
      1984Draw!Sam StarretTelevision film
      1985Martin's DayLt. Lardner
      Sins of the FatherFrank MurchisonTelevision film
      1986Death of a SoldierMaj. Patrick Dannenberg
      The Wildest West Show of the StarsGrand MarshallTelevision film
      1989Train to HeavenGregorius
      Call from SpaceShort
      1990Young Guns IIJohn Simpson Chisum
      1991Hudson HawkGeorge Kaplan
      1992SilverfoxRobert FoxTelevision film
      True FactsTelevision film
      Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232Jim HathawayTelevision film
      MastergateMajor Manley BattleTelevision film
      1993The Hit ListPeter Mayhew
      DeadfallMike/Lou Donan
      Sister Act 2: Back in the HabitMr. Crisp
      1994MaverickCommodore Duvall
      Ray Alexander: A Taste for JusticeJeffrey WinslowTelevision film
      GreyhoundsTelevision film
      1995The Set-UpJeremiah Cole
      The Avenging AngelPorter RockwellTelevision film
      Ray Alexander: A Menu for MurderJeffery WinslowTelevision film
      Christmas ReunionSantaTelevision film
      1996The Disappearance of Kevin JohnsonHimself
      EraserWitSec Chief Arthur Beller
      The Nutty ProfessorHarlan Hartley
      Football AmericaNarratorTelevision film
      Okavango: Africa's Savage OasisNarratorTelevision film
      The Cherokee KidCyrus B. BloomingtonTelevision film
      1997Keys to TulsaHarmon Shaw
      SkeletonsFrank JoveTelevision film
      The Second Civil WarJack BuchanTelevision film
      AfflictionGlen WhitehouseAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actor
      Nominated—Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male
      Nominated—Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
      1999PaybackJustin Fairfax
      Noah's ArkThe PeddlerTelevision film
      Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love StoryMorris GunnTelevision film
      2000IntrepidCaptain Hal Josephson
      Missing PiecesAtticus CodyTelevision film
      The Good DoctorDr. Samuel RobertsShort
      2001Texas RangersNarrator
      ProximityJim Corcoran
      The Yellow BirdRev. Increase TutwilerShort
      The Man from Elysian FieldsAlcott
      Monsters, Inc.Mr. Henry J. Waternoose (voice)
      Walter and HenryCharlieTelevision film
      2002Snow DogsJames "Thunder Jack" Johnson
      American GunMartin TillmanFinal role


      1957Studio One in HollywoodSam"The Night America Trembled"
      1958SuspicionCarson"The Voice in the Night"
      General Electric TheaterClaude Firman"Ah There, Beau Brummel"
      Wagon TrainIke Daggett"The Millie Davis Story"
      1958–1959The Restless GunVestry / Tom Quinn2 episodes
      Walt Disney's Wonderful World of ColorJack - Outlaw Leader / Mexican Police CaptainUncredited
      3 episodes
      Alfred Hitchcock PresentsUnion Sergeant / Andrews2 episodes
      1958–1961The RiflemanAmbrose / Cy Parker2 episodes
      1958–1962Tales of Wells FargoBen Crider / Idaho2 episodes
      1959TrackdownJoker Wells"Hard Lines"
      State TrooperDobie"Hard Money, Soft Touch"
      Dick Powell's Zane Grey TheatreJess"A Thread of Respect"
      Black SaddleNiles"Client: Steele"
      M SquadHarry Blacker"The Fire Makers"
      The Rough RidersJudson"Deadfall"
      The CaliforniansDeputy Anthony Wayne2 episodes
      Johnny RingoMoss Taylor"The Arrival"
      WhirlybirdsSteve Alexander"Mr. Jinx"
      Tombstone TerritoryChuck Ashley"The Gunfighter"
      The Life and Legend of Wyatt EarpBuckskin Frank Leslie"The Noble Outlaws"
      The DuPont Show with June Allyson"The Girl"
      The MillionaireLew Bennett"Millionaire Timothy Mackail"
      Dead or AliveHenry Turner"Reunion for Revenge"
      Bat MastersonPole Otis"The Black Pearls"
      1959–1960BroncoJesse James / Adam Coverly2 episodes
      Wichita TownWally / Fletcher2 episodes
      Bat MastersonLeo Talley"Six Feet of Gold”
      Have Gun – Will TravelBill Sledge / Jack2 episodes
      Wanted: Dead or AliveHoward Catlett / Jesse Holloway / Henry Turner3 episodes
      Dick Powell's Zane Grey TheatreDoyle / Jess Newton2 episodes
      1959–1961LaramieFinch / Gil Spanner2 episodes
      1959–1966BonanzaPete Jessup / Ross Marquette / Elmer Trace / Heckler4 episodes
      1960The TexanCal Gruder"Friend of the Family"
      SugarfootRome Morgan"Blackwater Swamp"
      Men into SpaceDr. Narry"Contraband"
      Bourbon Street BeatBuzz Griffin"Target of Hate"
      Peter GunnBud Bailey"The Murder Clause"
      The DeputyCoffer"The Truly Yours"
      TateJory"Home Town"
      Richard Diamond, Private Detective"Coat of Arms"
      Death Valley Days"Pamela's Oxen"
      LawmanLank Bailey / Blake Carr2 episodes
      1960–1961KlondikeJeff Durain / Jefferson Durain10 episodes
      1961CheyenneKell"Trouble Street"
      The UntouchablesDennis Garrity"The Jamaica Ginger Story"
      The Tall ManJohn Miller"The Best Policy"
      Stagecoach WestSam Murdock"Come Home Again"
      The DetectivesDuke Hawkins"The Frightened Ones"
      The AquanautsJoe Casey"River Gold"
      1961–1962Perry MasonGeneral Addison Brand / Donald Fletcher2 episodes
      1962Naked CityHarry Brind"Goodbye Mama, Hello Auntie Maud"
      The Dick Powell ShowCharlie Allnut"The Safari"
      CheckmateGresch"A Chant of Silence"
      RawhideColonel Briscoe"Hostage Child"
      Cain's HundredArthur Troy"Blues for a Junkman: Arthur Troy"
      1963Stoney BurkeJamison"The Test"
      Combat!Corporal Arnold Kanger"Masquerade"
      The Greatest Show on EarthKelly"Uncaged"
      The Eleventh HourSteve Kowlowski"Oh, You Shouldn't Have Done It"
      The Twilight ZoneMajor French"The Old Man in the Cave"
      1964Route 66Hamar Neilsen"Kiss the Monster - Make Him Sleep"
      The DefendersEarl Chafee"The Man Who Saved His Country"
      1977The Rockford FilesDirector"Irving the Explainer"
      1978The Dain CurseHamilton NashMiniseries
      1980The Muppet ShowHimselfGuest appearance
      1981Darkroom (TV series)HostSeries
      1981Valley of the DollsHenry BellamyMiniseries
      1982Saturday Night LiveHimself"James Coburn/Lindsey Buckingham"
      1984Faerie Tale TheatreThe Gypsy"Pinocchio"
      1990–1992Captain Planet and the PlaneteersLooten Plunder (voice)15 episodes
      1991–1998StreakNoah ReynoldsMain cast
      450 episodes
      1992The Fifth CornerDr. Grandwell2 episodes
      Murder, She WroteCyrus Ramsey"Day of the Dead"
      1995Picket FencesWalter Brock"Upbringings"
      1997ProfilerCharles Vanderhorn2 episodes
      1998Mr. MurderDrew Oslett, Sr.Television miniseries
      Stories from My ChildhoodThe Archbishop (voice)"The Wild Swans"
      1999Vengeance UnlimitedBoone Paladin (uncredited voice)"Judgment"
      2000Scene by SceneHimself
      2002ArlissSlaughterhouse Sid Perelli"The Immortal" (final appearance)


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