#BornThisDay: Actor, James Coco

From The Wild Party (1975), American International Pictures via YouTube

March 21, 1930– James Coco

Do not confuse him with Coco Chanel, the fashion icon. This Coco was a gay, pudgy, bald character actor whom I admired a great deal, for reasons you can easily grasp. He worked steadily for over three decades in commercials, television, films, and stage.

He was born and grew up in The Bronx. Coco’s passion for acting began when he was a child and his mother took him to the movies:

“I got hooked by Hollywood and the glamour of the stars. I begged to see everything. In a sense, I was formed by the movies.

Coco’s career climax came with the role of a struggling gay actor and buddy to a boozy Broadway actor played by Marsha Mason in the comedy-drama film Only When I Laugh (1981), adapted by Neil Simon from his play The Gingerbread Lady. As the supportive friend who wants to be a “big, big star”, Coco was winsome, waggish, winning, wise, and over the top gay. He received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his work in the film.

Coco is associated with the works of one of my favorite playwrights, openly gay Terrence McNally. He played in an Off-Broadway double-bill of McNally one-act plays, Sweet Eros/Witness (1968), followed by his Here’s Where I Belong, a disastrous Broadway musical adaptation of East Of Eden (1968) that closed on opening night.  Coco had complained to McNally: “Why doesn’t anybody ever write a play for a fat character actor?”  McNally responded by writing Next (1969) which ran for more than 700 performances and won Coco a Drama Desk Award.

Coco also achieved success in plays by Neil Simon, who wrote The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers (1969) specifically for him and the late, great Doris Roberts. In Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, Coco played Barney Cashman, an overweight, middle-aged, married owner of a seafood restaurant who tries unsuccessfully to join the sexual revolution. Mr. Coco’s performance earned a Tony Award nomination and made him a star.

With the rave reviews and awards for Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, Coco was euphoric, saying at the time:

“I guess right now I’m giving a lot of other character actors, fat and skinny, hope. The impossible can happen. You, too, can become a star.

Sadly, Coco was passed over for the film version of Last Of The Red Hot Lovers. The role went to Alan Arkin, but it was a stinker.

More work in Simon projects included a Broadway revival of the musical Little Me (1982), and films: the hilarious Murder By Death (1976), The Cheap Detective (1978), and of course, Only When I Laugh. Simon wrote:

“He was an acting comedian, and he was as funny as any actor I’ve ever met. He typified the loser. As a character, he was always in trouble in everything he ever did. He exposed himself in all the most vulnerable ways, and he was always able to play the foibles of anybody.

Always terrific in every project, usually playing a sad-sack, some of Coco’s other film roles include: Ensign Pulver (1964), Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), Man Of La Mancha (1972), Such Good Friends (1971), A New Leaf (1971), as a silent film comedian in Merchant/Ivory‘s The Wild Party (1975), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).

Although Coco’s rotund form helped to make him immediately recognizable in a wide range of roles, his struggle to control his weight was a lifelong trial during which he gained and lost hundreds of pounds. Coco’s problems with his weight compounded the demands of his career. He played a 500-pound boy who eats himself to death in Albert Innaurato‘s sad play,  The Transfiguration Of Benno Blimpie (1977), for which he won the second of his three Obie Awards (the Tony Award equivalent for Off-Broadway productions), a role he was reluctant to take on.

Coco was well-known for his culinary expertise. He published several bestselling cookbooks and made frequent guest appearances on talk shows dressed in his trademark chef’s hat and apron.

In one of my favorite of his screen roles, he parodied Agatha Christie‘s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in Murder By Death. In the film, Coco’s character mixed up a big bowl of subtle food jokes. The James Coco Diet (1982) included chapters on menu planning and behavior modification as well as recipes. It is probably not a coincidence that he often played characters with food issues.

Coco had many successes on stage and screen.  He studied with the great acting coach Uta Hagen, yet for many, unfairly, he will always be remembered for playing “Willy The Plumber” in a series of ads for Drano in the 1960s.

He also did well working in television, starring in two 1970s comedy series: Calucci’s Department (1973) and Norman Lear‘s The Dumplings (1976), playing, of course, a cook. He also appeared in daytime soaps The Edge Of Night and The Guiding Light. Coco won an Emmy Award for a dramatic turn on a St. Elsewhere and another for a television adaptation of The Diary Of Anne Frank (1980). His final appearances were in a recurring role on the sitcom Who’s The Boss? in 1986-1987.

Coco’s final stage performance was in a 1986 production of McNally’s It’s Only A Play.

In Only When I Laugh (1981), Columbia Studios via YouTube

The reason he was such a funny performer is because he was so scrupulous in his observation of the truth. Yet, he was never just funny. The performances he is remembered for are the ones that also had a lot of heartbreak in them. He could turn an audience he had helplessly laughing and have them crying a moment later. I think he was a great actor.

Coco never talked about his private life and never opened that closet door even a tiny crack. I know that he was gay from a story told to me by a mutual actor friend, someone who had no reason to tell me something that wasn’t true. This person knew Coco well, and told me that the actor was a real pro.

Suffering from obesity for most his adult life, the talented Coco died unexpectedly of a heart attack in New York City in 1987. It makes me happy to help us to not forget Coco on his birthday.

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