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Coco, James (1930-1987)  
 
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Coco also worked as a regular on television soap operas like The Edge of Night (1967-68) and Guiding Light (1986-87), and as a guest star on such television series as Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center, Maude, Trapper John, M.D., Fantasy Island, Matt Houston, The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and Who's the Boss?

His dramatic range was evident in a movie made for television of The Diary of Ann Frank (1980), in which he played opposite his Last of the Red Hot Lovers co-star, Doris Roberts. He won an Emmy Award in 1982 for his guest appearance on St. Elsewhere.

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Coco's experience in youth working as a member of a children's theater company served him well in his performances in "Looking through Super Plastic Elastic Googles at Color" (NBC Children's Theatre, 1970), as Santa Claus in The Curious Case of Santa Claus (1982), and as Mr. Skeffington in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).

Curiously, for all his ubiquity on television, producers had difficulty crafting a successful series for him. In Calucci's Department (1973), he played the harried director of a state unemployment bureau. And in The Dumplings (1976), he was half an overweight married couple who operated a delicatessen in New York City. Neither show shot more than eleven episodes, which at the time proved less than half a season.

As he aged, Coco had increasing difficulty controlling his appetites. He went on an emotional roller coaster of compulsion, depression, and recovery. However, after one particularly successful weight-loss program, he authored The James Coco Diet with actress Marion Paone, with whom he had appeared on stage decades earlier in both Innaurato's The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie and McNally's Witness. At the time of his death, he was reported to be writing a cook book, Cooking with Coco.

Coco died of coronary arrest on February 25, 1987, just hours after sitting with Terrence McNally, still his best friend, watching on television an episode of Who's the Boss? titled "Diet in Cell Block 11," in which Coco had performed two weeks earlier.

McNally, the principal speaker at the memorial service held at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel three days later, recalled that "Jimmy was not feeling well and looked it. . . . Jimmy, of course, was wonderful [in the sitcom]--the timing, the takes (honest takes; there is such a thing when a Master is at work), the truth in the most trivial of TV sitcom scripts. The audience, as usual, he had eating out of his hand and his fellow actors were clearly delighted to be sharing a scene with a prince. But instead of watching the show, I found myself watching Jimmy. He sat forward in his chair. Leaning towards the set. He was smiling. His eyes were shining. He really was a kid again, taking the greatest joy in what he did just about better than anyone I know."

Legacy

Following Coco's death, Neil Simon eulogized Coco as "an acting comedian" who "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."

Coco's sensitive representations of the vulnerability of human desire no doubt sprang in part from the challenges that his weight and premature baldness created for him as a gay man living in New York City at the height of what Brad Gooch has termed "The Golden Age of Promiscuity."

McNally eulogized Coco in terms of the nickname, "Juicy," that the playwright had given him when they first met years earlier: "Ripe. Abundant. Delicious. You could taste him." But it wasn't just the spirit of life that Coco incarnated that McNally sought to celebrate with the nickname; there was an emotional component to be communicated as well. "His love was inexhaustible. Juicy. It couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, didn't know how to. Juicy."

Coco infused his performances with this same spirit of delight, allowing McNally to praise as well the enormous pleasure that Coco took in acting. "He was an immaculate actor. Fastidious. Precise but with an emotional generosity that went to the last row. People adored Jimmy but I think they adored acting with him even more. He made the great ones greater by always giving 100% of himself and made the less-than-his-equals nearly that by giving 150%. Jimmy could not give a 'walk-through' performance. The theatre and his craft were too holy. Jimmy lived to act."

Perhaps the greatest tribute that McNally paid his friend and colleague was to create in his image the character of Ganesh in A Perfect Ganesh (produced in 1993, but first conceived during a trip that McNally made to India a week after Coco's death), who teaches two grieving American tourists that "We all have a place here [on earth]. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. Allow. Accept. Be."

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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    Bibliography
   

Bennetts, Leslie. "James Coco, Character Actor / On Stage and TV and in Films." New York Times (February 27, 1987): D19.

Coco, James, and Marion Paone. The James Coco Diet. New York: Bantam Dell, 1984.

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. "James Coco, AIDS, and the Genesis of A Perfect Ganesh." ANQ: American Notes and Queries 23.2 (Spring 2010): 250-58.

McNally, Terrence. "James Coco 1928-87." Village Voice (March 10, 1987): 94.

_____. "A Few Words of Introduction." Three Plays by Terrence McNally: The Lisbon Traviata, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and It's Only a Play. New York: Plume, 1990. ix-xiii.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Coco, James  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2013  
    Date Last Updated February 25, 2013  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/coco_james.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2013 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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