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Coco, James (1930-1987)  
 
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Quick-witted, roly-poly, sad-eyed clown James Coco proved one of the most versatile and successful American stage, film, and television actors from the late-1960s through the mid-1980s. Master of the slow burn, he might rise to comic heights of hysterical outrage, only suddenly to assert a quiet dignity that made his audience stifle their belly laughs and melt with sympathy at the absurdity of his plight.

Coco was the lynchpin in a gay theater coterie that played a weekly poker game at his apartment on Greenwich Village's West Tenth Street in the 1960s and early 1970s. The coterie included playwright Terrence McNally and actor Robert Drivas among other aspiring talents. These young artists, bound by ties of friendship and sensibility, would become significant contributors to American theater of the day.

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Coco's stage and screen partnerships with playwrights Terrence McNally and Neil Simon would prove one of the great comic legacies of late twentieth-century American culture.

Biography

"I'm just a kid from the Bronx who wanted to be an actor," Coco would say self-deprecatingly when his circumstances grew complicated or his fame became overwhelming.

James Emil Coco was born on March 21, 1930 to a shoemaker and his homemaker wife; he had one sister. He grew up in what he described as "an old-fashioned Italian family where we used to sit down for Sunday dinner at 2 and get up at 7." That same love of food and good company contributed to the eating disorder that would both compromise his self-image and drive his comedy as an adult.

From an early age Coco was serious about acting. His anecdotes about the children's theater company which he joined after graduating high school may have planted a seed in the mind of his close friend, playwright Terrence McNally, that years later would become "Captain Lou and Miss Jessie's Magic Theatre for Children of All Ages" in McNally's Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams (2005).

Coco went on to study with Uta Hagen, one of the most influential people shaping acting style on the post-World War II New York City stage.

He made his Broadway debut alongside Bert Lahr and Angela Lansbury in George Feydeau's Hotel Paradiso (1957). And he quickly went on to appear in such diverse plays--and to act with such major talents--as Patrick Dennis's Everybody Loves Opal (1961) with Eileen Heckart and Brenda Vaccaro; Santha Rama Rau's A Passage to India (1962), based on the E. M. Forster novel, with Gladys Cooper and Anne Meacham; Bertolt Brecht's Arturo Ui (1963) with Christopher Plummer; John Whiting's The Devils (1965), based upon Aldous Huxley's study of religious hysteria, The Devils of Loudun, with Anne Bancroft and Jason Robards; and Pauline McCauley's The Astrakhan Coat (1967) with Brian Bedford and Roddy McDowall.

He won Obie awards for his performances in Denis Johnston's The Moon in Yellow River (1961) and in a pair of one-acters by Murray Schisgal titled Fragments and The Basement (1968), in which he appeared with Gene Hackman.

It was Coco's involvement with playwright Terrence McNally, however, that established him as one of the most versatile and popular actors of his generation. Ironically, their initial collaboration on Here's Where I Belong (1968), a musical based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden for which McNally wrote the book, proved a disaster, closing after only one performance and losing its entire investment, driving Variety to label it "The Costliest One Night Stand on Broadway."

McNally was so angry with changes made to his script without his permission by producer Mitch Miller (of television's "Sing Along with Mitch" fame) that he demanded that his name be removed from the program. But Coco's hilarious performance as a Chinese houseboy who exploited racist stereotypes by speaking pidgin English to his employers but perfectly modulated English privately to his friends proved the one element of the production applauded by most critics.

Later the same year, however, the friends collaborated on a pair of plays, one of which would firmly establish their respective careers. "Why doesn't anybody ever write a play for a fat character actor?" Coco had asked McNally, who set out to craft two vehicles for Coco's abundant talents.

In Witness, Coco played a brash window washer who stumbles into the apartment of a would-be presidential assassin. And in Next--which enjoyed workshop productions at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, and at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, before opening in Manhattan on February 10, 1969 at the Greenwich Mews Playhouse--Coco played an overweight, middle-aged man who is clearly unfit for military service yet is forced to undergo a humiliating army induction physical by a physician who ignores the obvious.

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