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.
Coco’s career climax came with the role of a struggling gay actor and buddy to a boozy Broadway actress played by Marsha Mason in the 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 as Supporting Actor 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. McNally and Coco had greater success with Next (1969) which ran for more than 700 performances and won Coco a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
Coco also achieved success with plays by Neil Simon, who wrote The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers (1969) specifically for him and the late, great Doris Roberts. It brought Coco a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor. 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.
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).
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’s problems with his weight compounded the demands of his career. He actually 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 equivalent for Off-Broadway productions).
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 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 a tid-bit that wasn’t true.
Suffering from obesity for most his adult life, the talented Coco died unexpectedly of a heart attack in NYC in 1987. It makes me happy to help us to not forget Coco on his birthday.