Charles Douville Coburn was born in Macon, Georgia, the son of Scots-Irish Americans Emma Louise Sprigman and Moses Douville Coburn. Growing up in Savannah, he started out doing odd jobs at the local Savannah Theater, handing out programs, ushering, or being the doorman. By age 17 or 18, he was the theater manager. He later became an actor, making his debut on Broadway in 1901. Coburn formed an acting company with actress Ivah Wills in 1905. They married in 1906. In addition to managing the company, the couple performed frequently on Broadway.
After his wife's death in 1937, Coburn relocated to Los Angeles, California and began film work. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a retired millionaire playing Cupid in The More the Merrier in 1943. He was also nominated for The Devil and Miss Jones in 1941 and The Green Years in 1946. Other notable film credits include Of Human Hearts (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), Kings Row (1942), The Constant Nymph(1943), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Wilson (1944), Impact (1949), The Paradine Case (1947), Everybody Does It (1950), Has Anybody Seen My Gal?(1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and John Paul Jones (1959). He usually played comedic parts, but Kings Row and Wilson were dramatic parts, showing his versatility.
Coburn married Ivah Wills on January 29, 1906 in Atlanta, Georgia. They had no children. Ivah died on December 3, 1937 in New York City of congestive heart failure.
Coburn married Winifred Natzka on June 30, 1959 in Los Angeles. She was the widow of the New Zealand bass opera singer Oscar Natzka. They had no children.
Coburn died from a heart attack on August 30, 1961, at age 84 in New York City. Winifred moved to New Zealand.
For his contributions to motion pictures, Coburn has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6240 Hollywood Boulevard.