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Dabney Coleman, the Actor People Loved to Hate, Dies at 92

Dabney Coleman, the Actor People Loved to Hate, Dies at 92
Dabney Coleman, the Actor People Loved to Hate, Dies at 92

 


He remained a busy if relatively anonymous actor for a decade, appearing in a wide range of television comedies and dramas and in small roles in major films like The Towering Inferno (1974). Then, in 1976, he landed the role that would set the tone for much of his career: Merle Jeeter, the snarky stage father of a child evangelist (and later mayor of the fictional town of Fernwood), in the soap opera satirical by Norman Lears. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Mr. Coleman later said of the series: “It had a very strange, offbeat type of humor, the key to which was playing it straight.” This, he added, is where I got into this type of character.

It was also, he says, that his jet-black mustache became an indispensable accessory to his retinue of unsavory characters. Everything changed when he grew a mustache, he later said. Without it, I looked like Richard Nixon.

If he was about to be typecast as an unrepentant thug, he made the most of it. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was critically acclaimed but never a real success (neither was its follow-up, Forever Fernwood, in which Mr. Coleman reprized his role). But Colin Higgins' 1980 ensemble comedy, 9 to 5, was a box office success and a breakthrough in Mr. Coleman's career.

His character, the boss of the office workers played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, was as has been said more than once in the film, including by Mr. Coleman himself in a fantasy sequence, a sexist bigot, selfish, lying and hypocrite. . In The Times' 9 to 5 review, Vincent Canby wrote that Mr. Coleman, playing a crazy villain, gave the film's funniest performance.

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