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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, an award-winning television and film actor best known for his exaggerated portrayals of talkative, egocentric characters, died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 92 years old.

His daughter Quincy Coleman confirmed the death to the New York Times but did not cite the cause.

Coleman was equally adept at comedy and drama, but he received his greatest acclaim for his comedic work – notably in the 1980 film “9 to 5”, in which he played a thoroughly despicable boss, and in the 1983-84 NBC sitcom “Buffalo Bill.” “, in which he played the unscrupulous host of a television talk show in Buffalo, New York.

At a time when antiheroic leads, with the outsized exception of Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker, were rare in television comedies, Coleman's distinctly antiheroic Bill Bittinger in “Buffalo Bill” was an exception. A profile of Coleman in Rolling Stone called Bill “the ne'er-do-well of our times, a playful and wicked combination of G. Gordon Liddy and Groucho Marx.” (“He must be doing something terrible,” Bill's station manager said about him in one episode. “It's in his blood.”)

Coleman's manic and acerbic performance was widely praised and earned him Emmy nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy in 1983 and 1984. In his review of “Buffalo Bill” in The Times, John J. O'Connor stated that Coleman “manages to bring in a range of unexpected colors”. to his performance” and called him “the kind of gifted actor who always seems on the verge of stardom.” But the ratings were disappointing and “Buffalo Bill” only lasted 26 episodes.

Coleman revisited the formula in 1987 with the ABC sitcom “The Slap Maxwell Story,” in which he played a similar character, this time an outspoken sports writer for a struggling newspaper. He received another Emmy nomination for his performance and won a Golden Globe. But low ratings, this time combined with friction between Coleman and producer Jay Tarses (who, with Tom Patchett, had created “Buffalo Bill”), led to its demise after just one season.

Coleman continued to play iterations of what had become his iconic character in two other sitcoms, but with frustrating success: the 1991-92 Fox series “Drexell's Class,” in which he was a convicted corporate raider. charges of tax evasion and who accepts an offer of community service through primary school teaching in lieu of a prison sentence; and the 1994 NBC series “Madman of the People,” in which he was an old-school magazine columnist who clashed with his editor, who happened to be his daughter.

That show had an enviable time slot — it followed television's most popular show, “Seinfeld,” on the Thursday night schedule — but it, too, was short-lived, canceled after 16 episodes.

Without necessarily explaining why all of these shows failed, Coleman, in a 1994 interview with The Times, highlighted what he saw as a recurring problem with his sitcom plans. “Sometimes writers write poorly for me,” he said. “They usually try to be funny. I'm trying to make a joke. And that's not what I do, you know. These are not jokes; they are not words. It's acting. It's funny to act.

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born on January 3, 1932, in Austin, Texas, to Melvin and Mary Coleman. He was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas by his mother after his father died of pneumonia when Coleman was 4 years old.

He attended the Virginia Military Institute from 1949 to 1951, then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied business. He was drafted into the Army in 1953 and served two years in Germany in the Special Services Division.

In 1958, he decided to pursue a career in acting. He went to New York to study at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse.

In 1961, a year after graduating, he appeared on Broadway in the spy drama “A Call on Kuprin.” Although it was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, whose credits included “Auntie Mame” and “Inherit the Wind,” and directed by Broadway veteran George Abbott, it only lasted 12 representations. This would be Coleman's only Broadway credit.

But Hollywood beckoned.

In 1962, Coleman moved to California, where he began his television career working as a journeyman on shows like “Armstrong Circle Theater” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” His first film, in 1965, was also Sydney Pollack's first as director: “The Slender Thread,” a suspense drama starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.

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 Lear. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

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, was “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 would say later. “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 was never a real success (and neither was its sequel, “Forever Fernwood,” in which Coleman reprized her role). But Colin Higgins' 1980 ensemble comedy, “9 to 5,” was a box office success and a breakthrough in Coleman's career.

His character, the boss of office workers played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, was — as was said several times in the film, including by Coleman himself in a fantasy sequence — a “sexist, selfish, liar, hypocrite.” bigot.” Reviewing “9 to 5” in the Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Coleman, playing a “crazy villain,” gave “the funniest performance in the film.”

Coleman would go on to play characters that audiences loved to hate, including the misogynistic soap opera director in “Tootsie” (1982). But he also gave more nuanced performances, for example as a judge in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), as the love interest of Fonda's character in “On Golden Pond” (1981), and as computer scientist harassed in “WarGames” (1983). . And although he remained best known for his comedy, the only Emmy he won (he was nominated six times) was for a dramatic role, that of a scruffy lawyer in the 1987 TV movie “Sworn to Silence “.

In the 1990s, he appeared occasionally in high-profile films, such as the big screen version of “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1993) and the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan hit “You've Got Mail” (1998). But television was his priority for the rest of his career.

Coleman played lawyers on two CBS series: the legal drama “The Guardian,” from 2001 to 2004, and the sitcom “Courting Alex,” which lasted only 13 episodes in 2006. (His character in both series was the father of the protagonist – Simon Baker in “The Guardian,” Jenna Elfman in “Courting Alex.”) He also appeared in the first two seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” the acclaimed HBO drama series set in Atlantic City , New Jersey, during the Prohibition era, as the mentor of the corrupt politician played by Steve Buscemi.

In 2011, as production approached the second season of “Boardwalk Empire,” it was discovered that Coleman was suffering from throat cancer; his scenes were shot quickly, to allow time for his treatment and recovery. He returned to the series at the end of the season, when his character was finally murdered.

In recent years, he has been seen in episodes of “Ray Donovan,” “NCIS” and “Yellowstone.”

Coleman's first marriage, to Ann Harrell, ended in divorce in 1959, after two years. In 1961, he married actress Carol Jean Hale; they divorced in 1983. Besides his daughter Quincy, he is survived by his children Meghan, Kelly and Randy; a sister, Beverly Coleman; and five grandchildren.

In a 2010 interview with New York Magazine, Coleman reflected with pleasure on the gallery of scoundrels he had played over the years.

“It’s fun to play these roles,” he said. “You can do extravagant things; things you probably want to do in real life, but you just don't because you're a civilized human being.


This article was originally published in The New York Times.




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