Dabney Coleman obituary

Estimated read time 4 min read

In the 1980 office comedy hit film 9 to 5, Jane Fonda, as one of three long-suffering office workers subjected to endless harassment by their male chauvinist boss, played by Dabney Coleman, eventually gets to call him a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot”, albeit in her imagination. These epithets could apply to a majority of the many roles played by Coleman, who has died aged 92.

With thinning hair and a fleshy, seemingly friendly face, adorned more often than not with a sly moustache, Coleman made his long career portraying deceptively ordinary, slippery bastards. He played “the man you love to hate” in both dramas and comedies in a similar straight fashion.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman in 9 to 5, 1980.View image in fullscreen

As the obnoxious Mr Hart, on whom the sisterhood of Dolly Parton, Fonda and Lily Tomlin wreak their revenge in 9 to 5, Coleman defined the authoritative, arrogant and misogynistic archetype of a generation.

It was through his theatre school friendship with the director Sydney Pollack that Coleman had his break, in Pollack’s motion picture debut The Slender Thread (1965), starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. Pollack also gave Coleman roles in three of his further films: This Property Is Condemned (1966), The Scalphunters (1968) and Tootsie (1982). In the third of these, he is reliably unpleasant as the sexist soap opera director who makes a pass at TV star Dorothy Michaels (Dustin Hoffman).

Born in Austin, Texas, Dabney was the son of Mary (nee Johns) and Melvin Coleman, a cotton grower who died when he was four.

He entered the Virginia Military Institute in 1949. After being called up in 1953 to the US Army and serving in Europe, Coleman studied law at the University of Texas, where he did some acting before, on the advice of the Hollywood actor and fellow Texan Zachary Scott, enrolling at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York. There, he studied acting under Sanford Meisner and struck up a friendship with Pollack.

Starting out on the big screen, Coleman played a sleazy merchant in The Trouble With Girls (1969), starring Elvis Presley; a deputy fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974); and ski coach to Jill Kinmont (Marilyn Hassett) in The Other Side of the Mountain (1975), an account of the disabled skier’s life.

However, before 9 to 5 propelled him from a supporting actor into an occasional leading man, he was most celebrated in the spoof television soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77), as Merle Jeeter, a sleazy politician.

Post-Tootsie, he returned to television as a leading man, and soon found his niche in several other miniseries, such as Buffalo Bill (1983-84), in which he played the arrogant talkshow host Bill Bittinger. Despite the unsympathetic title role, Coleman managed to reveal the character’s vulnerability, and received Emmy nominations for his sensitive performance.

His leading role in The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88), in which he highlighted another aspect of his macho screen persona as a reactionary sports writer, won him another Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe.

Back on the big screen, he tapped into his ability to express sharp-edged humour in the popular but improbable Short Time (1990), starring as a policeman who, months away from retirement, thinks he has a terminal illness and tries to take advantage of his pension by attempting to get killed on duty. In the same year he appeared in drag – his signature moustache notwithstanding – in the wacky Meet the Applegates.

Dabney Coleman, left, playing a more sympathetic role as Jane Fonda’s boyfriend opposite her father, Henry Fonda, in On Golden Pond, 1981.View image in fullscreen

Among his numerous other movie roles were an against-type sympathetic boyfriend to Fonda opposite her father, Henry Fonda, in On Golden Pond (1981), a computer scientist in WarGames (1983), the skinflint banker Milburn Drysdale in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and police chief Quimby in Inspector Gadget (1999).

On television again for the latter part of his career, Coleman shone as an unscrupulous newspaper columnist in Madman of the People (1994-95), a high-class lawyer in The Guardian (2001-04) and an Atlantic City power broker in Boardwalk Empire (2010-11).

Coleman was married and divorced twice, first to Ann Courtney Harrell (from 1957 to 1959), and then to the actor Jean Hale (from 1961 to 1983). He is survived by four children, Quincy, Randy, Kelly and Meghan, five grandchildren, and a sister, Beverley.

Dabney Wharton Coleman, actor, born 3 January 1932; died 16 May 2024

Source: theguardian.com

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