Dabney Coleman, ‘9 to 5’ Star Who Made a Career Out of Playing Jerks, Dies at 92

Dabney Coleman, the popular comic actor from 9 to 5, Tootsie and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman whose many redeeming qualities including a knack for portraying characters who had none, has died. He was 92.

Coleman died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, his daughter, singer Quincy Coleman, told The Hollywood Reporter.

“My father crafted his time here on Earth with a curious mind, a generous heart and a soul on fire with passion, desire and humor that tickled the funny bone of humanity,” she said. “As he lived, he moved through this final act of his life with elegance, excellence and mastery.

“A teacher, a hero and a king, Dabney Coleman is a gift and blessing in life and in death as his spirit will shine through his work, his loved ones and his legacy … eternally.”

The Emmy-winning actor also portrayed an irascible talk show host in upstate New York on NBC’s Buffalo Bill, but that critical favorite lasted just 26 episodes.

He had at least three other cracks at headlining his own sitcom, but ABC’s The Slap Maxwell Story, Fox’s Drexell’s Class and NBC’s Madman of the People never made it through their first seasons before being canceled.

More recently, the good-natured Coleman brought along his signature mustache to play Burton Fallin, the owner of a law firm and father of Simon Baker’s character, on the CBS drama The Guardian; was Atlantic City power broker Commodore Louis Kaestner on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire; and played John Dutton Sr. (the father of Kevin Costner’s character) on Yellowstone.

Audiences got an early taste of the Texan’s cantankerous charms in 1976 when Coleman appeared as the feisty Fernwood, Ohio, mayor Merle Jeeter on Norman Lear‘s late-night soap-opera satire, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

In a 2012 interview with The A.V. Club, Coleman called that gig, which was supposed to last just six episodes, “the turning point in my career” and “probably the best thing I ever did.”

Jeeter “was just wonderful, just a once-in-a-lifetime character,” he said. “He was just the worst human being. … That’s kind of where it all started, as far as people’s belief that I could do comedy, particularly that negative, caustic, cynical kind of guy. I was pretty good at doing that.”

Coleman proved it again as the chauvinistic, backstabbing boss Franklin Hart Jr. in the workplace comedy 9 to 5, the 1980 cinematic paragon of women’s lib that starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and, in her movie debut, Dolly Parton. (For being such a rotten guy, Hart winds up getting hogtied by his secretary, Parton’s Doralee Rhodes.)

“All of ’em were well-established,” he said of his co-stars, “and here’s this guy coming off of Mary Hartman, which is not too shabby. (Laughs.) But it was late-night TV. Anyway, what I’m alluding to is that all three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it.”

Dabney Coleman and Dolly Parton in 1980’s ‘9 to 5.’ 0th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection

In Tootsie (1982), directed by his longtime friend and mentor Sydney Pollack, Coleman played the sexist TV director who’s dating an actress (Jessica Lange) on his soap opera, Southwest General.

Years earlier, Pollack had been his teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and Coleman’s first three movies were Pollack’s first as a director as well.

Coleman also played the aptly named televangelist Marvin Fleece in the satire Pray TV (1980), the systems engineer overseeing the military mainframe WOPR in John Badham’s WarGames (1983) and the miserly banker Milburn Drysdale in the 1993 movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Asked by Vulture in 2010 if he was proud to have helped make television “safe for jerky lead characters,” he replied: “It’s fun playing those roles. You get to do outlandish things, things that you want to do, probably, in real life, but you just don’t because you’re a civilized human being. There are no-holds-barred when you’re playing [jerks] — I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving playing those parts.”

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born on Jan. 3, 1932, in Austin, the youngest of four children. After his father died of pneumonia when he was 4, his mother raised the family in Corpus Christi, and Coleman became a nationally ranked junior tennis player.

He attended the Virginia Military Institute (many in his family did) for two years, served in the U.S. Army’s Special Services Division for two more and then, back in Austin, studied law at the University of Texas.

Mildred Pierce actor Zachary Scott, a family friend of Coleman’s first wife, Ann Harrell, convinced him that he could be an actor, so he left college a semester short of graduation and headed for Manhattan and Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse at age 26.

Coleman’s first onscreen speaking appearance came on a 1961 episode of Naked City — he earned $90 for that — and he and his second wife, actress Jean Hale (the Mad Hatter’s fetching moll on Batman), moved to Los Angeles in 1962.

Coleman appeared on such shows as Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Outer Limits, Hazel, I Dream of Jeannie and The Fugitive before recurring as Marlo Thomas’ neighbor, the obstetrician Leon Bessemer, on the first season (1966-67) of That Girl.

He auditioned for Gilligan’s Island but lost the role of the Professor to Russell Johnson.

In 1963, Coleman had appeared on an episode of the ABC hospital drama Breaking Point that Pollack helmed, and the two would reunite for the movies The Slender Thread (1965), This Property Is Condemned (1966) — though his scenes were cut — and The Scalphunters (1968).

“The idea at that time, when I got out of school, was that I said, ‘I want to be in every movie you make,’ ” Coleman recalled. “He said, ‘OK,’ and we got off to a pretty good start.”

In Cinderella Liberty (1973), he worked with another former Neighborhood Playhouse cohort, James Caan, playing his commanding officer.

Around that time, the blue-eyed Coleman decided to grow a mustache, which he said turned around his career. “Without the mustache, I looked too much like Richard Nixon,” he told Vulture. “There’s no question that when I grew that, all of a sudden, everything changed.”

Producers told him that they would give him the part of Jeeter if he shaved the ‘stache, but he refused — and they hired him anyway. He played the mayor on 148 episodes of Mary Hartman as well as on the spinoffs Fernwood Tonight and Forever Fernwood.

On the Disney animated series Recess and its spinoffs, Coleman provided the grating voice of Principal Peter Prickly.

Working alongside Fonda on 9 to 5 led him to one of his rare non-boorish roles — as her dentist boyfriend in On Golden Pond (1981).

As a leading man, Coleman was hilarious in Short Time (1990), in which he played a police officer diagnosed with a terminal disease who learns his daughter can only collect his pension if he’s killed in the line of duty. His madcap determination to get himself offed, combined with his dismay at invariably winning commendations for “valor,” was memorable.

Coleman also portrayed an over-the-top oddball in How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980), a lisping pornographer in Dragnet (1987) and a slimy drag queen in Meet the Applegates (1990).

His voluminous credits include the films The Trouble With Girls (1969), Downhill Racer (1969), The Towering Inferno (1974), North Dallas Forty (1979), Melvin & Howard (1980), Modern Problems (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Cloak & Dagger (1984), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), There Goes the Neighborhood (1992), Amos & Andrew (1993), Clifford (1994), Devil’s Food (1996), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Inspector Gadget (1999), Stuart Little (1999), Moonlight Mile (2002), Domino (2005) and Rules Don’t Apply (2016).

Coleman won a supporting actor Emmy in 1987 for his work on the ABC telefilm Sworn to Silence and was nominated twice for playing Buffalo Bill Bittinger and once for his turn as old-school sportswriter Slap Maxwell.

When he wasn’t working, Coleman invariably could be found at Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood, where a hefty New York steak is named for him. “I presume it’s to do with the fact that I ordered the damned thing five times a week for about 15 years,” he said in his A.V. Club chat.

In addition to Quincy, survivors include his other children, Randy, Kelly and Meghan, and his grandchildren, Hale, Gabe, Luie, Kai and Coleman.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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