Actor Exceled at Playing 'Caustic, Cynical' Characters

Dabney Coleman's roles included the boss in '9 to 5'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 17, 2024 5:40 PM CDT
Dabney Coleman's Specialty Was Unlikeable Characters
FILE - Dabney Coleman appears on the set of "Courting Alex" at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, Calif., on Jan. 25, 2006. Coleman, the mustachioed character actor who specialized in smarmy villains like the chauvinist boss in "9 to 5" and the nasty TV director in "Tootsie," died Thursday, May 16, 2024,...   (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Dabney Coleman, the mustachioed character actor who specialized in smarmy villains like the chauvinist boss in 9 to 5 and the nasty TV director in Tootsie, has died. He was 92. Coleman died Thursday, his daughter, Quincy Coleman, told the Hollywood Reporter. No other details were immediately available. "The great Dabney Coleman literally created, or defined, really—in a uniquely singular way—an archetype as a character actor. He was so good at what he did it's hard to imagine movies and television of the last 40 years without him," Ben Stiller wrote on X, per the AP.

For two decades, Coleman labored in movies and TV shows as a talented but largely unnoticed performer. That changed in 1976 when he was cast as the incorrigibly corrupt mayor of the hamlet of Fernwood in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satirical soap opera that was so over the top no network would touch it. Producer Norman Lear finally managed to syndicate the show, which starred Louise Lasser in the title role. It became a cult favorite. Coleman's character, Mayor Merle Jeeter, was especially popular, and his masterful, comic deadpan delivery did not go overlooked by film and network executives. Coleman went on to numerous popular films, in roles including a stressed-out computer scientist in War Games, Tom Hanks' father in You've Got Mail, and a firefighting official in The Towering Inferno.

He won a Golden Globe for The Slap Maxwell Story and an Emmy Award for best supporting actor in Sworn to Silence. Recent credits include Ray Donovan and Boardwalk Empire, for which he won two Screen Actors Guild Awards. In the groundbreaking 1980 hit 9 to 5, he was the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss who tormented his unappreciated female underlings—Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton—until they turned the tables on him. Coleman called the Jeeter role a turning point. "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," he said. "I was pretty good at doing that."

(More obituary stories.)

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