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Actor Dabney Coleman, who specialised in curmudgeons, dies aged 92

Actor Dabney Coleman has died (Nick Ut/AP)
Actor Dabney Coleman has died (Nick Ut/AP)

Dabney Coleman, the moustachioed character actor who specialised in smarmy villains like the chauvinist boss in 9 to 5 and the nasty TV director in Tootsie, has died aged 92.

Coleman died on Thursday, his daughter, Quincy Coleman, told The Hollywood Reporter.

“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, formerly Twitter.

For two decades Coleman laboured in movies and TV shows as a talented but largely unnoticed performer. That changed abruptly 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 quickly became a cult favourite.

Obit Dabney Coleman
Dabney Coleman at his home in California in 1991 (Julie Markes/AP)

Coleman’s character, mayor Merle Jeeter, was especially popular and his masterful, comic deadpan delivery did not go overlooked by film and network executives.

A six-footer with an ample black moustache, Coleman went on to make his mark in numerous popular films, including as a stressed computer scientist in War Games, Tom Hanks’ father in You’ve Got Mail and a fire-fighting official in The Towering Inferno.

He won a Golden Globe for The Slap Maxwell Story and an Emmy Award for best supporting actor in Peter Levin’s 1987 small screen legal drama Sworn to Silence.

Some of his recent credits include Ray Donovan and a recurring role on 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.

In 1981, he was Fonda’s caring, well-mannered boyfriend, who asks her father (played by her real-life father, Henry Fonda) if he can sleep with her during a visit to her parents’ holiday home in On Golden Pond.

Opposite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, he was the obnoxious director of a daytime soap opera that Hoffman’s character joins by pretending to be a woman.

Among Coleman’s other films were North Dallas Forty, Cloak And Dagger, Dragnet, Meet The Applegates, Inspector Gadget and Stuart Little.

He reunited with Hoffman as a land developer in Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Coleman’s obnoxious characters did not translate quite as well on television, where he starred in a handful of network comedies.

Although some became cult favourites, only one lasted longer than two seasons, and some critics questioned whether a series starring a lead character with absolutely no redeeming qualities could attract a mass audience.

Buffalo Bill (1983-84) was a good example. It starred Coleman as Buffalo Bill Bittinger, the smarmy, arrogant, dimwitted daytime talk show host who, unhappy at being relegated to the small-time market of Buffalo, New York, takes it out on everyone around him.

Although smartly written and featuring a fine ensemble cast, it lasted only two seasons.

Obit Dabney Coleman
Dabney Coleman on the set of Courting Alex in 2006 (Reed Saxon/AP)

Another was 1987’s The Slap Maxwell Story, in which Coleman was a failed small-town sportswriter trying to save a faltering marriage while wooing a beautiful young reporter on the side.

Other failed attempts to find a mass TV audience included Apple Pie, Drexell’s Class (in which he played an inside trader) and Madman Of The People, another newspaper show in which he clashed this time with his younger boss, who was also his daughter.

He fared better in a co-starring role in The Guardian (2001-2004), which had him playing the father of a crooked lawyer. And he enjoyed the voice role as Principal Prickly on the Disney animated series Recess from 1997-2003.

Underneath all that bravura was a reserved man. Coleman insisted he was really quite shy.

“I’ve been shy all my life. Maybe it stems from being the last of four children, all of them very handsome, including a brother who was Tyrone Power-handsome. Maybe it’s because my father died when I was four,” he told The Associated Press in 1984.

“I was extremely small, just a little guy who was there, the kid who created no trouble. I was attracted to fantasy, and I created games for myself.”

As he aged, he also began to put his mark on pompous authority figures, notably in 1998’s My Date With The President’s Daughter, in which he was not only an egotistical, self-absorbed president of the United States, but also a clueless father to a teenager girl.

Dabney Coleman, his real name, was born in 1932 in Austin, Texas.

After two years at the Virginia Military Academy, two at the University of Texas and two in the army, he was a 26-year-old law student when he met another Austin native, Zachry Scott, who starred in Mildred Pierce and other films.

“He was the most dynamic person I’ve ever met. He convinced me I should become an actor, and I literally left the next day to study in New York. He didn’t think that was too wise, but I made my decision,” Coleman told The AP in 1984.

Early credits included such TV shows as Ben Casey, Dr Kildare, The Outer Limits, Bonanza, The Mod Squad and the film The Towering Inferno.

He appeared on Broadway in 1961 in A Call On Kuprin. He played Kevin Costner’s father on Yellowstone.

Twice divorced, Coleman is survived by four children, Meghan, Kelly, Randy and Quincy.