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Dabney Coleman, actor audiences loved to hate, dies at 92

ROBERT HANASHIRO / USA TODAY
                                Actor Dabney Coleman died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 92.
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ROBERT HANASHIRO / USA TODAY

Actor Dabney Coleman died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 92.

Dabney Coleman, an award-winning television and movie actor best known for his over-the-top portrayals of garrulous, egomaniacal characters, died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, California. He was 92.

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 comic work — notably in the 1980 movie “9 to 5,” in which he played a thoroughly despicable boss, and the 1983-84 NBC sitcom “Buffalo Bill,” in which he starred as the unscrupulous host of a television talk show in Buffalo, New York.

At a time when antiheroic leads, with the outsize exception of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, were a rarity on television comedies, Coleman’s distinctly unlikable Bill Bittinger on “Buffalo Bill” was an exception. A profile of Coleman in Rolling Stone called Bill “a rapscallion for our times, a playfully wicked combination of G. Gordon Liddy and Groucho Marx.” (“He has to do something terrible,” Bill’s station manager said of him in one episode. “It’s in his blood.”)

Coleman’s manically acerbic performance was widely praised and gained him Emmy Award nominations as best actor in a comedy in 1983 and 1984. Reviewing “Buffalo Bill” in the Times, John J. O’Connor said Coleman “manages to bring an array of unexpected colors to his performance” and called him “the kind of gifted actor who always seems to be teetering on the verge of becoming a star.” But the ratings were disappointing, and “Buffalo Bill” ran for only 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 garnered 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 went on to play iterations of what had become his signature character on two more sitcoms, but with frustratingly little success: the 1991-92 Fox series “Drexell’s Class,” on which he was a corporate raider convicted on tax evasion charges who accepts an offer of community service via elementary school teaching in lieu of jail time; and the 1994 NBC series “Madman of the People,” on which he was an old-school magazine columnist who butted heads with his editor, who happened to be his daughter.

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

While not necessarily explaining why all those shows failed, Coleman, in a 1994 interview with the Times, pointed to what he saw as a perennial problem with his sitcom projects. “Writers write wrong for me sometimes,” he said. “They’re trying to be funny, usually. Trying to make a joke. And that’s not what I do, you know. It’s not jokes; it’s not words. It’s acting. It’s acting funny.”

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born Jan. 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 until 1951 and then transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a business major. He was drafted into the Army in 1953 and served two years in Germany in the Special Services Division.

By 1958, he had decided to pursue a career as an actor. 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.” Despite being 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 lasted only 12 performances. It would be Coleman’s only Broadway credit.

But Hollywood beckoned.

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

He remained a busy if relatively anonymous character actor for a decade after that, appearing on a wide range of both comedies and dramas on TV and in small parts in big movies 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 underhanded stage father of a child evangelist (and later the mayor of the fictional town of Fernwood), on Norman Lear’s satirical soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Coleman later said of the series, “It had a very strange, off-the-wall type of humor, the key to which was playing it straight.” It was, he added, “where I got into this type of character.”

It was also, he said, when his jet-black mustache became an indispensable accessory to his retinue of unsavory characters. “Everything changed” when he grew the mustache, he later said. “Without it, I looked like Richard Nixon.”

If he was on his way to being typecast as an unrepentant lout, he made the most of it. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was critically acclaimed but never a bona fide hit (neither was its follow-up, “Forever Fernwood,” on which Coleman reprised his role). But Colin Higgins’ 1980 ensemble comedy, “9 to 5,” was a box-office smash and Coleman’s career breakthrough.

His character, the boss of the office workers played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, was — as was said more than once in the movie, including by Coleman himself in a fantasy sequence — a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Reviewing “9 to 5” in the Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Coleman, playing a “lunatic villain,” gave “the funniest performance in the film.”

Coleman would continue to play characters audiences loved to hate, notably the misogynist soap opera director in “Tootsie” (1982). But he also gave more nuanced performances, for instance as a judge in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), the love interest of Fonda’s character in “On Golden Pond” (1981) and a harried computer scientist in “WarGames” (1983). And while he remained best known for comedy, the only Emmy he won (he was nominated six times) was for a dramatic role, as a bedraggled lawyer in the 1987 television movie “Sworn to Silence.”

In the 1990s, he occasionally turned up in high-profile films, like 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 focus 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 on both shows was the father of the protagonist — Simon Baker on “The Guardian,” Jenna Elfman on “Courting Alex.”) He also appeared on the first two seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” the acclaimed HBO drama set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the Prohibition era, as the mentor of the corrupt politician played by Steve Buscemi.

In 2011, in the run-up to production of the second season of “Boardwalk Empire,” Coleman was found to have throat cancer; his scenes were shot quickly, to allow time for his treatment and recovery. He returned to the show at the end of the season, when his character was ultimately murdered.

In recent years, he was seen on 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. In addition to 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 rapscallions he had played over the years.

“It’s fun playing those roles,” he said. “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.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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