Tuesday 21 May 2024

In memoriam: Dabney Coleman (Telegraph 19/05/24)

Dabney Coleman
, who has died aged 92, was a comic actor renowned for his portrayal of blustering authority figures, typified by two choice early Eighties roles that sealed his image in the popular imagination: the corporate chauvinist outmanoeuvred by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5 (1980) and the sexist, bottom-spanking director in Tootsie (1982).

Tall, balding and moustachioed, he became vulnerable to typecasting as an officious jerk – what fans called “the man you love to hate” – but Coleman always insisted he had no problems taking on such villainy: “I’ve played good guys and nice guys, but the truth is I’d rather be nasty than nice. The bad guys are always better written and more fun to play.”

He had been working in film and television for two decades before 9 to 5 pushed him into the limelight via the role of Franklin Hart Jr., vice president of the fictional Consolidated Companies – and living embodiment of every egregiously well-connected wretch to have occupied a corner office. “You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda’s Judy tells him, amid the turning of tables. “So I have a few faults,” Hart smarmily shrugs. “Who doesn’t?”

Despite the fractious onscreen drama, the shoot was harmonious: “[My recollection] is how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. All of ‘em were well-established… And here’s this guy coming off late-night TV. All three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it. Status-wise and talent-wise, they all made me feel extremely secure and were very supportive.”

Fonda even invited Coleman to play her fiancé in her next film, a passion project titled On Golden Pond (1981): “She said, ‘Well, look, this is just gonna be a little movie, no one’s gonna make any money… We’re not paying anything big, but I just want to do this because I think my dad might have a shot at an Academy Award with this part.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t care what your motives are, but I definitely want to do this. I disagree with you, though. I think it’s gonna make a lot of money. I think it’s a great movie. But whether it does or not, I want to do this movie.’”

As Coleman recalled, the shoot was “one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had”: “Because there were several people going through stuff on that film, including Jane and her dad, who were literally going through exactly what the script was about… [Director] Mark Rydell was going through a bad time, I was going through a bad time, marital-wise, as was one of the key crew guys, either the cameraman or the assistant director. It was a very, very sentimental set... But then, lo and behold, damned if we don’t see Jane and Henry connect for the first time in their lives.”

The reviews were glowing, in a qualified way. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby labelled it “American cheese”, while insisting “its stars add more than colour to this pasteurized product. On Golden Pond now has the bite of a good old cheddar.” The film ran away with the Christmas box office, and at the following March’s Oscars, Fonda senior did indeed win his first acting Oscar.

Coleman returned to more familiar comic territory for Tootsie, albeit in a different role to that originally envisaged. Screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal had written the role of the crossdressing hero’s agent George Fields with Coleman in mind; yet after star Dustin Hoffman persuaded director Sydney Pollack to play Fields, Coleman was reassigned as the boorish onscreen director Ron Carlisle, who drives Jessica Lange’s actress Julie into the arms of Hoffman’s Michael.

By this point, Carlisle was a role Coleman could almost have played in his sleep, yet boosted by a behind-the-scenes array of comic savvy – including uncredited script contributions from Elaine May and Barry Levinson – the film became an even bigger hit than 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond put together, grossing $240m off a $21m budget; it was nominated for nine Oscars, with Lange the only winner on the night, but proved exactly the kind of zeitgeist-seizing project that boosts everybody’s visibility.

Including Coleman, who found himself set for a lengthy career playing the bloviating meanie, a persona he maintained was many leagues removed from his actual self: “I maintain that you have a head start playing the opposite of who you really are. Because you know what the opposite is. Somehow you know a little bit better. Especially if comedy is involved.”

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born in Austin, Texas on January 3, 1932, the youngest of four children to military veteran Melvin Coleman and his wife Mary (née Wharton). His father died of pneumonia shortly thereafter, although his influence continued to be felt. At 17, the young Dabney was packed off for two years of training at the Virginia Military Institute, followed by a spell in the US Marine Corps reserve, where he made lieutenant-colonel despite – by his own admission – using this European jaunt chiefly to play tennis.

He began studying law at the University of Texas, although a chance meeting with fellow Austinite turned Hollywood star Zachary Scott persuaded him to redirect his energies; the following day, Coleman flew out to New York to study under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. (Upon arrival, Meisner reportedly told him “You’re ideal for us. You’ve lived some.”)

He made his TV debut worrying about his waistline in a 1960 advertisement for Diet Delight canned fruit, before booking a role on crime anthology Naked City in 1961. Thereafter he was a beneficiary of American television’s tendency to recycle less recognisable actors: he played two different roles on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963-64) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-67), three on The Outer Limits (1964) and four on The Fugitive (1964-66).

His big-screen debut came alongside Sidney Poitier in The Slender Thread (1965), directed by a pre-Tootsie Sydney Pollack, himself debuting behind the camera: “He was my teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse… and we had become fast friends after that. When I got out of school, I said, ‘I want to be in every movie you make’. And he said, ‘Okay’, and we got off to a pretty good start.” Further roles followed in Pollack’s The Scalphunters (1968), as Robert Redford’s ski coach in Downhill Racer (1969) and alongside Elvis in The Trouble with Girls (1969). 

Yet the Coleman persona arguably only cohered after he grew a pencil moustache for his role as a police sergeant in a 1973 episode of Columbo; thereafter, he found himself cast in authority roles with greater regularity. He was a fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974), a young Murr Arnold in Midway (1976), a hissable politico – sign of things to come – on TV’s Mary Hartman (1976-77), a judge in Jonathan Demme’s cult comedy Melvin and Howard (1980), and the knowingly named religious huckster Marvin Fleece in Pray TV (1980).

Having established himself as a certain type, Coleman worked regularly through the 1980s and 90s. He earned his first Golden Globe nomination as the outspoken talk-show host Bill Bittinger on the well-reviewed but short-lived NBC sitcom Buffalo Bill (1983-84); he sportingly allowed the Muppets to run rings around him as a Broadway huckster in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984); and he sparred with Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and Dragnet (1987).

He won his one and only Emmy as a washed-up lawyer defending Liam Neeson’s serial killer in the based-on-true-events TV movie Sworn to Silence (1987), and was nominated again the following year for playing the old-school sportswriter hero of sitcom The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88); he lost out to Family Ties’ Michael J. Fox, but consoled himself with the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series (Comedy/Musical).

Coleman fared less well on the big screen when playing leads: neither Where the Heart Is (1990), where he played a patriarch trying to teach his ingrate kids a lesson, nor Short Time (1990), a high-concept action-comedy about a detective trying to get himself killed for the insurance payout, took with the cinemagoing public.

Chastened but unbowed, he returned to supporting work, reuniting with Tomlin and Parton on the sputtering The Beverly Hillbillies (1993); he was the philandering dad in You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Chief Quimby in the live-action Inspector Gadget (1999); and he found a solid pension plan, voicing the principal in the Disney Channel animation Recess (1997-99) and its subsequent spinoffs.

Diagnosed with macular degeneration around the millennium, he shifted into television and immediately landed more shaded dramatic material. He was central to the success of the hit legal procedural The Guardian (2001-04), which he described as “absolutely brilliant, as good as any other 10 shows I’ve ever seen”; and he lent gravitas to the scheming Commodore on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-2011), despite filming being interrupted so he could overcome throat cancer.

Away from the camera, Coleman kept up the tennis, winning many celebrity and charity tournaments; he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014, and was the subject of the documentary Not Such a Bad Guy in 2017.

His last prominent role came with a poignant flashback in the second-season finale of the wildly popular Western Yellowstone (2018-present), advising onscreen son Kevin Costner as to the fate of the family ranch (“Don’t let ‘em take it away from you, son, not a goddamn inch”). Showrunner Taylor Sheridan, who’d acted alongside Coleman in The Guardian almost two decades before, told press: “He was such a gifted, giving actor and I was really struck by how good he was, and how kind he was to this kid who was guest starring on his deal.”

He married twice, to Ann Courtney Harrell and then the actress Jean Hale; both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, and two daughters and a son from his second.

Dabney Coleman, born January 3, 1932, died May 16, 2024.

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