From his breakout turn as mayor Merle Jeeter in Norman Lear’s twisted parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in 1976 Dabney Coleman has built a career on playing the smarmy comedic villain. He earned raves in the 1980 blockbuster “9 to 5” as the sleazy boss on whom, in a pioneering nod to mainstream feminism, a trio of female employees (Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) enact revenge; in 1982’s “Tootsie” he played a sexist soap opera director who gets kneed in the cojones by Dustin Hoffman in drag; and in satirical sitcom “Buffalo Bill” — cancelled in 1984 after a critically acclaimed two-season run on NBC — Coleman’s condescending, narcissistic talkshow host insulted everyone from the stage manager to Jesus.
But if Coleman, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Nov. 6, had to pick his favorite all-time antagonist, he says that it would most definitely be Jeeter, the character that helped propel the famed character actor to stardom.
“(My part) was only supposed to last six shows, but it kind of caught on,” says Coleman, who is now “feeling great” following a successful battle with throat cancer. “The part was very well written and it was just catchy, it was just a great arc. (Merle) was a comedian, a con man, so he deliberately changed his personality from time to time. And I ended up doing it for two years, and it did make my career. From that part spawned everything.”
Coleman, whose congenial Texan drawl belies the duplicitous “jerks” in his theatrical repertoire, broke type (somewhat, at least) throughout the years, from a supporting role as Fonda’s fiance in “On Golden Pond” in 1981 to his performance as a military computer scientist in “War Games” in 1982 to a double role as a distracted single dad-international spy in the 1984 fantasy-adventure pic “Cloak & Dagger.” He won the Emmy for supporting actor in Peter Levin’s 1987 smallscreen drama “Sworn to Silence.” And in his most recent role as Commodore Louis Kaestner on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” he proved the wide breadth of his range.
But if Coleman’s comedic instincts — dry, salty and aptly understated — have always seemed right on target, his sense of what movies would turn out to be box office hits (and there were many) would prove askew.
“In both ‘9 to 5’ and ‘Tootsie,’ we didn’t have a clue,” Coleman says. “We thought ‘Tootsie’ was going to be a bomb, and it went on to make, what, something like $200 million? And ‘9 to 5,’ with those little cartoons and stuff thrown in there, we thought, ‘God damn, this is a stretch.’ So we didn’t have a clue, we didn’t know. And I think, as I look back, I’m not sure the critics knew either.”
Most shocking perhaps is that while “9 to 5” was “a ball” to film — “those girls were fantastic” — Coleman’s experience shooting the Oscar-winning “Tootsie” was nothing short of maddening.
“ ‘Tootsie’ was a pain in the ass,” says Coleman. “I didn’t even want to do it. I had read the thing months before. Sydney (Pollack) was one of my best friends, and he calls me and says, ‘I need you to do this job.’ He originally wanted me to play the agent. And I said, ‘Sydney, this movie is not funny. I don’t even know why you’re doing it.’ Two weeks go by, he goes, ‘Dustin wants me to play the agent. I want you to play the director.’ And we go through the same thing. I don’t want to play the director either. And then he said the magic words, ‘Come on Dab, I’d do it for you.’ So I said OK, I’ll do it.
“And here’s the punch line. The last day I was on the show, Sydney says, quote-unquote, ‘Thank God no one will see this piece of shit.’ And it’s one of the greatest comedies of the last 50 years, there’s no question about it.”