Dabney Coleman, Hollywood's Funniest Mean Boss, Never Lost His ...

26 days ago
Dabney Coleman

Dabney Coleman may have left the Lone Star State for Hollywood (by way of New York) early in his career. But his Texas twang was a part of almost every role.

The Austin-born actor who played the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss in 1980’s 9 to 5, died at his home in California on May 16 at the age of 92. With a career that spanned six decades and included almost two hundred movie and television appearances, Coleman often brought an authentic Texas twang to his mostly comedic roles—even if it was overshadowed in the iconic office caper 9 to 5 by the thick drawl of Dolly Parton’s secretary character, Doralee Rhodes, as she and her colleagues, played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, sought revenge on Consolidated Companies’ lecherous autocrat Franklin Hart Jr.

Coleman also is remembered for creating another of the decade’s quintessential workplace villains; in 1982 he played chauvinist soap opera director Ron Carlisle in Tootsie, alongside leading man (and woman) Dustin Hoffman as well as Jessica Lange and Teri Garr.

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born January 3, 1932, the youngest of four siblings, in the Texas capital. After spending much of his childhood in Corpus Christi, Coleman attended the Virginia Military Institute and then the University of Texas at Austin. During an interview with Texas Monthly in 2000, he admitted that he was not a great student and spent too much time at UT in the pursuit of women or playing ping-pong at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house.

“I majored in philosophy, history, and economics—one for each year,” he said in the interview. “I finally opted for the Plan II program and then got into the law school. I did that for a year and a half, but I didn’t break any records. I don’t think I passed more than two classes.”

Shortly after marrying fellow Austinite Ann Courtney Harrell, in 1957, Coleman found himself failing out of law school. Around this time, he met Austin-born film star Zachary Scott. Their friendship proved to be life-changing for Coleman.

“I was still living in Austin when Zachary Scott, who was an old friend of my first wife’s, came over to our apartment for a drink,” Coleman told Texas Monthly in the 2000 interview. “Believe it or not, I was smitten with becoming an actor just from that meeting. It sounds superficial, and I guess it is, but I’m very glad that it happened. The next day, I was on a plane to New York.”

In the Big Apple, Coleman enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse acting workshop and soon made his ignominious television debut as a dead body on “Shadow of a Steel Horse,” a Western episode of the TV anthology series The United States Steel Hour.

Coleman married actress Jean Hale in 1961, in a union that would last for 23 years. He had a daughter from his first marriage, Meghan Coleman, and three children from his second: Quincy Coleman, Randy Coleman, and Kelly Coleman.

After he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served two years in Europe, Coleman returned to acting with a career that consisted of small parts in both television and film before he found success with box office hits, such as 9 to 5, in the eighties.

His talent for playing hilarious scoundrels came naturally to Coleman, he once claimed, because of the sharp contrast to his real life. “I maintain that you have a head start playing the opposite of who you really are,” he said. “Because you know what the opposite is. Somehow you know a little bit better. Especially if comedy is involved. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way, but that’s what I believe.”

There were serious roles, too. Coleman shared the screen with Fonda once again with an uncharacteristically sympathetic turn as her love interest in 1981’s On Golden Pond. In 1983’s WarGames he played a serious-minded computer scientist with Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and fellow Texan Barry Corbin.

Another film, 1984’s Cloak & Dagger, was shot largely in San Antonio and features the city’s River Walk in some of its most exciting scenes.

Coleman starred in popular television sitcoms Buffalo Bill, which centered around “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger, an egotistical television talk show host, and The Slap Maxwell Story, a show that featured Coleman as an equally egotistical newspaper sportswriter.

He played Tom Hanks’s father in You’ve Got Mail in 1998 and made his final television appearance in 2019 on Taylor Sheridan’s hit Western Yellowstone, playing John Dutton Sr., in a memorably emotional scene with Kevin Costner.

But slipping into the existence of miscreant men like Mr. Hart, who got his just deserts with an accidental helping of rat poison–laced Skinny N’ Sweet in 9 to 5, had a certain satisfaction, Coleman once said.

“It’s fun playing those roles,” the actor explained. “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.”

Even though Coleman made a career of playing characters that audiences loved to hate, that joy was contagious—and you can hear it in his voice.

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