Veteran Actor Dabney Coleman Mourned: Hollywood Reflects on Distinct Mustache and Smarmy Roles


The entertainment world is mourning the loss of Dabney Coleman, the veteran character actor known for his distinctive mustache and the deliciously smarmy roles he inhabited with such foresight and panache. Famously portraying the chauvinistic boss in “9 to 5” and the detestable TV director in “Tootsie,” Coleman died peaceful and serenely at his Santa Monica residence on a quiet Thursday afternoon, as confirmed by Quincy Coleman, his daughter.

A uniquely gifted actor, Coleman’s talent for creating character archetypes was remarked upon by Ben Stiller who stated, “It’s hard to imagine movies and television of the last 40 years without Coleman’s imprint.” His career, spread over two decades, saw him dedicating himself to myriad roles in movies and TV shows, often as an untouted yet strikingly talented performer. His fortunes took a dramatic turn in 1976 when he masterfully impersonated the irremediably corrupt mayor in the satirical soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

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Displaying expert chicanery as the Mayor of the fictitious Fernwood, Coleman’s performance caught the eye of producer Norman Lear. Lear, undeterred by the show’s outrageous content, managed to syndicate the series, transforming it into a cult favorite among viewers. As Coleman’s popularity rose through the character Mayor Merle Jeeter, film and network executives began taking notice of his knack for comedic deadpan delivery.

A tall figure with a distinctive black mustache, Coleman achieved acclaim in numerous popular films. He played a harried computer scientist in “War Games,” Tom Hanks’ father in “You’ve Got Mail,” and a firefighting official in “The Towering Inferno,” with each performance attesting to his exceptional versatility. He won accolades, including a Golden Globe for “The Slap Maxwell Story” and an Emmy Award for his performance in Peter Levin’s legal drama “Sworn to Silence.” Later, he had roles in “Ray Donovan” and “Boardwalk Empire,” winning two Screen Actors Guild Awards for the latter.

In the groundbreaking film “9 to 5,” Coleman portrayed the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss who infuriated his underappreciated female colleagues until they launched a spirited retaliation. In “On Golden Pond,” he played Jane Fonda’s considerate boyfriend. Then he appeared opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” as the unbearable daytime soap opera director.

Despite various television attempts, Coleman’s unpalatable characters were sometimes met with lukewarm response with shows rarely surpassed two seasons. However, he found relative success playing the father of a rogue lawyer in “The Guardian” (2001-2004), and he relished in his voice role in Disney’s animated series “Recess”.

Contrasting his larger-than-life on-screen persona, Coleman was a reserved man who described himself as extremely shy. “I was attracted to fantasy…I created games for myself,” he confessed in an interview in 1984.

As the years marched on, he began playing pompous authority figures, notably The President in 1998’s “My Date With The President’s Daughter.” Born in Austin, Texas in 1932, Coleman had a storied life which included stints at Virginia Military Academy and the University of Texas, and an army career, before he decided on an acting path after a chance encounter with fellow Austinite and actor Zachry Scott.

With a body of work spanning TV hits like “Ben Casey,” “The Outer Limits,” “Bonanza,” and “The Mod Squad” to notable films and Broadway appearances, Coleman’s contribution to entertainment is indelible. He is survived by his four children and his grandchildren.

As Quincy Coleman beautifully eulogized her father, “My father crafted his time here on earth with a curious mind, a generous heart, and a soul on fire with passion, desire, and humor that tickled the funny bone of humanity.”