Actor Dabney Coleman, famed for his five-decade career of playing obnoxious comedic roles, dies at 92

Dabney Coleman, the mustachioed character actor known for his roles as smarmy villains such as the chauvinist boss in “9 to 5” and the nasty TV director in “Tootsie,” has passed away at the age of 92.

Coleman died peacefully at his home in Santa Monica on Thursday, according to a statement from his daughter, Quincy Coleman, to The Associated Press. She noted that he “took his last earthly breath peacefully and exquisitely.”

“The great Dabney Coleman literally created, or defined, really – in a uniquely singular way – an archetype as a character actor. He was so good at what he did it’s hard to imagine movies and television of the last 40 years without him,” Ben Stiller wrote on X.

For two decades, Coleman worked in movies and TV shows as a talented yet largely unnoticed performer. His big break came in 1976 when he was cast as the corrupt mayor of Fernwood in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a satirical soap opera so bold that no network would initially air it.

Producer Norman Lear eventually managed to syndicate the show, which starred Louise Lasser in the title role. It quickly became a cult favorite. Coleman’s portrayal of Mayor Merle Jeeter, with his masterful comic deadpan delivery, gained significant attention from film and network executives, catapulting his career to new heights.

Standing at six feet tall with a distinctive black mustache, Dabney Coleman left a lasting impression in numerous popular films. He portrayed a stressed-out computer scientist in “War Games,” Tom Hanks’ father in “You’ve Got Mail,” and a firefighting official in “The Towering Inferno.”

Coleman won a Golden Globe for “The Slap Maxwell Story” and an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Peter Levin’s 1987 TV legal drama “Sworn to Silence.” His more recent credits include roles in “Ray Donovan” and a recurring part on “Boardwalk Empire,” for which he won two Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In the groundbreaking 1980 hit “9 to 5,” Coleman played the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss who tormented his female employees—played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton—until they turned the tables on him.

In 1981’s “On Golden Pond,” he took on the role of Jane Fonda’s caring, well-mannered boyfriend who asks her father (played by her real-life father, Henry Fonda) for permission to sleep with her during a visit to her parents’ vacation home.

Opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” Coleman portrayed the obnoxious director of a daytime soap opera that Hoffman’s character joins by pretending to be a woman. Coleman’s other notable films include “North Dallas Forty,” “Cloak and Dagger,” “Dragnet,” “Meet the Applegates,” “Inspector Gadget,” and “Stuart Little.” He reunited with Hoffman as a land developer in Brad Silberling’s “Moonlight Mile” alongside Jake Gyllenhaal.

Coleman’s knack for playing obnoxious characters didn’t translate as well to television, where he starred in several network comedies that struggled to gain traction. Despite some becoming cult favorites, only one lasted more than two seasons. Critics questioned whether a series with a lead character devoid of redeeming qualities could appeal to a broad audience.

A prime example was “Buffalo Bill” (1983-84), where Coleman played “Buffalo Bill” Bittinger, a smarmy, arrogant, and dimwitted daytime talk show host frustrated by his small-time market in Buffalo, New York, and taking it out on everyone around him. Despite smart writing and a strong ensemble cast, the show lasted only two seasons.

In 1987’s “The Slap Maxwell Story,” Coleman starred as a failed small-town sportswriter trying to save his faltering marriage while pursuing a beautiful young reporter.

Other attempts to find a mass TV audience included “Apple Pie,” “Drexell’s Class” (where he played an insider trader), and “Madman of the People,” another newspaper-themed show where he clashed with his younger boss, who was also his daughter.

Coleman found more success co-starring in “The Guardian” (2001-2004), where he played the father of a crooked lawyer. He also enjoyed a successful voice role as Principal Prickly on the Disney animated series “Recess” from 1997 to 2003.

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