Family & Companions
A prolific character actor whose trademark was villainous egotists and endearing curmudgeons, Dabney Coleman was a recognizable film star during the 1980s, though he was ever-present on television throughout the entirety of his five-decade career. Among Coleman's most memorable film roles was the misogynist corporate boss of empowered Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in "9 to 5" (1980), and the egomaniacal soap opera director whose sexist attitude inspired the title "Tootsie" (1982). On television, the Emmy and Golden Globe winner was among the busiest character players of the 1960s before making his mark on the "brilliant-but-canceled" soap opera spoof "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (syndicated, 1976-77) before acclaimed leading roles on the sitcom "The Slap Maxwell Story" (ABC, 1987-88), and the CBS legal drama "The Guardian" (2001-04). With his sharp comic timing and a Texas drawl that simultaneously suggested folksiness and moral laxity, the mustachioed Coleman carve out a unique career as an instantly recognizable and improbably likable screen actor.
Coleman was born Jan. 3, 1932, in Austin, TX. After a teenage stint at the Military Institute in Lexington, VA, Coleman spent two years in the service before returning to Austin and the University of Texas. He was well into earning a law degree when he changed his course, eventually earning a Drama degree from UT in 1954. In New York City, Coleman joined the up-and-comers studying Method Acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse School. During his brief period in New York, Coleman appeared in regional theater productions and debuted on Broadway in the play "A Call on Kuprin," but eventually the promise of a screen career uprooted him to Los Angeles in 1962. He quickly became a busy working actor, with guest spots on almost literally every detective show, domestic comedy, and anthology series of the day, including recurring character runs on "That Girl" (ABC, 1966-1971) and "The Fugitive" (ABC, 1963-67). From his rising television stature, Coleman landed small roles in the Sydney Pollack features "The Slender Thread" (1965) and "This Property Is Condemned" (1966), based on the Tennessee Williams' play, as well as appeared in the Elvis vehicle "The Trouble with Girls" (1969).
Kicking off the 1970s as one of the busiest guest stars on television, Coleman landed a recurring role as a doctor on the NBC soap opera "Bright Promise" (1969-1972) and held down a dizzying number of TV gigs before solidifying his famous persona in Norman Lear's innovative soap opera spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (syndicated, 1976-77). His character Merle Jeeter, the shady father of a child preacher who eventually becomes mayor of the fictional Ohio town of Fernwood, was reprised on the spin-off, "Forever Fernwood" (syndicated, 1977-78). Meanwhile, Coleman became more in-demand as a feature film character player, with supporting appearances in the disaster classic "Towering Inferno" (1974), "North Dallas Forty" (1979), and "Melvin and Howard" (1980). Coleman had 100 film and television appearances under his belt by the time he garnered his first widespread attention in the blockbuster comedy "9 to 5" (1980), in which he played the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" exec who receives a comeuppance at the hands of long-suffering employees Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
Thus began Coleman's decade in the theatrical spotlight, where he followed up with a leading role as a slick TV evangelist in the satirical "Pray TV" (1980), and supported as an unethical cop in the equally cynical comedy "How to Beat the High Co$t of Living" (1980). In 1981 Coleman re-teamed with former office torturer Jane Fonda to play a romantic couple in the landmark melodrama "On Golden Pond" (1981), before reclaiming his hold on misogynist louts in "Tootsie" (1982). Sydney Pollack's Academy Award nominee for Best Film starred Dustin Hoffman as a struggling actor who aces an audition for a female soap opera character and unwittingly becomes a role model of the modern woman - one who gives hell to her womanizing director (Coleman). From that wildly popular comedy classic, Coleman took a serious turn as a military computer programmer who must avert disaster when a teen hacker (Matthew Broderick) unintentionally ignites an international nuclear weapons incident in "WarGames" (1983).
Coleman portrayed another military man in 1984's "Cloak and Dagger," which unsuccessfully sought to capitalize on the popularity of role playing games, before starring as an egotistical, insecure talk show host on the critically lauded sitcom, "Buffalo Bill" (NBC, 1983-84). Coleman earned two Emmy nominations for his work but the series failed to take hold with audiences. He was acclaimed again in 1986 for the HBO biopic "Murrow" (HBO, 1986), earning an Ace award nomination for portraying CBS network brass William S. Paley, and the following year took home an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special for the legal drama, "Sworn to Silence" (ABC, 1987). Coleman became a regular primetime player again that year when he was cast as a curmudgeonly sportswriter in the short-lived "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" (ABC, 1987-88), which won raves and Coleman a Golden Globe for his lead. After another "evil boss" role in the forgettable Bobcat Goldthwait vehicle "Hot to Trot" (1988), Coleman gave his most ambitious performance in John Boorman's unfortunately little-seen "Where the Heart Is" (1990), as a formidable New York patriarch and demolition entrepreneur who decides to teach his pampered children the value of money.
Trying his TV hand again, Coleman was cast to star in "Drexell's Class" (Fox, 1991-92), as a fallen corporate exec-turned-cranky, middle school teacher faced with a classroom full of "amusing" tykes. Neither critics nor audiences took to this risible family sitcom, but Coleman stayed in the public eye with steady supporting film roles in comedies "Amos and Andrew" (1993) and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993), where he was the ideal choice to recreate scheming banker Mr. Drysdale, and where he again found himself bossing Lily Tomlin. Despite limited commercial success as a TV lead, Coleman went on to star in "Madman of the People" (NBC, 1994-95) as an opinionated magazine columnist who frequently clashes with his publisher-daughter. The series was one of Coleman's strongest ratings-grabbers, but after a number of shuffles around the NBC Thursday night lineup, audiences eventually lost interest in hunting it down. Coleman closed out his third decade on the screen with supporting roles in "You've Got Mail" (1998), the Hallmark Channel romantic comedy "My Date with the President's Daughter" (1998), and a reteaming with Matthew Broderick in "Inspector Gadget" (1999).
Coleman's long-running voice role as Principal Prickly on the Disney animated series "Recess" (Disney Channel, 1997-2003) led to a reprisal in the successful film spin-off "Recess: School's Out" (2001). In 2002, Coleman found more television series success on "The Guardian" (CBS, 2001-04), a dark drama surrounding a family law firm headed by Coleman and his son (Simon Baker) who battles drug problems. On film, Coleman had a memorable role as a land developer in Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile" (2002) opposite Dustin Hoffman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and adopted the "crotchety Grandpa" role in a direct-to-video remake of the family classic "Where the Red Fern Grows" in 2004. Coleman had a small role in the failed Tony Scott thriller "Domino" (2005), but remained firmly on television over the next few years, playing Jenna Elfman's father on the CBS sitcom, "Courting Alex" (2006), in a recurring role on the medical drama "Heartland" (TNT, 2007), and on Martin Scorsese's critically lauded "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO, 2010-15), a historical chronicle about the rise of Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Served two years as a member of the Army's Special Services Division
Broadway debut, "A Call on Kuprin"
Moved to Los Angeles
Screen acting debut in "The Slender Thread"
Made TV series debut in "That Girl" (ABC) as Leon Bessimer
Cast as a U.S. Olympic skiing team coach in the Robert Redford film "Downhill Racer"
First TV-movie, "The Brotherhood of the Bell" (CBS)
Played Dr. Tracy Brown on the NBC soap opera "Bright Promise"
Played Lieutenant Lloyd Daggett on the CBS drama series "Cannon"
Played a high-ranking superior to firefighter Steve McQueen in "The Towering Inferno"
First TV miniseries, "Attack on Terror: The FBI Versus the Ku Klux Klan"
Had a recurring role as Merle Jeeter, the mayor of Fernwood, on the syndicated soap spoof "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"
Reprised role of Merle Jeeter on the syndicated soap opera spoof "Forever Fernwood"
Played Fast Eddie on the short-lived ABC sitcom "Apple Pie"
Cast as Franklin Hart the 'sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot' in "Nine to Five" starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton
Played Jane Fonda's fiance in the Oscar winning film "On Golden Pond"
Played a womanizing producer in Tootsie" directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange
Played Bill Bittinger on the NBC sitcom, "Buffalo Bill"; received Emmy nomination
Played a military man in "WarGames"
First film lead, as co-star of "Cloak and Dagger"
Played title role on the ABC sitcom, "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story"
Played a magazine mogul in the comedy "Dragnet," with Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks
Received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries for "Baby M, Parts 1 & 2"
Played Otis Drexell on the FOX sitcom "Drexell's Class"
Played Police Chief Cecil Tolliver in the comedy "Amos & Andrew" starring Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson
Cast as banker Milburn Drysdale in the film version of "The Beverly Hillbillies"
Played the title role of Jack Buckner on the NBC sitcom "Madman of the People"
Played Tom Hanks' philandering father in "You've Got Mail"
Lent his voice to several episodes of the Disney Channel series "Recess," playing a character named Principal Prickly
Returned to series TV as co-star of the CBS drama "The Guardian"
Had a memorable role in Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile" opposite Dustin Hoffman and Jake Gyllenhaal
Cast in the Tony Scott directed thriller "Domino" starring Keira Knightley as Domino Harvey, a model turned bounty hunter and daughter of actor Lawrence Harvey
Cast as Jenna Elfman's father on the CBS sitcom "Courting Alex"
Cast in TNT's "Heartland" as Dr. Bart Jacobs
Cast as Commodore Louis Kaestner in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire"