Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (2024)

Dabney Coleman, who has died aged 92, was a comic actor renowned for his portrayal of obnoxious authority figures, typified by two choice early 1980s roles that sealed his image in the popular imagination: the corporate chauvinist outmanoeuvred by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5 (1980) and the sexist, bottom-spanking director in Tootsie (1982).

Tall, balding and moustachioed, Coleman became vulnerable to typecasting as an officious jerk – what fans called “the man you love to hate” – but he always insisted he had no problems taking on such villainy: “I’ve played good guys and nice guys, but the truth is I’d rather be nasty than nice. The bad guys are always better written and more fun to play.”

He had been working in film and television for two decades before 9 to 5 pushed him into the limelight with the role of Franklin Hart Jr, vice president of the fictional Consolidated Companies – and living embodiment of every egregiously well-connected wretch to have occupied a corner office. “You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Fonda’s Judy tells him, amid the turning of tables. “So I have a few faults,” Hart smarmily shrugs. “Who doesn’t?”

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (1)

Despite the fractious onscreen drama, the shoot was harmonious. Coleman’s abiding memory was of “how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. All of ’em were well-established… And here’s this guy coming off late-night TV. All three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal.”

Fonda even invited Coleman to play her fiancé in her next film, a passion project titled On Golden Pond (1981): “She said, ‘Well, look, this is just gonna be a little movie, no one’s gonna make any money… We’re not paying anything big, but I just want to do this because I think my dad might have a shot at an Academy Award with this part.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t care what your motives are, but I definitely want to do this. I disagree with you, though. I think it’s gonna make a lot of money. I think it’s a great movie.’”

Coleman recalled the shoot as “one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had”: “Mark Rydell [the director] was going through a bad time, I was going through a bad time, marital-wise... But then, lo and behold, damned if we don’t see Jane and Henry connect for the first time in their lives.”

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (2)

The New York Times labelled the finished film “American cheese”, while insisting “its stars add more than colour to this pasteurised product. On Golden Pond now has the bite of a good old cheddar.” On Golden Pond ran away with the Christmas box office, and at the following March’s Oscars, Fonda senior did indeed win his first acting Oscar.

Coleman returned to more familiar comic territory for Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman as a failing actor who cross-dresses to get more work. Coleman had been intended to play the hero’s agent George Fields, but after Hoffman persuaded Tootsie’s director Sydney Pollack to take on that role, Coleman was reassigned as the boorish onscreen director Ron Carlisle, who drives Jessica Lange’s actress Julie into the arms of Hoffman’s Michael.

The film became an even bigger hit than 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond put together, grossing $240m off a $21m budget, winning an Oscar for Lange and eight other nominations.

Coleman maintained that the persona of bloviating meanie was many leagues removed from his actual self: “You have a head start playing the opposite of who you really are. Because you know what the opposite is. Somehow you know a little bit better. Especially if comedy is involved.”

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (3)

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born in Austin, Texas, on January 3 1932, the youngest of four children to military veteran Melvin Coleman and his wife Mary, née Wharton. His father died soon after of pneumonia.

At 17, the young Dabney was packed off for two years at the Virginia Military Institute, followed by the US Marine Corps reserve, where he made lieutenant-colonel despite – by his own admission – using this European jaunt chiefly to play tennis.

He began studying law at the University of Texas, although a chance meeting with fellow Austinite turned Hollywood star Zachary Scott persuaded him to redirect his energies; the following day, Coleman flew out to New York to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre under Sanford Meisner, who reportedly told him: “You’re ideal for us. You’ve lived some.”

Coleman made his TV debut worrying about his waistline in a 1960 advertisem*nt for Diet Delight canned fruit, before booking a role on thecrime anthology Naked City in 1961. Thereafter he was a beneficiary of American television’s tendency to recycle less recognisable actors: he played two different roles on The Alfred Hitchco*ck Hour (1963-64) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-67), three on The Outer Limits (1964) and four on The Fugitive (1964-66).

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (4)

His big-screen debut came alongside Sidney Poitier in The Slender Thread (1965), the directorial debut of Sydney Pollack, who had been Coleman’s teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse. “We had become fast friends,” recalled Coleman. “When I got out of school, I said, ‘I want to be in every movie you make’. And he said, ‘Okay’, and we got off to a pretty good start.”

Further roles followed in Pollack’s The Scalphunters (1968), as Robert Redford’s ski coach in Downhill Racer (1969) and alongside Elvis in The Trouble with Girls (1969).

The Coleman screen persona only began to cohere after he grew a pencil moustache for his role as a police sergeant in a 1973 episode of Columbo; thereafter, he found himself cast in authority roles with greater regularity. He was a fire chief in The Towering Inferno (1974), a young Murr Arnold in Midway (1976), a hissable politico – sign of things to come – on TV’s Mary Hartman (1976-77), a judge in Jonathan Demme’s cult comedy Melvin and Howard (1980), and the knowingly named religious huckster Marvin Fleece in Pray TV (1980).

Coleman earned his first Golden Globe nomination as the outspoken talk-show host Bill Bittinger on the short-lived NBC sitcom Buffalo Bill (1983-84); sportingly allowed the Muppets to run rings around him as a Broadway huckster in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984); and sparred with Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and Dragnet (1987).

He won an Emmy as a washed-up lawyer defending Liam Neeson’s serial killer in the based-on-true-events TV movie Sworn to Silence (1987), and was nominated again the following year as the old-school sportswriter hero of the sitcom The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88).

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (5)

Coleman fared less well on the big screen when playing leads: neither Where the Heart Is (1990), in which he played a patriarch trying to teach his ingrate kids a lesson, nor Short Time (1990), a high-concept action-comedy about a detective trying to get himself killed for the insurance payout, took with the cinemagoing public.

He returned to supporting work, reuniting with Tomlin and Parton on the sputtering The Beverly Hillbillies (1993); he was the philandering dad in You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Chief Quimby in Inspector Gadget (1999); and he found a solid pension plan, voicing the principal in the Disney Channel animation Recess (1997-99) and its subsequent spinoffs.

He was central to the success of the legal procedural The Guardian (2001-04), and he lent gravitas to the scheming Commodore on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-2011), despite filming being interrupted by his treatment for throat cancer.

Away from the camera, Coleman kept up his tennis, winning many celebrity and charity tournaments; he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014, and was the subject of the documentary Not Such a Bad Guy in 2017.

His last prominent role came with a poignant flashback in the second-season finale of the wildly popular Western Yellowstone, advising his onscreen son Kevin Costner about the family ranch: “Don’t let ‘em take it away from you, son, not a goddamn inch”.

He married twice, to Ann Courtney Harrell and then the actress Jean Hale; both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, and two daughters and a son from his second.

Dabney Coleman, born January 3 1932, died May 16 2024

Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary (2024)


Dabney Coleman, scene-stealing actor with memorable roles in Tootsie and 9 to 5 – obituary? ›

Dabney Coleman, who has died aged 92, was a comic actor renowned for his portrayal of obnoxious authority figures, typified by two choice early-1980s roles that sealed his image in the popular imagination: the corporate chauvinist outmanoeuvred by Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda
Jane Seymour Fonda (born December 21, 1937) is an American actress and activist. Recognized as a film icon, Fonda's work spans several genres and over six decades of film and television.
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Jane_Fonda
and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5 (1980) and the sexist ...

What actor from 9 to 5 passed away? ›

Dabney Coleman died on May 16 at the age of 92. Hollywood is reacting and sending tributes to the passing of the beloved actor and “9 to 5” star. Dolly Parton is remembering her "9 to 5" co-star, Dabney Coleman. Coleman, who starred in the hit 1980 film alongside Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, died on May 16.

Who was Dabney Coleman married to? ›

Personal life and death

Coleman was married to Ann Courtney Harrell from 1957 to 1959 and Jean Hale from 1961 to 1984. He had four children, Meghan, Kelly, Randy, and Quincy. Coleman was an avid tennis player, winning celebrity and charity tournaments.

Is Dabney Coleman his real name? ›

Dabney Wharton Coleman was born in Austin, Texas, to Mary Wharton (Johns) and Melvin Randolph Coleman. He attended the Virginia Military Institute, and studied law in Texas. Coleman had a well deserved reputation as a fine character actor, and a reliable presence for almost any role in TV and movies.

Where did Dabney Coleman live? ›

Who was the male actor in 9 to 5? ›

Dabney Coleman as Franklin Hart Jr., a Vice President of Consolidated who is the boss of Judy, Violet, Roz, and Doralee.

Was Dabney Coleman in Yellowstone? ›

The patriarch is played by the great Dabney Coleman, an actor partially known for playing hard-ass characters in things like "WarGames" and "Cloak and Dagger." We don't see him for long in "Yellowstone," but in his short amount of screen time, he leaves a tremendous impact -- not only in the emotional conversation he ...

Was Dabney Coleman on the Carol Burnett Show? ›

When Alexandra is talking about her familiarity with her costars, she mentions being familiar with Dabney Coleman from The Carol Burnett Show.

Was Dabney Coleman ever on NCIS? ›

S16 E12: An old family friend, Army Corporal John Sydney (Dabney Coleman), beseeches Gibbs to join him on a road trip to search for a missing military I.D. bracelet. Also, a Navy Lieutenant in NCIS protective custody is poisoned by an infamous drug dealer.

Was Dabney Coleman in Columbo? ›

Dabney Coleman made two appearances on Columbo.

What happened to Dabney Coleman? ›

Dabney Coleman's cause of death has been confirmed. The actor — known for his roles in 9 to 5 and Tootsie, among others —died from cardiopulmonary arrest (CPA), according to a death certificate obtained by The Blast in a report on Friday, May 24. The update comes after Coleman died at age 92 on Thursday, May 16.

Did Dabney Coleman serve in the military? ›

Coleman was an avid tennis player, playing for the U.S. Army while posted in Europe and later winning some celebrity and charity tournaments. He died at his home on May 16, 2024 at the age of 92.

Did Dabney Coleman host SNL? ›

The 9 to 5 and You've Got Mail star died on May 16 — and his prolific career including hosting SNL. Dabney Coleman died on May 16, 2024, at age 92, according to NBC News. The late actor enjoyed a long and prolific career, as famous for his mustache as he was for playing a cranky boss.

Did Dabney Coleman live in Corpus Christi? ›

Actor Dabney Coleman was born in Austin and grew up in Corpus Christi. He has appeared in more than eighty films, including Nine to Five and You've Got Mail. Where the Red Fern Grows, his next movie, will be in theaters later this year.

Where did Austin Dabney live? ›

Born in Wake County, North Carolina, in the 1760s, Austin Dabney was brought to Wilkes County, Georgia, in the late 1770s by Richard Ayco*ck—his enslaver and, reputedly, his father. In order to avoid military service himself, Ayco*ck sent Dabney to join the Georgia militia as a substitute.

Who were the characters in 9 to 5? ›

The musical follows three working women—Judy, Violet, and Doralee—as they attempt to take down their sexist, egotistical boss, Franklin Hart Jr. Each of these women has unique personalities and strengths that help them in their mission to free themselves of Hart's oppressive regime.

Who was the boss in 9 to 5? ›

Dabney Coleman, the Emmy-winning character actor best known for his role as the villainous boss in the 1980 film 9 to 5, died Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 92.

Is the 9 to 5 film a musical? ›

9 to 5: The Musical is a musical based on the 1980 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. It features a book by Patricia Resnick, based on the screenplay by Resnick and Colin Higgins.

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