Dabney Coleman Dies: ‘Tootsie,’ ‘9 To 5’, ‘WarGames’ & ‘Buffalo Bill’ Actor Was 92

Dabney Coleman Dies: ‘Tootsie,’ ‘9 To 5’, ‘WarGames’ & ‘Buffalo Bill’ Actor Was 92
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Dabney Coleman, the prolific, Emmy-winning actor whose six-decade career included a sterling run of 1980s hit movies such as 9 to 5On Golden Pond, WarGames and Tootsie and whose TV work ranged from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Buffalo Bill to The Guardian and Boardwalk Empire, has died at 92.

Coleman’s daughter Quincy said he died May 16 at his home in Santa Monica, but did not provide other details.

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“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,” Quincy Coleman wrote in a statement on behalf of the family. “As he lived, he moved through this final act of his life with elegance, excellence and mastery. A teacher, a hero, and a king, Dabney Coleman is a gift and blessing in life and in death as his spirit will shine through his work, his loved ones and his legacy…eternally.

Often playing smarmy, unlikable, even despicable characters — many with tongue in cheek — Coleman would amass six Primetime Emmy nominations during his career, including two for Lead Actor in the acclaimed but short-lived NBC sitcom Buffalo Bill. He won once, for his supporting role in the 1987 telefilm Sworn to Silence.

He also won a Golden Globe for his lead role in The Slap Maxwell Story and shared back-to-back SAG Awards for the Boardwalk Empire ensemble in the early 2010s. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014.

In his final screen role, Coleman played the father of Kevin Costner’s John Dutton in a flashback during Season 2 of Yellowstone in 2019.

Coleman’s long and prolific career began with appearances on such early-’60s TV staples as Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare and The Outer Limits. Through the decade and into the ’70s he continued to be cast on episodes of some of TV’s most popular shows, with longer arcs on The Fugitive and That Girl, and Columbo.

Coleman went on to rack up more than 175 big- and small-screen credits spanning 58 years. Along the way he would star in more than a half-dozen TV series, but the longest lasted only three seasons.

His big break came with Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1976, in which he recurred as Merle Jeeter in dozens of episodes, also appearing on spinoffs Fernwood Tonight and Forever Fernwood. The character was introduced as the con-artist father of a child evangelist and went on to become the sleazy mayor of the show’s setting, Fernwood, Ohio.

But it was in the early ’80s that Coleman broke through with a series of film roles, beginning with a small part in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin & Howard.

The actor then appeared in a series of cultural touchstones. In 1980, he played the egotistical, misogynistic boss Frank Hart in 9 to 5, who made the lives of his female employees miserable. Amid the women’s movement, a recession and changing mores, the film hit a nerve and made not just Coleman a star but turbocharged the careers of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. The latter had a chart-topping single with the title song.

Coleman appeared opposite Fonda and her father, Henry, the following year in another buzzy movie, On Golden Pond. The film won Oscars for the elder Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, along with Ernest Thompson, who took Best Writing (as it was then called). In all, it scored 10 Academy Award noms, including Best Picture.

In 1982, Coleman was again a part of the zeitgeist, playing what seemed a less-awful version of his 9 to 5 character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie. His Ron Carlisle was the sexist director of a popular soap opera on which Dustin Hoffman’s out-of-work actor character lands a much-needed role — disguised as a woman. It also was a Best Picture Oscar nominee.

He toplined a pair of sitcoms later that decade, playing a self-centered radio talk show host in two seasons of Buffalo Bill (1983-84) and then egotistical newspaper sportswriter on ABC’s The Slap Maxwell Story, which lasted one season in 1987-88.

The 1990s saw Coleman lead two more sitcoms: Fox’s Drexell’s Class, playing the titular corporate raider-turned-grade school teacher for one season in 1991-92, and NBC’s Madman of the People, this time playing a magazine columnist with old-school values. But it, too, would last only one season, in 1994-95. He also voiced the role of an elementary school principal in a half-dozen of the ABC animated series Recess in 1997.

Coleman’s longest-running TV role would come a few years later, when he starred alongside Simon Baker and others in CBS legal drama The Guardian. He played the father of Baker’s character, who happened to be senior partner at the law firm where the son — who had been convicted of drug crimes — worked. It aired 67 episodes from 2001-04.

Coleman would co-lead one more TV series, this time starring with Jenna Elfman in the CBS sitcom Courting Alex. Again he played a father whose kid worked at his law firm. The show lasted eight episodes in 2006.

He also was a regular on Heartland, the TNT medical drama starring Treat Williams. It also would air just a single season, in 2007.

Coleman also was a regular on the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s 1920s-set gangster drama starring Steve Buscemi and exec produced by Martin Scorsese. He played Louis Kaestner aka The Commodore, the mentor of Buscemi’s lead character Nucky Thompson and father of Michael Pitt’s co-lead Jimmy Darmody.

During the 2010s, Coleman also guested on episodes of For the People, NCIS and Ray Donovan, along with Yellowstone.

Among his less-remembered TV roles was a funny co-starring turn opposite Carol Burnett, Teri Garr, Charles Grodin and others in CBS’ 1986 miniseries Fresno. Spoofing the then-widely popular primetime soap genre and airing at the height of the miniseries craze, it focused on the raisin wars of California’s Central Valley.

All the while, Coleman continued to appear in dozens of movies. He co-starred with Matthew Broderick in the popular 1983 comic techno-thriller WarGames and alongside Tom Hanks in Cold War spy comedy The Man with One Red Shoe two years later. He reteamed with Hanks opposite Dan Aykroyd in the 1987 cop comedy Dragnet, playing a porn publisher, and starred opposite his Fresno co-lead Burnett in Neil Simon-penned Plaza Suite that same year.

He also had roles is such pics as The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and its 1978 sequel, opposite Nick Nolte and Mac Davis in the pro football dramedy North Dallas Forty (1979), with Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers in Nothing Personal (1980) and a memorable turn in Garry Marshall’s soap opera spoof Young Doctors in Love (1982).

Coleman many other film credits included Midway (1975), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1979), Modern Problems (1981), Clifford (1994), You’ve Got Mail (1998) — again with Hanks — Stuart Little (1999), Where the Red Fern Grows (2003) and many others.

Along with daughter Quincy, Coleman is survived by his children Meghan, Kelly and Randy and grandchildren Hale and Gabe Torrance, Luie Freundl, and Kai and Coleman Biancaniello.


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