Dabney Coleman, Actor Audiences Loved to Hate, Is Dead at 92


He remained a busy if relatively anonymous character actor for a decade after that, appearing on a wide range of both comedies and dramas on TV and in small parts in big movies like “The Towering Inferno” (1974). Then, in 1976, he landed the role that would set the tone for much of his career: Merle Jeeter, the underhanded stage father of a child evangelist (and later the mayor of the fictional town of Fernwood), on Norman Lear’s satirical soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Mr. Coleman later said of the series, “It had a very strange, off-the-wall type of humor, the key to which was playing it straight.” It was, he added, “where I got into this type of character.”

It was also, he said, when his jet-black mustache became an indispensable accessory to his retinue of unsavory characters. “Everything changed” when he grew the mustache, he later said. “Without it, I looked like Richard Nixon.”

If he was on his way to being typecast as an unrepentant lout, he made the most of it. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was critically acclaimed but never a bona fide hit (neither was its follow-up, “Forever Fernwood,” on which Mr. Coleman reprised his role). But Colin Higgins’s 1980 ensemble comedy, “9 to 5,” was a box-office smash and Mr. Coleman’s career breakthrough.

His character, the boss of the office workers played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, was — as was said more than once in the movie, including by Mr. Coleman himself in a fantasy sequence — a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Reviewing “9 to 5” in The Times, Vincent Canby wrote that Mr. Coleman, playing a “lunatic villain,” gave “the funniest performance in the film.”



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