Actor Dabney Coleman, villainous boss in '9 to 5,' dies at 92

May 17, 2024 8:52 PM EDT

Dabney Coleman speaks at a ceremony where the actor received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles November 6, 2014. REUTERS/Phil McCarten/ File Photo

By Bill Trott

(Reuters) - Dabney Coleman, a character actor who brought a glorious touch of smarm to the screen in playing comedic villains, mean-spirited bosses and outright jerks in films such as "9 to 5" and "Tootsie," has died at age 92.

Coleman "took his last earthly breath peacefully and exquisitely" in his Santa Monica, California home on Thursday, his daughter Quincy Coleman said in a statement on Friday on behalf of the family.

While best remembered for his arrogant, unctuous and uncaring characters, Coleman said it was all an act.

"It's me kidding around," Coleman once told the New York Times.

"That's just a guy that I'm playing, just to fool around, you know," he said.

Not all of Coleman's characters were cads. He won an Emmy playing a lawyer in the 1987 television movie "Sworn to Silence" and played Jane Fonda's decent dentist boyfriend in the 1981 film "On Golden Pond" and a federal security official in 1983's "War Games."

His final screen credit was playing John Dutton Sr. in the TV series "Yellowstone" in 2019.

Coleman was born on Jan. 3, 1932, in Austin, Texas. He studied law and served in the U.S. Army before trying acting.

His early work in the 1960s and 1970s included one-off roles in a variety of television shows, as well as a semi-regular part as Marlo Thomas' neighbor in "That Girl."

His first movie job was 1965's "The Slender Thread," directed by his acting teacher and friend, Sydney Pollack, who would later hire him for "Tootsie."

Coleman's breakout role - and the one he said was his favorite - came in 1976 on producer Norman Lear's TV series "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." He played Merle Jeeter, the creepy mayor who has an affair with the title character, in that soap-opera spoof and in spinoffs "Fernwood Tonight" and "Forever Fernwood."

His first big movie role - and the one that established his acting persona - was in 1980 as Franklin Hart, the sexist, egotistical business executive who harasses underlings played by Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin until they take him hostage and boost corporate productivity in "9 to 5."

Coleman was no more likeable two years later in "Tootsie" as a soap opera director who runs afoul of Dustin Hoffman's dressed-in-drag title character.

In 1983, he took the comic villain role even further in his first starring television role. In the short-lived sitcom "Buffalo Bill," he played a radio talk show host whose idea of a tender marriage proposal was: "You're better than 90 percent of those bimbos out there."

"It is fun to play those characters because they are so well-defined," Coleman told People magazine in 1983.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he also starred in the sitcoms "The Slap Maxwell Story" as a sportswriter, "Drexell's Class" as a corporate raider turned teacher and "Madman of the People" as a magazine columnist working for his daughter. None of the shows lasted more than two seasons.

More recent roles included HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" in 2010-11 as the man who once controlled Atlantic City, New Jersey. His part had to be rewritten when Coleman was diagnosed with throat cancer, which left him unable to speak at times.

A devoted tennis player, Coleman was twice married and divorced. He had four children with his second wife, actress Jean Hale.

"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," the statement from his daughter said.

(Reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Will Dunham)

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