Dabney Coleman, star of 9 to 5 and Tootsie, dies aged 92

Dabney Coleman on the set of ‘Courting Alex’ in 2006 (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)
Dabney Coleman on the set of ‘Courting Alex’ in 2006 (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Dabney Coleman, the Emmy-winning comedy actor known for his roles in 9 to 5 and Tootsie has died aged 92, his daughter, Quincy Coleman, confirmed.

She said he “took his last earthly breath peacefully and exquisitely” at his home in Santa Monica, California. “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 wrote in his honour.

Coleman was a character actor who specialised in curmudgeon-type roles with credits in over 60 films and television programmes.

“The great Dabney Coleman literally created, or defined, really – in a uniquely singular way – an archetype as a character actor. He was so good at what he did it’s hard to imagine movies and television of the last 40 years without him,” Ben Stiller wrote on X.

For two decades Coleman laboured in movies and TV shows as a talented but largely unnoticed performer. That changed abruptly in 1976 when he was cast as the incorrigibly corrupt mayor of the hamlet of Fernwood in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satirical soap opera that was so over the top no network would touch it.

Producer Norman Lear finally managed to syndicate the show, which starred Louise Lasser in the title role. It quickly became a cult favourite. Coleman’s character, Mayor Merle Jeeter, was especially popular and his masterful, comic deadpan delivery did not go overlooked by film and network executives.

Dabney Coleman in 1988 (AP1988)
Dabney Coleman in 1988 (AP1988)

A six-footer with an ample black mustache, Coleman went on to make his mark in numerous popular films, including as a stressed-out computer scientist in War Games, Tom Hanks’ father in You’ve Got Mail and a fire-fighting official in The Towering Inferno.

He won a Golden Globe for The Slap Maxwell Story and an Emmy Award for best supporting actor in Peter Levin’s 1987 small-screen legal drama Sworn to Silence. Some of his recent credits include Ray Donovan and a recurring role on Boardwalk Empire, for which he won two Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In the groundbreaking 1980 hit 9 to 5, he was the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss who tormented his unappreciated female underlings – Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton – until they turned the tables on him.

In 1981, he was Fonda’s caring, well-mannered boyfriend, who asks her father (played by her real-life father, Henry Fonda) if he can sleep with her during a visit to her parents’ vacation home in On Golden Pond.

Opposite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, he was the obnoxious director of a daytime soap opera that Hoffman’s character joins by pretending to be a woman. Among Coleman’s other films were North Dallas Forty, Cloak and Dagger, Dragnet, Meet the Applegates, Inspector Gadget and Stuart Little. He reunited with Hoffman as a land developer in Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Dabney Coleman played Commodore Louis Kaestner in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (Nick Valinote/Getty Images for HBO)
Dabney Coleman played Commodore Louis Kaestner in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (Nick Valinote/Getty Images for HBO)

Underneath all that bravura was a reserved man. Coleman insisted he was really quite shy. “I’ve been shy all my life. Maybe it stems from being the last of four children, all of them very handsome, including a brother who was Tyrone Power-handsome. Maybe it’s because my father died when I was 4,” he told The Associated Press in 1984.

“I was extremely small, just a little guy who was there, the kid who created no trouble. I was attracted to fantasy, and I created games for myself.”

As he aged, he also began to put his mark on pompous authority figures, notably in 1998’s My Date With the President’s Daughter, in which he was not only an egotistical, self-absorbed president of the United States, but also a clueless father to a teenager girl.

Dabney Coleman – his real name – was born in 1932 in Austin, Texas After two years at the Virginia Military Academy, two at the University of Texas and two in the Army, he was a 26-year-old law student when he met another Austin native, Zachry Scott, who starred in Mildred Pierce and other films.

“He was the most dynamic person I’ve ever met. He convinced me I should become an actor, and I literally left the next day to study in New York. He didn’t think that was too wise, but I made my decision,” Coleman told The AP in 1984.

Twice divorced, Coleman is survived by four children, Meghan, Kelly, Randy and Quincy, and the grandchildren Hale and Gabe Torrance, Luie Freundl and Kai and Coleman Biancaniello.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press