Three cheers for character actor Dabney Coleman (b. 1932). Educated in acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Texas native got his first TV credit in 1961, meaning he’d been acting professionally in films and tv for around nearly 15 years before he began to discover the oily, charming, nervous, shifty jerk character he became best known for. He is virtually unrecognizable in early stuff such as his recurring role as the neighbor Leon on That Girl (1966-67), or as a fire chief in Towering Inferno (1974) or a navy captain in Midway (1976).
It wasn’t until he played the flashy, disingenuous Merle Jeter on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77), Fernwood Tonight (1977) and Forever Fernwood (1977), that we began to see the character that we loved to hate so much. This was followed by a principal role as a con man on Norman Lear’s short-lived Apple Pie (1978) with Rue McClanahan and Jack Gilford. He played similar jerks and villians in Viva Knievel (1977), How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), 9 to 5 (1980), Pray TV (1980, an obscurity in which he starred as a televangelist), Modern Problems (1981), Tootsie (1982), Young Doctors in Love (1982), War Games (1983), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). Even when his character wasn’t necessarily supposed to be too awful, as in On Golden Pond (1981) at this point we tended to project negativity on to him anyway.
The full flowering of Coleman’s creation came in his starring sitcom Buffalo Bill (1983-84), co-created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. In this perfect vehicle for the character he created, Coleman played an obnoxious, venal talk show host at a local Buffalo TV station. On this show, he was surrounded by a dream cast: Joanna Cassidy as his boss; Max Wright, later of Alf, which was also created by Patchett, as the station manager; early career Geena Davis as his assistant (Tootsie, in which she and Coleman had appeared together, had been her first movie); beloved perennial John Fiedler; and Charlie Robinson (later of Night Court). The show was critically lauded. Coleman was nominated for an Emmy. But still it was cancelled after only two seasons. Brandon Tartikoff later wrote that cancelling it was his greatest professional regret.
On TV, Coleman followed up Buffalo Bill with three similar and similarly short-lived sitcoms: The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88), Drexell’s Class (1991-92) and Madman for the People (1994-95), and the dramatic series The Guardian (2001-2004). You can seen him in the films Cloak and Dagger (1984), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), Dragnet (1987), Where the Heart Is (1990), Short Time (1990), The Beverly Hillbillies (1993, as Mr. Drysdale, natch), Clifford (1994), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Inspector Gadget (1999) and Stuart Little (1999) among other stuff. It was terrific seeing him play “The Commodore” on Boardwalk Empire (2010-11). Well into his 80s now, he continues working to the present day.