George Coe: Absolutely Ready for Prime Time

There is unavoidable injustice in how character actor George Coe (George Cohen, 1929-2015) is normally described. He was a footnote in a major phenomenon, and that brief hiccup tends to overshadow the rest of his long stage and screen career in articles about him. So in the name of perspective and justice, we’ll tell it in proper order.

Coe’s first major credits were on Broadway. He was in the original production of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1964-65) and appeared opposite Angela Lansbury in the original production of Mame (1966-70). In 1968 he was nominated for an Oscar for co-directing a short film called The Dove, a parody of Ingmar Bergman films. Then he was in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970-72).

1975 was a notable and busy year for Coe: he had a good supporting part in the movie The Stepford Wives, he appeared in an ABC TV production of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying directed by Abe Burrows and he was a regular on the soap opera The Doctors. And, in the fall, he was part of the original cast line-up of Saturday Night Live. Double take — WHA-? That’s right, George Coe was part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live. Well, he was and he wasn’t, and the extent to which he was is usually exaggerated. The Broadway veteran was hired as a bit of insurance to balance out a cast and crew that was all Young Turks and mavericks. At 46, he was nearly a decade older than the next oldest cast member Garrett Morris. But here’s the thing: he was only credited as an official cast member in the very first episode of the show. After this, he was essentially just a bit player and extra, one of hundreds the show would employ over the decades. In season one, he was in eight episodes, usually in walk-ons, and doing announcing chores, although a couple of his characters were pretty funny. Chances are, you’ve seen him but assigned him no special importance. One of the few SNL sketches Coe starred in was the commercial parody “Golden Needles”, which advertised a service mixing acupuncture and voodoo (pictured above). But, obviously the “insurance” wasn’t needed. The youth market embraced the show, and Coe and SNL parted ways, which was fine with him because he had tons of other things going on. His career resumed at the precise level it was at before.

In 1978 Coe appeared in the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century with Imogene Coca, Madeline Kahn, John Collum and Kevin Kline. Then came lots of work in film and television, over 100 additional credits. He was in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The First Deadly Sin (1980) with Frank Sinatra, the 1981 TV movie Kent State,and Bustin’ Loose (1981) with Richard Pryor. He was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Goodnight Beantown (1983) starring Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley, and had recurring roles on Hill Street Blues (1983), Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1985), L.A. Law (1886-91), Max Headroom (1987-88), Equal Justice (1991), Working (1998), The West Wing (2001-2002) and Archer (2002-2013). He worked with Blake Edwards in Micki + Maude (1984) and Blind Date (1987). He’s also in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), a 1987 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1987), The Mighty Ducks (1992), and scores of other credits. The horror movie 13 Sins (2014) was his last film role.

For more on show biz history, including television variety like Saturday Night Live, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,