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    Boss Dabney

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Dabney Coleman turns a sturdy and venerable 85 today, and the still-working Austin, TX, native – with 2016 appearances in Ray Donovan and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply lately added to his voluminous resumé – will also mark in a couple of weeks the 56th anniversary of the network broadcast of his first credited role in an episode of Naked City. That’s a lot of ground covered by movie and television work that is overwhelmingly better rounded than the type of character – the hardass, know-it-all, power-mongering reprobate – for which audiences embraced him in TV series like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Buffalo Bill and The Slap Maxwell Story and such feature films as Tootsie, WarGames, Cloak & Dagger, Where the Heart Is and You’ve Got Mail. When called on to play men of decency, such as those in Attack on Terror: The FBI Vs. the Ku Klux Klan, Sworn to Silence (an Emmy®-winning role) and the fondly remembered On Golden Pond, he delivered there as well. From the period just before his star rose with his conniving Mayor Merle Jeeter on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Twilight Time offers a crafty Coleman in the starry ensemble of Richard Brooks’s Western adventure Bite the Bullet (1975, offered here:, about a hard-riding cross-country 1906 horse race across 700 miles of beautiful and punishing New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado landscapes with a whopping $2,000 prize – and pride of endurance and achievement among the competitors – at stake. Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson and Ian Bannen plays contestants whose fortunes rise and fall with the challenges of the terrain; Coleman plays a moneybags investor who schemes to ensure his prized Arabian horse will lead the pack to the finish line. He’s set up as the scoundrel of the piece, but in the clutch, as’s Glenn Erickson observes, “shows character when he halts the race to let some riders recover their horses from thieves,” in keeping with The Professionals screenwriter/director Brooks’ celebration of improvised grit and gallantry in the fading Old West. From frontier scalawag to corporate chauvinist, Coleman’s other TT title, a still-topical comedy gem about gender inequality in the American workplace, is uppermost in his – and movie lovers’ – Hall of Fame: 9 to 5 (1980). As the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" conglomerate division head who makes office life miserable for striving staffers Jane Fonda (his On Golden Pond co-star the following year), Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, Coleman has a field day, and critics took notice. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby was one of them: “Considering the militancy of 9 to 5, it may be fitting that the funniest performance in the film is given by Dabney Coleman, who plays Franklin Hart Jr., the dishonest, sexist boss of the company. Franklin is a fine, lunatic villain, a minibrained tomcat so in the grip of his petty passions that he's not above spilling his pencils on the floor to be able to watch Miss Parton, down on her hands and knees, her cleavage exposed, retrieving them.” By all accounts, the three female stars made the shoot a liberating good time for their male oppressor. Coleman, who appreciatively credited Tomlin with suggesting him to director/co-writer Colin Higgins for the role, told an interviewer in 2013: “All of ’em were well-established. To varying degrees, but all extremely successful already. Almost icons in their fields, if you want to break it down like that. And here’s this guy coming off of Mary Hartman, which is not too shabby. But it was late-night TV. Anyway, what I’m alluding to is that all three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it. Status-wise and talent-wise, they all made me feel extremely secure and were very supportive. I worked with Lily a couple of other times, most notably on The Beverly Hillbillies, but on both that and 9 to 5, I remember every now and then, she’d say, ‘Dabney, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to make it funny. What should I do?’ And I’d look at her and just say, ‘Lily, come on. I’m not gonna say shit, because I have a feeling you might just come up with something that’s gonna be very, very funny. Don’t ever ask me that again, okay?’ It was just very cute. Lily Tomlin asking me how to be funny. Unbelievable.” From the ensemble of Bite the Bullet to a starring role in 9 to 5 – both shimmeringly showcased on TT hi-def Blu-ray, Coleman knew how to nail a part, and with some luck and pluck will keep us all primed to see what an 85-years-young veteran will do next.