Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Although Dabney Coleman made his television debut just as the ’60s were getting underway, he didn’t have his first real small-screen breakthrough until he secured the role of despicable politician Merle Jeeter in the cult sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in the mid-’70s. The part proved to be a defining moment for the actor’s career, earning him a lifetime’s worth of opportunities to play ill-tempered sons of bitches, sometimes comedic (Buffalo Bill), sometimes dramatic (Boardwalk Empire). Coleman has also had a formidable film career, beginning in 1965 with The Slender Thread, which has recently been reissued on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Slender Thread (1965)—“Charlie”
This Property Is Condemned (1966)—“Salesman”
The Scalphunters (1968)—“Jed”
Dabney Coleman: Well, first of all, let me let you know that my knowing the names of the characters I’ve played… those are few and far between. [Laughs.] There’s a few I remember, but… I certainly remember the characters themselves, of course, and Slender Thread in particular, because that was my first movie, and it was also Sydney Pollack’s first movie. He was my teacher at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and we had become fast friends after that. The idea at that time, when I got out of school, was that I said, “I want to be in every movie you make.” And he said, “Okay,” and we got off to a pretty good start. After that one, we did This Property Is Condemned and The Scalphunters. I was cut out of This Property Is Condemned, but I did shoot a scene with Natalie Wood. At any rate, Slender Thread was the first film that Sydney did, with a lot of pretty good people, if you’ve got the cast list in front of you.
The A.V. Club: In particular, one of your big scenes is with Anne Bancroft.
DC: Yeah, with Annie. Who’s about as good as it gets. By the way, a lot of people don’t realize, but Telly Savalas was about as good as it gets, also. I mean that literally. I remember I saw him years and years after I’d done Kojak as kind of a no-name character. [Laughs.] But I’d made some kind of name for myself, and I saw him in a restaurant one time after he had retired from Kojak, and he said, “Well, Coleman…” Lighting up a cigarette. “They want me to do more Kojak.” This is years after the fact. He says, “What do you think?” I said, “I think you ought to do Macbeth if you want to.” And he kind of paused, and he said, “Thank you.” He knew that I was serious. And I was, by the way. He was a great actor. That guy was one of the few people that could do this stuff just totally at ease. There’s four or five of ’em that have no sense of tension whatsoever in their speech and their body language and that I believe in a heartbeat, and he was one of ’em. Danny Aiello’s another. It’s falling off a log with these guys. Henry Fonda was one of those. Geena Davis is one of those. There’s not many, but they’re around, and Telly was one of ’em. I meant that quite seriously; I think he was quite equipped to play Macbeth.
And then—getting back to Slender Thread—you had Sidney Poitier in the film, and you had Steve Hill, who became a… well, I don’t think he became a full rabbi, but he did quit the business for years and study the Jewish faith. I think he gave sermons from time to time. But that was kind of a big film for him. He was a wonderful actor, as he proved later on when he came back in [Law & Order], and also in Garbo Talks, where he was once again teamed with Anne Bancroft.
AVC: That’s true. I hadn’t even thought about that.
DC: Yeah, well, think about that, and revisit that one. There’s a couple of scenes in that movie that’ll break your heart, including Ron Silver talking to Miss Garbo in the little flea market, trying to persuade her to come see his mom. That’s one of the most touching scenes I’ve ever seen in my life.
But, anyway, getting back to our cast, Steven Hill was a great, great actor, and Syd Pollack admired him tremendously. And then also… I think Ed Asner was in it, was he not? And someone I’m forgetting. Somebody else. Another stud. [Laughs.] I think that film was the one and only time I ever did the Twist in my life, in that scene in the discotheque. But it was a great experience working with Syd on anything. Or just having dinner with him was a great experience. But I thought it was a very touching, very moving piece of work. And that’s one of the things, too, that brought in Sidney Poitier along the way. What else can I tell you about it? What else do you want to know?
AVC: Well, as you say, it was your first film. Was there any particular difficulty in transitioning from the TV work you’d been doing up to that point?
DC: No, I think that’s all in your head. I think that’s bullshit. Now, if you’re talking about the stage, there’s a difference, because, Christ, if you don’t know you’ve got to speak a little louder on stage… Well, at least you did in those days, anyway. You don’t even have to do that anymore now, what with the mics they’ve got. But acting is acting, in my opinion. And if you can’t make that adjustment, something’s awfully wrong. Certainly Sydney had no problem. Sydney could’ve been a brain surgeon, in my opinion, or whatever else he chose to be. He’s an extremely gifted man. He ended up learning how to fly a single-engine Cessna and owning and flying his own Gulfstream. That’s a sample of what Sydney was capable of doing. So he had no problem at all transitioning. I’m sure he came in under schedule and gave ’em a lot better picture than they’d anticipated.
The United States Steel Hour (1960)—“Corpse”
Naked City (1961)—“Resident”
Armstrong Circle Theater (1962)—actor
AVC: Trying to determine your very first TV role was a little rough, but it looks like it may have been on an episode of Naked City.
DC: That’s exactly right! But… no, wait a minute, I’ve got to qualify that. I may have played a corpse first. Literally, a corpse. I think it was on an episode of Armstrong Circle Theater, although it might’ve been United States Steel Hour. But either way, it was with Dan Duryea and Frank Lovejoy, if you remember them. It was called “Shadow Of A Pale Horse”—it was a Western—and it started out with a long, elevated shot of a body lying on a dirt street in a Western town. And that body was yours truly. Replete with a name, and full pay for an actor’s work, as opposed to an extra. I think that was my first part: playing a stiff. And then the second one—for which I was paid $90, by the way—was Naked City.
AVC: Well, I found “Shadow Of A Pale Horse”—it was United States Steel Hour—but they don’t actually have you credited.
DC: Well, maybe they didn’t give me a name. [Laughs.] But I remember doing summer stock at the time and running from the closing curtain to the nearest bar and slapping on the tube to see my body lying there. That was a big deal to me. That was a huge deal to me. But, you know, the more I think about it, the more I believe I did have a name. In fact, I know I did, because the character was somebody’s son. So it’s out there somewhere, but who gives a… I mean, y’know, who cares?
By the way, if that was United States Steel Hour, then I did also do an Armstrong Circle Theater, which was shot live, and that was with Martin Sheen. And that one was a bona fide part. With lines and everything. [Laughs.]
That Girl (1966-1967)—“Dr. Leon Bessemer”
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977)—“Merle Jeeter”
DC: [Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman] was a huge turning point. That was the turning point in my career. I had done a comedy, That Girl, the first season, kind of a weird-ass character that didn’t attract a lot of attention. It was okay in retrospect. When I’ve seen ’em in replays it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as colorful or as catchy as the Merle Jeeter character, which was supposed to be six episodes and then gone. But I was good in the part. The writing was very good, the people I worked with were excellent, and the character was just wonderful. Just a once-in-a-lifetime character. I don’t know if you ever saw it or not, but he was just the worst human being, Merle Jeeter. [Laughs.] That’s kind of where it all started, as far as people’s belief that I could do comedy, particularly that negative, caustic, cynical kind of guy. I was pretty good at doing that kind of humor. So that was a huge turning point, and it was a lot of fun. In my opinion, it’s probably the best thing I ever did.
Domino (2005)—“Drake Bishop”
DC: Oh, damn, yeah. Tony [Scott]. For some reason… I can’t put my finger on that. That was kind of a surreal experience. I don’t know whether it was Vegas or the script. I don’t know what it is. I certainly wouldn’t point blame on anyone. Except possibly myself. But I thought I did okay. I was fine. And I loved Tony. I remember citing this just the other day, but… you get a compliment from somebody that matters to you every now and then, and I got one from Mickey Rourke, who I think is one of the great actors in the business and has been for years. He gave me a great compliment. I did a scene on a balcony, and it was kind of over my shoulder, down onto him. We came down and we’re just shooting the breeze, and somewhere out of the blue he says, “By the way, I thought that was some pretty good acting up on that balcony.” And I still remember that to this day. Obviously, since I just told you about it. [Laughs.] But I told some friends about it last week, too. It meant a hell of a lot coming from him, because he’s a great actor. And Tony… Did they ever get to the bottom of what that was about?
AVC: Not as of this writing.
DC: Well, if I ever saw was a level-headed, square-shooting guy, it was Tony Scott. He was a pleasure to work with. By the way, apropos of absolutely nothing except for Tony, and I’m absolutely not bullshitting you when I tell you this, but I don’t know if you ever saw a movie called Crimson Tide, with Gene Hackman, Denzel [Washington], and George Dzundza, who… boy, he’s a great guy and a great actor. I think we’ve probably seen that same movie about 50 times in our lives, if I’m not mistaken, whether it’s with Tyrone Power or Clark Gale or Burt Lancaster or God knows whoever else, but I maintain that the first 20 minutes of Crimson Tide is about as good as it gets for a film of that ilk. The dialogue of it, the shooting, the music, the cinematography. You be sure to put that in there, would you?
Boardwalk Empire (2010-2011)—“Commodore Louis Kaestner”
DC: I had an interview with [Terence] Winter over breakfast, and we shot the breeze for about an hour and talked over things we liked and things we didn’t like. We didn’t talk much about the script. A little bit, obviously, but not much. And that was it. I walked out and I got a call that afternoon saying, “You wanna do it?” I said, “Hell, yes!” It’s a great pedigree from The Sopranos, with writers, producers, and actors from that. [Steve] Buscemi was in that. A friend of mine from New York was in that, too. At any rate, that was fun to do, though unfortunately short-lived. [Laughs.] But fun while doing it. Working with Michael Pitt, especially. And Steve Buscemi, a gentleman’s gentleman. Gretchen Mol, an adorable human being.
AVC: And you took her beating like a pro.
DC: I did, indeed. [Laughs.] By the way, that Michael Pitt, he was really something else. He’s gonna be a huge star if he plays it right, in my opinion. A brilliant actor.
AVC: How much advance knowledge did you have of the Commodore’s condition, as far as the fact that he was being poisoned?
DC: [Hesitates.] None, I believe. Are you talking about the symptoms?
AVC: What I mean is, did they tell you right off the bat that he was being poisoned, or did they just tell you that he was sickly?
DC: Well, originally I was supposed to be dead after six episodes. [Laughs.] And then I called them—because they didn’t send us full scripts, they just sent us our scenes, so I had to fly back every two weeks or so, not really knowing fully what was going on. Maybe who I’m talking to and what my relationship was with the person and what had gone on in our past, but I had to call the writer or Terry every time before I shot and ask, “What’s going on?” And I had heard that I was going to be dead after six shows, and I called him before I shot the sixth and said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, we’ve decided to build your part up. We’re not going to kill you off. In fact, we’re going to have you try to take over the whole thing next season. You’re going to battle Nucky Thompson,” Buscemi’s character. And I said, “Well, that’s fine by me!” [Laughs.]
So I shot two more shows… and then that December I got cancer. So I called them and told them, I said, “I’ve got cancer,” and they said, “Are you able to continue doing it? And would you like to?” And I said, “Hell, yes!” So I flew back in February, and they weren’t supposed to shoot ’til July, but I went back in February and had… Let’s see, now how did we do that? We had minimal cast. In fact, sometimes I was talking to an actress who wasn’t there. Like, for Gretchen Mol, I was talking to a stunt double. In that scene where she was dancing for me? My half of that scene was shot about four months before Gretchen shot her half. So I was talking to a double for the dancer, and Gretchen was there, actually, but she was eight months pregnant! [Laughs.] She was sitting in a chair, eight months pregnant, reading me the lines. So that’s the way we did that. I had to shoot my stuff before I lost too much weight and before I lost my voice. It came back, but not normal. So they certainly didn’t write me up; they wrote me out. After about six or seven shows, something like that. And I didn’t have much to do after the first couple of shows. I was mute because of the stroke that I had. In the show, that is. Not in reality. [Hesitates.] Are you following me?
DC: [Laughs.] Okay, good. So, anyway, that’s what happened. The last four or five shows, I barely said a word. Either not much or not at all. I think they were afraid they couldn’t trust my voice, which did kick out one time so I could barely speak. After that, it came back enough so that you could at least understand me, but I think they just didn’t know, so they said, “Well, we just can’t take a chance here.” That’s just speculation on my part, though. No one’s ever told me this. I’m just speculating based on what they told me before the cancer and what happened after. So that’s what I think happened there. They said, “We can’t risk this. We’ve gotta get rid of him. We don’t know what’s gonna happen with this guy. He could drop dead in reality! And then where are we? We can’t base a lot of the show on him.” So that’s just my educated guess on what happened. But by the way, I don’t have cancer anymore. Thanks for asking. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, I was going to ask, then I was like, “Well, what if it’s come back? I don’t want to hear him say that.” So I decided I wouldn’t ask after all.
DC: I don’t believe you. [Laughs.] But we can hash that out later. Either way, there’s your answer!
The Trouble With Girls (1969)—“Harrison Wilby”
DC: I didn’t work much with Elvis [Presley] on that, if at all. I was only there for a couple of weeks, and I don’t think we did any scenes together. But one day, one lunchtime, we played touch football. He had a little entourage, and they had, like, about a six-man team. And I gathered together some crew members, I guess. I was pretty good at touch football. I was All Intramural at the University of Texas three years in a row, ’cause I could catch the hell out of a ball. Anyway, my guys were… not good. So I ended up throwing the ball, tossing the ball, and I never had much of an arm, but I was better than these guys, that’s for goddamned sure. But we lined up, and we played for the lunch period. We beat ’em, and at the end of it, I remember as he passed me, he said [in a vague Elvis impression], “Hey, man, you got a hell of an arm.” [Laughs.] That was it. That’s all he said to me in two weeks. But I’ll take it. Coming from Elvis, that’s kind of classic. But that’s my only Elvis story! I must say, though, that he was always punctual and prepared and congenial. A consummate pro. He was no prima donna. He was all right.
The Towering Inferno (1974)—“Fire Department Deputy Chief”
DC: Well, it might say I was the assistant fire chief, but I wasn’t. I was the fire chief. And I’m clarifying that because that’s the whole point of the story I’m about to tell you.
At that time, I was probably about 35, the youngest 35 you ever saw, weighing about 165, and I didn’t look like a fireman, much less a fire chief. But there was this guy, about 45, kinda hefty, and he was gonna play my assistant. So he was gonna be the assistant fire chief, even though he looked exactly like what one thinks of as a fire chief. [Laughs.] Anyway, we’re up in San Francisco at this hotel, which was the hotel in the film, and we’re waiting all day—there must’ve been 300 extras playing fireman, survivors of the fire, spectators, what have you—for Steve [McQueen] to come out of his trailer. A trailer which, uh, also housed Ali McGraw. So he was about an hour and a half late coming out the door. Now, I was never a Steve McQueen fan. At least up to that point. But he comes out, burst into the crowd of actors, extras, and what have you, and says something like, “Okay, whatta we got? Who’s playing the fire chief?” And the director said, “He is,” pointing at me. And Steve said, “He is?” And he whispered something to the director, which could have only been something negative, and then he says, “What’s your name?” “Dabney.” “Well, come here and let me talk to you a second, Dabney.” And he walks me across the way, a few steps from where we were working, and… okay, have you seen the movie?
DC: Okay, so you know it was a very, very small part. Steve says, “You understand that if this scene doesn’t come off, this movie is on your shoulders. If this scene doesn’t come off, we’ve got no movie. This movie goes right down the toilet if you’re not convincing.” [Laughs.] Well, I said, “Steve, it’s gonna be okay. I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse,” which is where he also went. So he said, “Okay, let’s rehearse.” So we rehearsed, then we shoot the scene, and after the scene, after I did my close-up, he was standing right by the camera, and he gives me a thumbs-up and says, “Very strong, very strong.” And he shakes my hand. And suddenly my impression of him went 180. Not just because of the compliment he gave me, but because of the way he took charge of the entire group—which seemed like it was near about 400 people—just automatically and more or less directed the scene. Just totally in charge. I thought, “Oh, now I get it. Now I get what it’s all about. What he’s got is charisma.” And he had it in spades. I saw it in person, and it was very evident.
DC: I remember talking to the original director, who was going to be Martin Brest. Hell of a director and a hell of a guy, but they fired him after a couple of weeks. Marty and I had a couple of conversations about the film—I was in New York, playing some kind of celebrity tennis tournament or fundraiser or something, and we talked for an hour or so long-distance—but then they fired the guy, who was a sweetheart. It broke my heart. Then they hired a guy who was a very good director, John Badham. He directed Saturday Night Fever, and he did a hell of a job on WarGames, in my opinion. But I still say the film doesn’t make sense. People were fooled into thinking, “Well, if this machine goes and does that and nothing’s done about it, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll be in World War III by accident.” But if you really listen closely, the final decision wasn’t a mechanical one. It still came down to whether the President said “go” or “no go.” Anyway, they got away with it. And that’s my main recollection of that. Otherwise, it was really a routine but fun thing. What’s his name, the kid… Matthew Broderick, he was great. And Ally [Sheedy]? Adorable. And John was a terrific director. So my memories are mostly pleasant and painless, except for Marty getting fired. Thank God he landed on his feet. He’s a hell of a director, a sweetheart of a guy, and he did not deserve to get fired.
Clifford (1994)—“Gerald Ellis”
DC: I’ve got a couple of recollections on that. First of all, Charles Grodin and I became friends. When they were casting it… [Starts to chuckle.] I don’t know how familiar you are with Charles and his sense of humor, but if you’ve seen him on a talk show, you’ve probably seen his wit and his intellect, both of which are finely honed. Well, they said, “We need a Dabney Coleman type,” and Charles said in that voice of his, “Well, how about Dabney Coleman?” “Oh, we can’t use him.” “I don’t understand. If you want a Dabney Coleman type, why don’t you get Dabney Coleman? What, do you think he can’t do a Dabney Coleman type? I don’t understand!” [Laughs.] That’s the kind of guy he is, and he put them against the wall, painted them into a corner, and they said, “Well, all right, shit, let’s get Dabney Coleman.” So they did. And I did Clifford.
The other little story that I have is that there was a famous cinematographer working on the film named John Alonzo, who I’d never worked with, but I’d heard from early Syd Pollack days about him being a terrific guy and cinematographer and so on and so forth. Well, there’s this scene where I’m in love with Mary Steenburgen, and she says something to me, and I reacted and John suddenly said, “My God, did you guys see that? Did you see that? Dabney blushed! He actually blushed! He actually changed color!” And he flipped his little viewfinder up. He was being complimentary, actually, so it was highly flattering. Oh, and there was one other thing with John. I still can’t see very well, but that’s when my vision problems were really beginning, and I had what I thought was a suit, but I wasn’t sure if it matched or not, if both parts were, like, a dark blue or a navy blue. They were close, anyway. But trusting his sense of color, I said, “John, is this a suit?” And he pulls his little viewfinder up again, looks me up and down, takes a second, and he says, “Close.” And then he just walked away. [Laughs.]
That’s about all I’ve got to say on that one, except that it was fun working with Mary and Charles and Martin Short, of course, doing his impressions of Katharine Hepburn or whoever, which are brilliant. That was a fun little deal.
Modern Problems (1981)—“Mark Winslow”
DC: When Modern Problems was being released, people were saying, “Well, what’s the movie about?” And I said, “I don’t have the slightest idea.” I didn’t, and I don’t. My son tells me that I’ve underrated that movie. But that speech on the beach where I’m reciting that list of my favorite things, I believe I changed that a little bit. Where I say, “Roots, the book, not that television horseshit,” I’m pretty sure I put the “horseshit” in there. [Laughs.] But that whole speech was hilarious, I thought. One of my favorite scenes. But I did this accent that was kind of Southeastern and based on Tennessee Williams, which I did a version of later on in Dragnet and added a lisp to it.
Dragnet (1987)—“Jerry Caesar”
DC: I went in to see Tom Mankiewicz—the director of Dragnet, whose dad [Joseph Mankiewicz] wrote All About Eve and was a director himself—to discuss the role, having already gotten it, but we just wanted to have a little talk before we started shooting. I said, “By the way, I’ve got an idea.” My daughter Mary has had a lisp, which was rather pronounced when she was younger. But it’s always been very touching and adorable to me, to the point where I mimic her from time to time. Like, when someone asks how I’m doing, I’ll say, “Exthellent!” [Laughs.] But I do it in a loving way, and, of course, Mary knows that it’s affectionate and it doesn’t hurt her feelings. Now, I saw Tennessee Williams several times, and I can’t recall if he actually had a lisp, but he had this wonderful Southeastern accent, which I’d already done in Modern Problems, so I said, “Well, I think I’m just gonna put a little lithp on top of that accent.” And I suggested this to Tom without actually doing it for him, and he said, “Oh, no, I think that might be a little much.” Then, several minutes later, as I’m getting up to leave, he says, “By the way, what would that sound like, that Southeastern accent with the lisp?” And I said, “Well, give me a line.” And he did, so I delivered it for him: “He had ballth as big as church bellth, and I came down on him like athid rain.” And he said, “Excuse me. If you don’t use that, I’m not going to pay you your salary. You’ve got to use that accent. That’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.” So I used it, and I loved it.
Nothing Personal (1980)—“Dickerson”
North Dallas Forty (1979)—“Emmett”
DC: Speaking of that kind of stuff, there was a line in a movie I did called Nothing Personal, with Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers, who is a fantastic actress and really got screwed out of a great career. She’s a terrific actress, comedy or otherwise, and a wonderful human being. Do you know her at all?
AVC: I’ve never had the pleasure.
DC: Well, God almighty, you’ve missed something. She’s an angel. At any rate, there’s a line in that movie that I created. I was playing a bad guy, and I had an associate with me in the car, and I was following somebody. It was… oh, who’s that fella? Very erudite guy who spent quite a bit of time on Broadway. Roscoe Lee Browne. Very successful writer as well. To set this up, this was after Roots. But we’re following someone, we know it’s gonna be the next guy who comes out of the door, and when he comes down the stairs and out of the apartment, I made up this line that I’m very proud of. I said, “Damn! He looks like that black actor… the one that wasn’t in Roots!”
Now, I heard you laugh just then, and I don’t know if you’re faking it or not, but either way, it’s by far the best reaction I’ve ever gotten to that line. [Laughs.] I thought it was hysterical, but nobody else seemed to get it.
And speaking of making up lines, in North Dallas Forty, I’m talking to Nick Nolte, we’re gonna cut him because I didn’t like him, because I knew he was flirting with my fiancée. And the line was something like, “I guess you’re gonna be playing your football in the Canadian Football League,” but instead of saying that, I changed it to, “So I guess that’s it, Phil. Oh, uh, by the way… do you speak Canadian at all?” [Laughs.]
Now, why am I jerking off like this? Why am I telling you this stuff? I hope this is the kind of stuff you want, ’cause I don’t know if it’s gonna make sense in the context of what you’re writing. But I hope to hell it does.
Buffalo Bill (1983-1984)—“Bill Bittinger”
DC: Well, that’s about my favorite. Jesus, that was such great writing, and a cast that was incredible. Those people, my God… Joanna Cassidy and Max Wright and Geena Davis and John Fiedler and Charles Robinson. That was just heaven on earth. But it was also very difficult, because it was tricky dialogue and I was in virtually every scene. But it was very good, very rewarding. I loved doing that show. And I think Brandon Tartikoff had to cancel it, but I knew his wife and him a little better than you might think because we had a connection with Bernie Brillstein. Not best friends, by any means, but a little bit above average. Anyway, I like to believe it’s true, but his wife took me aside at Spago’s and said, “By the way, Dabney, I want you know that canceling Buffalo Bill was the hardest thing that Brandon did in his career in television. He loved that show.” But it just had no ratings, and he had to cancel it. But in his book [The Last Great Ride], he said that his perfect Thursday-night lineup featured Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and Buffalo Bill. So that was a nice thing to say. Unfortunately, he passed away way too young with cancer. But Buffalo Bill was fantastic.
AVC: Thankfully, the series is available on DVD, although it was—very regrettably—released without the classic “Hit The Road, Jack” sequence.
DC: Yeah, they cut it out! That’s a shame, too. There’s a lot of defining moments of that show, but that was one of them, certainly. That show was just a gem.
The Guardian (2001-2004)—“Burton Fallin”
AVC: You did several other series after Buffalo Bill, most of which were relatively short-lived. Do you have a particular favorite in the bunch?
DC: I thought The Guardian was one of the greatest shows in the history of television. I’m not kidding you. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, as good as any other 10 shows I’ve ever seen. That’s that I’ve ever seen, mind you. I still don’t understand why it didn’t go longer. It did go three seasons, at least. Which for me is an eternity. [Laughs.] I never did one that went over one before that. But I thought that one was brilliant.
Nine To Five (1980)—“Franklin Hart, Jr.”
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993)—“Milburn Drysdale”
DC: How adorable is Lily Tomlin? She’s one of the greats, I think. In every way. Well, I think of Lily initially because I think she had a lot to do with my getting that part. When I was doing Bright Promise, a now-defunct NBC soap opera, she was doing Laugh-In at the same time, and I loved that show and, in particular, I loved her. I loved when she was playing a high-school cheerleader, and she did this little cheer. I wanted to meet her, so after shooting Bright Promise one day, I just went over to the set of Laugh-In, knocked on her door, and when she invited me in, I said, “I just wanted to tell you how great I think you are, and that cheerleading thing you do.” I can’t do it justice, but it was just adorable the way she did it. In fact, I kind of had the hots for her. I thought she was very sexy. Cut to about 10 years later, I haven’t seen her since then, but [Nine To Five director] Colin Higgins, he was talking to Lily, and she said, “Well, what about Dabney Coleman? He’s funny and he’s sexy.” That’s a quote. [Laughs.] And Colin says, “Okay.” My understanding is that’s literally the way it happened, so I think that’d pass for saying that she got me that part. And that’s the first thing I remember when I think of that film.
The next thing I think of is how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. 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. [Laughs.] 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 Nine To Five, 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.
On Golden Pond (1981)—“Bill Ray”
AVC: Given the Jane Fonda connection between the two films, is it fair to presume that doing Nine To Five was directly responsible for you getting the role in On Golden Pond?
DC: At the wrap party of Nine To Five, Lily came up to me and said, “Well, I guess you’ll be working with Jane again real soon, right?” And then she covered her mouth and said, “Oh, my God, I’ve let it out of the bag.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Oh, never mind.” [Laughs.] Well, it’s pretty obvious what she meant, but she just walked away, and that was the end of that. But that was on a Friday night, and on Monday I got a call from Jane saying, “Listen, do you mind if I send over a script to you? And would you mind reading it and telling me if you’d like to do it?” And I said, “Sure!” And I read it in one sitting and ended up crying at the end of it. I called her back and said, “Are you kidding?” And she said, “Well, look, this is just gonna be a little movie, no one’s gonna make any money. The movie’s not gonna make any money, we’re not paying anything big, but I just want to do this because I think my dad might have a shot at an Academy Award with this part.” I said, “Well, I don’t care what your motives are, but I definitely want to do this. I disagree with you, though. I think it’s gonna make a lot of money. I think it’s a great movie. But whether it does or not, I want to do this movie.”
So I did it. And it was one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had, if not the most touching experience I’ve ever had. Because there were several people going through stuff on that film, including Jane and her dad, who were literally going through exactly what the script was about. Or one of the things the script was about, anyway. The father-daughter relationship, they were going through exactly that, and it was very important to Jane to try to fix that or make an adjustment of some kind, because she cared very much for her dad. [Director] Mark Rydell was going through a bad time, I was going through a bad time, marital-wise, as was one of the key crew guys, either the cameraman or the assistant director. It was a very, very sentimental set fraught with all these dramatic scenarios from the different couples. But then, lo and behold, damned if we don’t see Jane and Henry connect for the first time in their lives. In that scene, the one in which she says, “I just want to be your friend,” at that moment they became friends for the first time.
Henry didn’t live but a short time after that, but I remember on a talk show, some lady says, “Well, Hank, how would you like to be remembered?” And he said, “I would like to be remembered as Jane Fonda’s dad.” It doesn’t get any better than that. And, indeed, he did win the Academy Award. So that was just a very touching experience. Also, given what I was saying earlier, I have to mention that Jane was a producer on the film, so she ended up making a fortune off it. [Laughs.] The rest of us didn’t, but she did. Which was totally predictable, in my opinion. That movie is one of the few films that touches people of all ages. Literally. Starting from, like, 8 years old on up. It just has that magic. And it still holds up well to this day.
Bogard (a.k.a. Black Fist) (1974)—“Heineken”
DC: Oh, God, yeah. Uh-huh. Oh, Jesus, what an experience that was. My friend Tim Galfas directed that… but did he write it, too?
AVC: Not according to IMDB.
DC: Well, he ended up rewriting a lot of it. [Laughs.] The lead actor, Richard Lawson, I don’t know if you recall, but he was one of the survivors of that plane that crashed out of LaGuardia. He was in the plane, at night and underwater, but he swam out, got out, and said, “I’m not dead yet!” That was Richard. He was a very good actor. I haven’t kept up with him, but he was a hell of an actor, great-looking fella, and a terrific guy. Should’ve been bigger.
Anyway, Tim Galfas was a friend of mine, and he was a famous still photographer, a fashion photographer in New York, and… I think he’d taught Greek history. An incredibly bright guy. And tough as hell. But we were good friends, we’d see each other a couple of times a week. When we were making the film, he was about 55, which is really not that old. Oh, to be 55 again from where I’m standing right now! [Laughs.] But at that time, I thought, “Look at this old guy…” I knew he’d done some extraordinary things. But he’d carry around the camera—this is back when they weighed a ton—on his shoulder, not on a track or a stand, and he’d do it for hours on end. He directed it, he shot it, and he’d edit in his head… but he wasn’t just editing that one movie. We actually shot two movies at once. He’d shoot scenes and go, “Well, that’ll be part of the first movie, and this’ll be part of the second movie.” That’s what happens when you’re working on a budget of zero: You make the most of what you’ve got. But I just remember him hauling that camera around, and you’d ask if he needed any help, and he’d be, like, “No, I’m all right!” In his Southern accent. “No, I’m all right, Dabney. Don’t you worry ’bout me!” And he was all right. And what he put together… I mean, it was a horrible movie, because there was no script there, but what he put together, I think it made some money! In Hong Kong or China, somewhere over there. It made a couple of bucks. Not for us, but for the producer.
Cloak & Dagger (1984)—“Hal Osbourne / Jack Flack”
DC: I thought it was a great idea. I didn’t get along with the director [Richard Franklin]. He’s since passed on, but he was… Well, I won’t say that. But it was great working with that little kid. Henry Thomas. What a great kid. And a great actor. I’ll tell you, though, it’s amazing how many people have come up to me and said something to me about that film, including Timothy Bottoms. Do you remember Timothy? What a wonderful actor. He had a couple of big hits, including The Paper Chase and The Last Picture Show, but there’s one that no one ever saw called Johnny Got His Gun that’s just something else.
AVC: Actually, we wrote about it not too long ago.
DC: God almighty, that’s a film. So Timothy came up to my table at Dan Tana’s, where I was, uh, kind of a regular. Which is kind of an understatement. Don Rickles, who’s a buddy of mine, one time he said, “Did you know Dabney was born in Dan Tana’s?” [Laughs]
AVC: Is that how you came to have a steak named after you?
DC: Well, I guess so. I’ve talked about it before on talk shows, I think. I got to know Dan a little bit, although I never actually asked him about it, I presume it’s to do with the fact that I ordered the damned thing five times a week for about 15 years. [Laughs.] Anyway, Timothy Bottoms came over to my table one night, and he says, “You don’t know me from veal parmesan, but my name is Timothy Bottoms.” I said, “Well, first of all, I do know you, and you’re a hell of an actor.” His brother, Joe, I did a movie with him called The Dove. They’re very aloof, just on the healthy side of arrogance. Definitely more aloof than arrogant, but very bright and complicated guys, the bunch of them. But, anyway, Timothy says, “You don’t me from veal parmesan, but I just want to thank you for playing Jack Flack. You don’t know what that movie means to my son and me.” That happens to me two or three times a year. It’s always either a father saying, “I saw that movie with my son,” or a son saying, “I saw it with my dad.” But then they say, “Seeing that movie was very important in my life.” And that’s always very nice to hear.