You may have to squint, but, yes, that is Dabney Coleman in the role of Commodore Louis Kaestner, Nucky’s scheming mentor and confidante on Boardwalk Empire. Despite a background in drama, the 78-year-old actor built a memorable second career out of portraying antiheroes and boors in comedies, most notably on the cult sitcom Buffalo Bill and in movies such as 9 to 5 and Tootsie. So good has Coleman been at playing — let’s face it — assholes, in fact, that you might think he was one himself. But as Vulture found out in a recent phone conversation with Coleman, the man is a pussycat, even if he is proud that he made TV safe for jerks.
You didn't really become a household name until 1976, when you were in your forties. Why do you think it took so long?
The big thing that turned everything around was [the nightly comedic soap opera] Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman No one knew I could do comedy until that time. For ten years or so, I was doing only minor parts — you know, third or fourth leads, and not really good, interesting parts. Even on Mary Hartman [where he played duplicitous mayor Merle Jeeter], I was supposed to only do six shows and then get killed off. But it turned out that I could do comedy pretty well, and differently, and realistically. And what I learned is that there’s always a demand for anybody who can do comedy.
Did growing your signature mustache in 1973 also factor into your success?
Oh, yes. Without the mustache, I looked too much like Richard Nixon. And that’s true. It’s a fact. There’s no question that when I grew that mustache, all of a sudden, everything changed. But it’s funny, I got the call after going in to audition for Mary Hartman and they said, “They want you to do six shows — if you shave the mustache.” And I said, “I’m not shaving the mustache.” And my agent, I remember, said, “Well, it’s not as if Mary Hartman’s going to make or break your career. I’m just going to turn them down.”
Nice, they totally caved. And just a few years later, you were playing the world’s worst boss in 9 to 5. Was that the first time you played a total prick?
No, that was Mary Hartman. That’s what this guy was. Merle Jeeter — just a great character, a real bozo. [9 to 5's Franklin M. Hart Jr.] was virtually the same guy. In fact, that’s not true — he was just the bad side of Jeeter. The prick side of him, to use your vernacular. No redeeming qualities.
Was 9 to 5 a turning point in your career?
No question about it. That opened up the movies for me. The girls [Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton] were so supportive of me, and included me in everything. They were on a whole different level than I was at the time, but they were very sensitive about that, and made sure that I was included in every publicity shot and tour. All three of them insisted, “Where’s Dabney? Get him in here!” They’re all three unique and wonderful ladies, all three of them.
I assume you enjoyed being hog-tied by Dolly Parton?
[Laughs.] I did. Of course. I’m only human.
The success of that movie led to you being the go-to guy for boorish characters for a while. Which of them was the biggest jerk?
The biggest jerk? Probably Bill Bittinger in [TV series] Buffalo Bill. That was great, I have to say. That was a well-written, funny series. But it just didn’t have any ratings.
I’m glad you brought up Buffalo Bill. It’s a prime example of a show that was canceled too soon. Were you disappointed it ended so abruptly?
To tell you the truth, no. I was exhausted. It was an exhausting show, just by the nature of the writing being so good, and the long speeches. The reality is, if you do something for a year, or 26 episodes, you’ve probably had enough of it. The fun of it is probably over after the first season. That’s the reality. The only reason you keep doing it is to make a living.
Antiheroes are everywhere on TV now — even on Boardwalk Empire, for example. Are you proud of having helped make television safe for jerky lead characters?
I don’t take credit for being the first. I would have to give that to Carroll O’Connor. But sure, I was one of the first. It’s fun playing those roles. You get to do outlandish things, things that you want to do, probably, in real life but you just don’t because you’re a civilized human being. There are no holds barred when you’re playing [jerks] — I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving playing those parts.
You don’t get to use your comedic skills much on Boardwalk Empire. Would you be okay if the Commodore were your last role?
Well, I wish I’d done more. A lot more. But you know, I feel very fortunate to have done what I have done. And I’m enjoying this thing. And that’s present tense: I’m enjoying the hell out of doing this thing on Boardwalk Empire.
So you survive season one? In recent episodes, you’ve thrown up in a spitoon and announced you were dying.
Yeah. We start back up in January. From what I understand, the role is going to be a little bigger and developed a bit more next year. They told me a story line, which I can’t reveal, that’s going to be a lot more interesting, and a lot of fun. I’m fortunate to get this part at this time in my career because it’s definitely a different character for me.
And so we come to the hidden agenda behind this interview: to thank you for being in WarGames.
You played a systems engineer overseeing the military mainframe WOPR. Were you at all familiar with computers going into that?
No. In fact, I wasn’t even familiar with computers when I did You’ve Got Mail. At the interview, I walked in and Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed that, said Uh I still can’t think of it now. What do you say ? What is the expression? Is it, “Are you online?” Meaning, “Do you use a computer?” What do you call it?
“Are you online?” sounds about right.
Does that make sense to you? Is there such an expression? Meaning, “Do you have a website, and do you use a computer?” Anyway, whatever it was, I said, “I don’t even know what that means.” And they all laughed. And that was well into the computer age. I still only use the computer for e-mail — and to bet on sports. That’s it.