Sunday, November 28, 2021

Sunday Best: Dabney Coleman - The Most Underrated Actor

File:Dabney Coleman (actor).jpg
photo by Aaron Rapoport


Sometimes actors jump out of the screen and burn themselves into your imaginations as bright, shinning movie stars.  Other times, there are actors who are so dedicated to their craft that they become staples of some your favorite movies without even realizing how integral they became.

Of the latter, I think of Dabney Coleman.

I mean absolutely no insult to him by not associating him with the former.  Coleman has much to be proud of, taking starring roles in several films.  But to my mind, I don't think he has ever gotten the recognition that he deserves for his skill as an actor.

Dabney Coleman is one of the finest and most underrated actors in the movies.  He had been working in film and television for years until his breakout roll as Mr. Hart in 9 to 5.  In that film he played the perfect villain as a "sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical, bigot."  And yet even though he was the main antagonist, he brought a wonderful sense of charm to the role.  Coleman has a great screen presence which adapts perfectly to each comedic situation.

Throughout the years, Coleman proved to be an excellent comedian in films like TootsieDragnet, Hot to Trot, The Beverly Hillbillies, and You've Got Mail.  He knew how to play broad comedy with strange, over-the-top personalities like the pornographer Jerry Caesar going up against straight-laced Joe Friday.  He also knew when to hold things in with subtle contempt like Nelson Fox, the oft-divorced father of Joe Fox.  

But Coleman is also one of the few actors who is just as good in a comedy as well as a drama.  His portrayal as Dr. John McKittrick in WarGames could have been a simple heavy.  But instead Coleman gave him several layers and dimensions.  You can see the different facets of his personality depending on the person with whom he is interacting.  However, there are two roles that really let Coleman shine:

The first is Cloak and Dagger.  In this movie, Coleman plays Davey Osborne's imaginary friend Jack Flack as well as Davey's father.  It is wonderful to watch Coleman play those roles so differently.  I remember as a kid that I never once confused the two characters and that is really a testament to Coleman.  His Jack Flack has all the swagger, charm, and deadly focus of James Bond, but Bond from a child's perspective.  He is everything that an action hero should be for a kid.  But Davey's father Hal is the opposite.  He is unsure, wounded, overly protective and reactionary.  In other words, he seems in many ways to be Jack's opposite.  And Coleman never goes too far or too showy with either performance.  He knows just how to play both characters.  There is a concrete realism to the way he plays Hal towards the end of the movie as he nervously tries to bluff his way to get to his son.  All the while, Coleman never cheats by having Hal turn into or start behaving like Jack.  Instead, we get to see Hal be his own kind of hero not as a super-spy, but as a man and a father.

But Coleman's best performance, hands-down, is in the movie Short Time.  

The movie has a fantastic premise: Detective Burt Simpson (Coleman) mistakenly thinks he only has 2 weeks to live and is days away from retirement.  However, his life insurance policy is only a "line-of-duty" policy, where it only pays out if he gets killed on the job.  So Simpson starts taking on the most dangerous cases in an attempt to get himself killed and in the process becomes an unwitting hero.

This movie has some truly hysterical moments.  The funniest for me is a car chase where Simpson gets closer to a dangerous get away car.  When one of them pulls out an M-60, he shouts, "Machine guns... ALRIGHT!"  When the bad guys knock his car down an embankment he shouts for joy... until he lands safely, realizing his seat belt saved his life.  The movie is filled with moments like this that are outrageously absurd and Coleman milks every laugh out of it.

But what makes this performance stand out is that it also one of his best dramatic performances too.  In the film, he is divorced from his wife (played by Terri Gar) for all of the usual reasons marriages break up.  But as he thinks about his life's mistakes, he reconciles with her in a scene that is so incredibly vulnerable and touching that I'm shocked its in the same movie.  What starts as a heart-felt apology blossoms into a rekindled romance.  But Coleman plays the perfect amount of joy and melancholy.  Not knowing that Burt thinks he is going to die, his wife says to him "At least now we have time."  The look on Coleman's face in that one moment is devastating.  You can see all of the guilt and confusion as to what he should do, but he is unable to bring pain to her in the little time he thinks they have left.

To my mind, I don't think people are appreciative enough of Coleman's body of work.  But is just my humble opinion.

Dabney Coleman has 178 acting credits to his name in a career that spans 60 years.  Some of his appearances may be small, but his performances are always special.  

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