While Dabney Coleman, 78, has portrayed a vast range of characters in his 50-year acting career, he is best known for one type of role in particular — the cad, the cretin and the creep. Coleman plays a jerk better than almost anyone in the business, as fans of the comedy classic 9 to 5 — where he played the chauvinistic boss who inspired Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton to exact hilarious revenge — can attest to. Now, he’s at it again, playing Commodore Louis Kaestner, mentor to mobster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a series about the dark side of Atlantic City during Prohibition. Coleman spoke to AARP about the show and about his kids’ surprising career direction.
Q: Tell me about the Commodore.
A: He’s [Nucky’s] mentor. The Commodore is the kingpin of the town — the boss of the boss. He was a tough guy from New Jersey, and the term Commodore comes not from his military background, but because he was the head of the yacht club in Atlantic City.
Q: In a recent episode, the Commodore humiliated a maid to prove to Nucky that women shouldn’t vote. How do you get into that mindset?
A: I think it comes from a kind of dark humor — I approach it from the meanness and the cynicism. It comes out of just how mean I can be, and somewhere along the line, it comes off as humorous. The meaner it gets, the funnier it becomes.
Q: Throughout your career, especially in films like Tootsie and 9 to 5, you’ve specialized in playing jerks. How did that become your thing?
A: I do it well. It all started with Merle Jeeter in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It had a very strange, off-the-wall type of humor, the key to which was playing it straight. That’s where I got into this type of character.
Q: Is it more fun to play a character with that mean edge than to play a nice guy?
A: No question. And again, it goes back to the humor of it. Somewhere along the line, there’s humor attached to that.
Q: Many people say that comedy is more difficult to play than drama. Do you agree?
A: Yes. You can get away with not being moving in a drama, but if everyone in the theater knows it’s supposed to be funny but it isn’t funny, you don’t get away with that. [The late director] Sydney Pollack said, “The target is smaller in comedy,” and he’s right. If you miss the bull’s-eye in comedy, then it’s very obvious that you miss. It’s not so obvious in drama.
Q: Many actors have kids who also became actors. Yours became musicians. How did your children gravitate toward music?
A: They grew up listening to different kinds of music that I played for them constantly — classical, country and western. For some reason, they’re all attuned to jazz. I’m not a big jazz fan myself, but they all have a definite ear for that. They’re all very good musicians.