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Never Mr. Nice Guy

An interview with Boardwalk Empire's Dabney Coleman.

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.

Q: Are you musically inclined at all?

A: Not really, but I think it’s something genetic — it’s in there somewhere. I have good pipes and a good ear, and I think that’s where they got it.

Q: Did you see the show business spark in them early on?

A: One of them was writing and singing songs at age 5, and has tremendous pipes. The others came on late, in their 20s, and just developed incredible talent. They were incredible in terms of how they progressed in a short period of time. In two years, they went from being amateurish to being highly professional, exciting performers, which is rather unusual. Before their 20s, I had no idea what they were interested in. I certainly didn’t think it was music.

Q: You had most of your kids a bit later than average. How did that affect what kind of parent you were?

A: Tennis was a great interest of mine until 10 years ago, when I lost my sight in my left eye. I played tournaments and got ranked in the nation as a junior. I played seven days a week, and tennis was a huge thing to me to the point that it took me away from my family a little bit — even during the evening meal, which is very, very important. If I had it to do all over again, I would somehow make an adjustment there. But I’m not real sure if that had anything to do with how old I was. I think tennis had a major effect on what kind of parent I was.