At an otherwise pleasant dinner party he attended the other evening, Dabney Coleman made a nice woman cry.
“I was doing my stuff, my sarcastic thing, and she didn’t know I was kidding,” Coleman confesses. “I thought she would get it, and she didn’t.”
Lauded for his talent at portraying characters that have been called everything from smarmy to sleazy to just plain mean--the smug mayor in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the despicable talk-show host in “Buffalo Bill,” the sexist boss in “9 to 5" and the crusty sports columnist in ABC’s new series “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story"--Coleman admits that over the years, the blacker side of those roles has crept into his own personality.
“I like playing those sarcastic characters, and I like doing it in my private life too, as a joke,” Coleman says. “It’s now become a part of my social humor.”
But while Buffalo Bill routinely savaged everyone who crossed his path and then remained indifferent to the hurt he inflicted, Coleman says he suffers dearly whenever his good-natured malice goes awry. He anguished for several days, he says, about hurting the feelings of the woman at the party before writing her a letter of apology.
“There is a fine line (between humor and cruelty) and sometimes it doesn’t depend on my delivery; it depends upon whether the victim appreciates it,” Coleman says. “It sounds funny, but when I put someone down like that it’s really kind of flattering because I’m saying, ‘I know that you’re sharp enough to get this kind of humor. It takes a little imagination to understand or appreciate it. It’s my way of saying I like you.’ ”
What Coleman likes most is bringing that stinging, dead-pan brand of humor to network-sized audiences week after week. Coleman says that in recent years he turned down several TV series offers that would have cast him in more conventional roles, waiting instead for Jay Tarses, the co-creator of “Buffalo Bill,” to write a new character for him.
Initially, Tarses envisioned Coleman as a Ford dealer before finally settling on a small-town sports writer. But Tarses says it’s not the occupation, but Coleman’s own caustic instincts that breathe life into the show.
“Look at his face,” Tarses says. “It’s not Paul Newman’s face. It’s not Rob Lowe’s face. There’s a certain aura that comes off his face that allows him to play these disagreeable, cantankerous and conniving characters. He’s very acerbic and yet he can be sentimental and romantic at the same time.”
That varied range of emotion marks the difference between Slap Maxwell and Coleman’s other slimy characters. Sure, Slap is a curmudgeon, but he is a decent, ethical, even lovable curmudgeon.
Coleman says that portraying all the colors of this character and making them look and sound believable--one moment Slap is a petulant child, raving about his editor’s “glass eye and wooden leg” (Slap’s own bogus inventions), the next he’s ruminating touchingly about loneliness or middle age--is far more gratifying than portraying any of the other truly irredeemable characters in his portfolio.
“They were so oblivious to any kind of ethic or morality, there were no limits on what they would do or say,” Coleman remembers. “And so you could derive comedy quite easily from a character like that.
“With Slap, it is demanding to convince an audience that on the one hand you’re this crusty, almost antisocial, s.o.b. and on the other you’re this sentimental guy. That’s the challenge--to make it entertaining, to make it moving and to make it funny.”
Dabney Coleman loves Slap, and he seems to love talking about him. But talking to Coleman about Slap is almost like talking to Slap himself. Sporting a baseball cap and sweat jacket, Coleman dresses like Slap probably would dress if he had a nice pool in Brentwood to sit around and shoot the breeze. Coleman also smokes the same long, fat cigars that Slap favors.
And he says things about himself that sound like he stole them straight from the Slapper--eccentric, lonely kinds of things one minute about not going to dinner at people’s homes anymore now that he is no longer married, and whiny, sarcastic kinds of things the next minute about losing two Emmys, one Golden Globe and a cable-TV Ace award and having to applaud for the guys who beat him.
“He and I have a lot in common,” Coleman acknowledges of his TV character. “He and I would be real good buddies. He would love the Slap Maxwell show. And I would love his sports column.”
But while Slap constantly confronts the big 5-0 and moans about his achievements or lack of them, Coleman says the only thing that reminds him of his own age (55) is a bum knee that keeps him off the tennis court.
“Slap and I are in different positions,” Coleman says. “I think Slap is as good at what he does as I am at what I do, but I’ve got more of the rewards. I haven’t systematically destroyed the road to success as he has done. Complaining about being 50 is just his way of kvetching about what life has dealt him. That’s his psyche, that’s how he functions.”
(“Dabney is tough and a loner like Slap, but I don’t think he has ever personally felt the way Slap feels about 50,” Tarses says. “But he’s got to understand it, because he plays it like he does.”)
“Slap just likes to bring his life to a theatrical pitch,” says Coleman, who admits he too complains to dramatize his own life. “The hat (a battered gray fedora) is not just worn because he’s a cheapskate. He knows what it looks like and he likes what it looks like. He likes being ‘there’s-old-Slap.’ ”
Coleman likes being “old Slap” too. Though he won his first Emmy Award this year for a dramatic role in a television movie, “Sworn to Silence,” and though his career includes prominent roles in such films as “WarGames,” “Tootsie” and “On Golden Pond,” Coleman seems most proud of his work on “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story.”
According to the Nielsen ratings, the modest-sized audience for the show’s dark humor has been slowly dwindling. But ABC has renewed “Slap” for the rest of the season.
“I would never anticipate our show being in the top 20,” Coleman says. “I just don’t think there is that big an audience for that kind of humor. But I would like to stay on the air for some years and (will be satisfied with) whatever (rating) that requires; I don’t care if we’re rated 50th or first. I like this kind of stuff. I like ‘Mary Hartman,’ I like ‘Buffalo Bill’ and I like this. I don’t want to do other kinds of comedy.”