George Coe, actor who was original ‘SNL’ member, dies at 86

George Coe, left, with Francis Guinan in a scene from the play "God's Man in Texas." His resume included roles on stage, TV and in films.

George Coe, left, with Francis Guinan in a scene from the play “God’s Man in Texas.” His resume included roles on stage, TV and in films.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)

George Coe, a veteran character actor with a comedic touch that he brought to the early days of Saturday Night Live, has died. He was 86.

Coe died Saturday in a Santa Monica convalescent facility, his daughter Amy Bickers said. He had a number of illnesses including lymphoma, a condition he battled for about 20 years and jokingly called “cancer lite.”

A distinguished-looking man with a serious bearing when he wanted one, Coe frequently played authority figures on TV and in films. He was a judge on “L.A. Law,” the smarmy head of Dustin Hoffman’s ad agency in “Kramer vs. Kramer” and a crusty U.S. senator who staged a filibuster for autism funding on “The West Wing.”


But he also poured himself into comedic roles. An original member of SNL’s Not Ready for Primetime Players, he was an older foil to younger, more manic cast members such as Chevy Chase and John Belushi.

As a parody TV pitchman, he did full-throated promotions of products such as the Golden Needles — “the amazing new scientific breakthrough that combines the ancient art of Chinese acupuncture with the modern convenience of Haitian voodoo.”

“And be sure to enclose a lock of your hair, a few fingernail parings, and a recent photo,” he earnestly told SNL viewers.

Coe was active in the Screen Actors Guild, serving on the union’s national board of directors for about 14 years. Although he was one of 16 members who sued the guild in 2013, alleging mismanagement of foreign royalties, Coe had long been one of the organization’s biggest advocates.

Without union representation, he would have been “the world’s oldest living busboy,” he said as he accepted a national SAG award in 2009.

Born George Julian Cohen in Jamaica, N.Y., on May 10, 1929, Coe grew up on Long Island, the son of a diamond dealer. He graduated from the Admiral Farragut Academy, a naval prep school, before attending Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.


Coe served on a Navy submarine during the Korean war. He received a commendation for morale-boosting comedy programs that he created and aired over the ship’s radio, Bickers said.

After his military service, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. In 1963, the New York Times described him as a “talented farceur” for the 22 roles he played in “Money,” a frothy cabaret musical.

On Broadway, Coe was in the original productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” and “What Makes Sammy Run?” He had many roles across the U.S. including appearances in Florida with Angela Lansbury in “Gypsy” and a starring role in “God’s Man in Texas” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

In 1969, Coe’s 14-minute comedy film “De Duva: The Dove” was nominated for an Academy Award. A black-and-white parody of Ingmar Bergman’s films, “The Dove” credited itself with a presumably coveted “Golden Escargot” award. The film starred Madeline Kahn and Coe, who also co-directed and co-produced it.

Coe’s film work included roles in “The Stepford Wives,” “Cousins,” “The Mighty Ducks” and “Funny People.” He appeared on more than 50 TV shows, including “thirtysomething,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Golden Girls,” “Murphy Brown,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

He also was the voice of Woodhouse, the heroin-addicted and frequently abused valet on the FX animated series “Archer.”

Coe’s survivors include his wife, Susan; twin daughters, Bickers and Jennifer Coe; and four grandchildren.

He never aspired to be a leading man, Bickers said.

“He thought there was nothing more fun than his work,” she said, “but he didn’t have the ego of a star. He loved being part of an ensemble.”

Twitter: @schawkins