Bill Bittinger has not had an easy day. The self-loving, sexist host of a Buffalo, N.Y. talk show has been turned down cold by all the members of a female rock group that appeared on his program. Bittinger then focuses his attention on Jo Jo, his slinky director. He proposes marriage. “You’re better than 90 percent of those bimbos out there,” he says. “What’s the point of having an intimate relationship with someone you don’t care about—unless you have some time to kill while you’re waiting for a plane?”
Just when Archie Bunker has been laid to rest, along comes Dabney Coleman to drive feminists crazy again. After five weeks of a scheduled 13-week run, Coleman’s summer sitcom, NBC’s Buffalo Bill, has become such a hit that it is a strong contender for prime-time scheduling in the fall. Reviewers have praised the show as “hilarious” and “the most wonderful invective comedy since the early days of All in the Family.”
Nobody could be happier than Coleman, who, at 51, may have found the role of a lifetime. And he can probably act it without moving too far from his own person. “Dabney deserves the part,” says good friend Charlton Heston, “and the part deserves Dabney.” Admits Coleman, whom one critic singled out as “a living primer” on comedic timing, “I’m a little bit of a chauvinist if that means being an ambitious, self-serving person. I don’t consider myself an evil s.o.b., but it is fun to play those characters because they are so well defined.”
Coleman has plenty of experience with such characters, and they have all brought him good fortune. After attracting attention as Merle Jeeter on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 1975, he has encouraged movie audiences to hiss such low-down louses as the sexist boss in 9 to 5, the womanizing soap opera director in Tootsie and the Defense Department dodo in War-Games. He made one stab at decency as Jane Fonda’s dentist boyfriend who has an uncomfortable face-off with Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond.
Coleman has a history of playing the tough guy off camera too. Even as a youngster, he says, “I kept flirting with being the villain. I became a person like the early John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors—petulant.” Born in Austin, Texas, the youngest of four children, Coleman was reared by his mother after his father died of pneumonia when Dabney was 4. As a sophomore at Virginia Military Institute, recalls Coleman, “I was elected ‘s—of the week’ for 11 weeks in a row” by the freshman cadets. Coleman was considered a severe disciplinarian. “I wasn’t too successful with things I cared about, like women and sports. Being ‘s—of the week’ gave me recognition. I took great pride in it. But I think it was a really perverse way of getting an identity for myself.”
Drafted into the Army in 1953, Dabney was assigned to Germany, where he served Uncle Sam mostly by playing tennis on military teams in Europe. After his two-year stint he resumed his studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he met his first wife, Ann Herrall. A family friend of Ann’s was actor Zachary Scott, who so impressed Dabney when they met at a dinner party that he decided to give up college for acting just one semester shy of graduation. Coleman came to New York, studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and divorced Ann after two and a half years of marriage. In 1962 he and his second wife, actress Jean Hale, moved on to L.A. Dabney worked regularly in TV series such as That Girl until Merle Jeeter made him a household face, if not a name. Coleman subsequently starred as Jeeter in two Mary Hartman spin-offs, Forever Fernwood and Fernwood 2-Night.
Coleman is cagey about his personal life—probably because he doesn’t want producers to think of him as over 50 and over the hill. Separated from Hale after 20 years of marriage, Coleman lives alone in a condominium in Santa Monica. He regularly sees his children—Kelly, 19, Randolph, 14, and Mary Johns, 11—and is currently dating actress Laura (The Richard Boone Show) Devon, who is striking her own blow against male chauvinism. “Laura cooks as well as anybody but not as often as anybody,” says Coleman.
Coleman has not completely exorcised the testiness of his younger days, and that may contribute to his success. “Taking anger along with you can hold you in good stead when it results in courage, responsibility and drive from you,” says Dabney. “Most people never see it, but something is always churning inside me.”