Dabney Coleman: Where to Stream His Best Movies and TV Shows

Dabney Coleman: Where to Stream His Best Movies and TV Shows

The veteran character actor Dabney Coleman died Thursday at 92. Coleman began appearing in movies and TV series in the 1960s, when he was in his early 30s, and from the beginning, he had the look and the attitude of a grumpy middle-aged man.

For most of his career — except on those rare occasions when he got to play a lead role — Coleman’s job was to pop in for a scene or two to growl and grumble in a manner that was generally both humorous and more than a little scary. He reliably brought the kind of antagonistic energy familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with a bad boss or a disgruntled customer.

Much of Coleman’s best TV work — like the short-lived sitcoms “Buffalo Bill” and “The Slap Maxwell Story,” and the soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” — aren’t available to stream. And while he had roles in dozens of very good films and TV shows, he was often low in the billing. The seven Coleman performances below, though, are both outstanding and substantial, showcasing his imposing screen presence and ace comic timing.

After nearly 20 years in the business, Coleman’s career really took off in the 1980s, when producers started casting him in parts that let him hang around onscreen a little longer. He had his breakout performance in this hit comedy, which stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as secretaries who try to overcome corporate sexism by imprisoning their boss. Coleman plays that piggish executive, whose disrespect for women in general (and these three employees in particular) is so infuriating to watch that audiences couldn’t wait to see him get his comeuppance.

Rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV or YouTube.

Coleman teamed again with Jane Fonda a year later for an Oscar-winning big-screen adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s play “On Golden Pond,” a passion project for the actress, who wanted to work with her aging father, Henry Fonda. Coleman only has a small part in the film, playing Bill, the fiancé of Jane Fonda’s character Chelsea, the estranged daughter of Henry Fonda’s prickly Norman. Coleman gets to hit some of his usual sour notes when Bill stands up to Norman’s passive-aggressive bullying, but he’s not the villain of the story this time. He’s a decent man who just won’t be pushed too far, a Coleman character shown in a somewhat more flattering light.

Stream it on Peacock or Tubi; rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play or YouTube.

Like “9 to 5,” this is a zeitgeist-grabbing comedy about endemic sexism in an American cultural institution. But for once, Coleman’s character isn’t the biggest chauvinist in the room. He plays Ron, a soap opera director trying to get the best from his new star, Dorothy Michaels (Dustin Hoffman) — who is actually a struggling New York theater actor named Michael Dorsey posing as a woman and dealing with the handsiness of his blustery co-star John Van Horn (George Gaynes). Ron’s no-nonsense attitude and wry asides amount to only one piece of the film’s fast-paced, intricate comic rhythms. But it is an important piece, and Coleman is as much of a pro as the character he’s playing, hitting his beats with precision.

Rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play or YouTube.

Whenever Coleman wasn’t playing an out-and-out jerk (or a misunderstood jerk, as was the case with “Buffalo Bill” and “Slap Maxwell”), he often took on the role of a snappish authority figure. The richest of those performances came in this Cold War thriller. Coleman played Dr. John McKittrick, an engineer keeping an eye out for Soviet missile attacks at NORAD. When a curious teenage hacker (Matthew Broderick) accidentally triggers a simulated thermonuclear war that threatens to go global, McKittrick’s distrust of this kid runs the risk of making the situation worse. The surly Coleman perfectly embodies the kind of well-meaning bureaucracy that may not be able to adapt in time to stave off an apocalypse.

Stream it on Max; rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play or YouTube.

Coleman first appeared in “Columbo” in the 1973 episode “Double Shock,” in which he played a Los Angeles detective who appears in just a few scenes. By 1991, though, he had become a big enough name to be one of the show’s guest villains: a shady attorney who murders his duplicitous girlfriend and frames her lover. Coleman’s character is one of those “Columbo” killers who gets easily irritated by the relentlessness of the rumpled lieutenant (Peter Falk), making it all the more entertaining as his clever alibi gets gradually peeled away.

Stream it on Peacock or Tubi.

Later in his career, Coleman landed a plum role in this CBS drama, playing a respected lawyer trying to reestablish a relationship with his wayward son, Nick (Simon Baker), a lawyer who has been sentenced to work with children as part of his community service for a drug offense. It is a complicated character, allowing Coleman to show a softer side while still having plenty of opportunities to bark orders and deliver withering wisecracks.

Stream it on Paramount+; buy it on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.

Coleman had another late-career highlight with this HBO period crime drama, which he guest starred on throughout its first two seasons. He played Commodore Louis Kaestner, an early 20th century Atlantic City politician and business mogul who remains a puppet-master well into the Prohibition era, even as his protégés battle each other for power. Coleman plays the character as a frail but formidable man who relies on the city’s collective memory of all that he built — and everyone he hurt — to maintain control. “Boardwalk Empire” viewers didn’t need to see the Commodore in his heyday in order to understand why so many of the show’s antiheroes were still scared of him. To the end, Coleman could command attention and make people nervous.

Stream it on Max; buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV or Google Play.

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