Dabney Coleman's career took a most unexpected turn in 1976 when, after 15 years of steady work in necessary, but thankless roles, most of them in police shows, he made his debut as a con man in the syndicated soap opera spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

Merle Jeeter originally was supposed to depart the show after five episodes, but proved so delightfully twisted that he remained until the show left the air and was replaced by a sequel, "Forever Fernwood," in which he was one of the stars.

There's no doubt Merle Jeeter was the most significant role in his career, but Coleman also credits his mustache. Without it, he once said, he looked like Richard Nixon.

Coleman has continued to work steadily, but with a decidedly different image. Since Jeeter, Coleman has specialized in playing obnoxious jerks, which has backfired on him more times than not. His reputation within the entertainment industry hasn't often resulted in performances that received a warm reception from the viewing public.

Coleman has starred in several series, most of which arrived with high expectations and plenty of hype. None was a success.

In a way, I guess, it was like trying to build a series around the Mr. Potter character (Lionel Barrymore) in "It's a Wonderful Life." You couldn't have a good movie without him, but you wouldn't want him at the center of it, and you especially couldn't build a weekly series around a louse, not even one who is funny. (Okay, Archie Bunker was an exception.)

The problems with Coleman's characters in the 1980s and '90s is they weren't even all that funny, which is probably why he went back to dramatic roles, albeit through characters who fired occasional zingers at the people around him.

In 1977 Coleman visited Boston. That's where we met:

Providence Sunday Journal, October 16, 1977


As a newspaper writer, I am supposed to remain neutral in any public discussion of politics, but I put aside that principle when it comes to one very special politician.

I wholeheartedly endorse Mayor Merle Jeeter in his bid for the Presidency.

Jeeter is the transplanted Texas con man and preacher who parlayed his son’s death and a Condos for Christ campaign into a successful election as mayor of the fictitious Ohio town that Norman Lear made famous in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Jeeter is a liar, a cheat and a notorious lecher who seems to enjoy making public confessions of his sins. It’s his candor about his shortcomings that makes him a politician for our times.

Merle Jeeter is the creation of actor Dabney Coleman, who was brought into “Mary Hartman, Mary’s Hartman” toward the end of the show’s first season. As Coleman remembers it, Jeeter was written in for five episodes.

Eighteen months and about 150 episodes later, Merle Jeeter remains one of Fernwood’s most active citizens, though he certainly has had more than his share of bad luck lately, losing most of his power to an irate city council which punished Jeeter’s weakness for graft by banishing him to a $6-a-night motel that is beyond his means. You can count on Jeeter and his politically astute wife, Wanda (Marian Mercer), to plot a comeback.

Coleman was in Boston recently for an appearance on the syndicated “Good Day” program. He and I talked after the show and I asked what he was doing in Boston.

“Funny thing,” he replied. “One day I complained that no one was doing much to promote ‘Forever Fernwood,’ and the next day I was told I was going on tour.”

“Forever Fernwood” is the reincarnation of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” but without Mary.

Most of the favorite Fernwoodians are back, though Tab Hunter has replaced Philip Bruns as George Shumway (Mary Hartman’s father) and Mary Kay Place, who plays country singer Loretta Haggers, has been signed for only 10 weeks’ work in the first 26 weeks of the show.

It was up to Coleman to fill in the looks and personality of his character. “I’m from Texas, so I made Merle Jeeter a Texan, and for the personality I combined George Wallace, football coach Hayden Fry (formerly of Southern Methodist University), and a man you never heard of.”

The combination certainly has worked, and Coleman hopes Jeeter and “Forever Fernwood” are around for a long time. One of the most beneficial things about the role is the opportunity for Coleman to do comedy.

“After I went to Hollywood in 1962, I spent a lot of time playing FBI agents and straight cops, second-guy-through-the-door types.”

Coleman grew up in Austin, then followed several other men in his family by attending Virginia Military Institute. After a couple of years he decided the military wasn’t for him, so he transferred to the University of Texas in hopes of becoming a lawyer.

Then he met Randolph Scott.

“He was a friend of my first wife’s family,” Coleman said. “We talked one night for a couple of hours – not about acting, just about things in general – and he impressed me so much with his poise and sophistication that the next day I was on a plane for New York where I made the rounds of acting schools.”

Coleman worked with the Neighborhood Playhouse – “the West Point of acting schools; you eat, sleep and think acting 24 hours a day” – and did some Broadway and summer stock before moving to California.

“I’ve never been out of work for very long, thank heaven. That’s an experience that can really wipe you out. I’ve known a lot of very good actors who just couldn’t take it. They dropped out of the business. On the other hand, I know a lot of bad actors who never stop working.”

However steady his work, Coleman remained relatively anonymous in straight and colorless roles until Merle Jeeter gave him the chance to cut loose. Now he might as well be the country’s most popular mayor. He’ll always get my vote.

Coleman appeared in 24 episodes of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" (2010-11), and later had roles in Showtime's "Ray Donovan" and an episode of "Yellowstone" as Jon Dutton Sr. He died May 16, 2024 at the age of 92.

Dabney Coleman at (IMDb.com)