I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, mostly because my Random Roles interviews have, for the last several months, managed to make it onto the AV Club more or less as I submitted them. I’ve no clue why these moments didn’t end up making the final cut in my conversation with Dabney Coleman, nor do I have any complaints about their omission (I’m a writer, I know my place, so I’m fine with letting the editors have final say about what goes in and what doesn’t), but I do think they’re still worth reading, so I figured I’d offer them up here.
Melvin and Howard (1980)—“Judge Keith Hayes”
Dabney Coleman: Okay, that’s Jonathan Demme. And Mary Steenburgen. A good movie. I was pretty good in that. In fact, I’m sure Mary had 100% to do with them flying me back to New York to read for the part of her husband in Ragtime. It happened, though, that I had the flu. Badly. And then traveling… [Sighs.]
So I’m in the Plaza Hotel, in a room that I think at one point must’ve been a janitor’s closet, and the heat was overwhelming, and here I had probably a 103-degree temperature on top of that. I wasn’t real sure where I was supposed to do the audition for Milos Forman with Mary. It was close to the Plaza, though. Walking distance. But I ran it. With an overcoat on, with the flu, and in freezing cold weather. I ended up in the studio soaking wet, sweating from running and the temperature, and cold at the same time…and I gave the worst audition probably in the history of color movies. I remember the look of shock on Mary’s face…and on Milos’s, too, because he had evidently trusted her word. In fact, now that I look back, Milos came to my hotel room the day before the reading. That’s very unusual. And with Mary. That’s highly unusual. In fact, I think that’s unique, as I can recall. So they were really kind of counting on me getting that part. And I was so terrible that I remember telling Mary after that, “It was from the flu! I hate to make excuses, but, flat out, that was what it was.” I didn’t know where I was. And…when I was reading it, I remember thinking, “I feel like a girl.” Not a gay guy, but a girl. And I mean that quite literally. I don’t know whether I was kind of delirious or what, but that’s what I thought: “My God, you sound like a mediocre actress, is what you sound like.” And I still can’t explain that, except that I think it had much to do with being a little bit off-kilter from the flu and having run about five blocks to get there on time or whatever. But it was the worst. And Milos even said… [Starts to laugh.] I think I’d done it two or three times, and he said, “Do you, uh, want to try it again?” I said, “I don’t think so. It’s not gonna get any better. I’ve got to go home and go to bed.” They don’t take a lot of excuses in this business, though, so…he never got nasty, but, anyway, that’s why I didn’t get the part: because I was just terrible. So that’s the story on that deal.
Anyway, in Melvin and Howard, I remember there was a moment…you know, you have these moments every now and then that kind of stick out—if you’re lucky or if you’re any good—and one of them was a line was where I’m speaking to Melvin before the trial began, before we actually started it, and saying a line that started, “If you’re guilty…and I think you are…” And it was the way I read that line. It was very good. It was just excellent. And it just caused whispers, including Mary Steenburgen, saying, “This guy’s real good.” [Laughs.] And I was! I’m perfectly willing to admit when I’m terrible or when I’m pretty good. But in that, I was pretty damned good. Yeah, I liked that movie. Jonathan Demme…oh, God, he’s just a wonderful guy. Jesus, what a wonderful man. Good God. He was something else. Is something else. [Hesitates.] Or is it “was”? Did he pass away?
AVC: No, no, he’s still with us.
DC: Well, thank God. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I’d heard that he’d passed away. But he is a great guy. He’s just a tremendous human being.
Recess (1997-1999) / Recess: School’s Out (2001)—“Principal Peter Prickly”
DC: Oh, yeah, Recess. Okay, I don’t know what to say about that, except that I just played it for real. I just changed my voice and played it for real, unlike most of the people who do those things. For some reason, they don’t, which is just totally against the way I was taught to act and what I think is funny and what I think works, which is total reality. The closer to reality you come… Let the lines or the situation take care of the comedy, but you stay real. That’s my theory, anyway. And that’s what I did on that. I just played this old bastard and had a lot of fun. That was another good company. Paul Germain, the writer/director, wonderful guy. And I don’t say that lightly when I say these are outstanding people. What a terrific human being also. He made it easy and fun. Because some of those things… I’ve done a couple, and some of them are like pulling teeth. But he made it fun.