Cloak & Dabney

(NOTE: This was originally written May 18, 2024 and published in print May 20; its posting was delayed due to technical difficulties.)

When actor Dabney Coleman took his last bow recently at 92, many memorial pieces hailed him as the king of curmudgeons, playing the jerks that everyone loved to hate. Like the sexist boss in “9 to 5.” Or the nasty director in “Tootsie.” Or even an outright con artist in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”

But in my childhood memories, Coleman will always be a little more. Like a daring superspy. And a dad struggling to do the right thing. And a reminder that not all heroes wear bulletproof berets.

If the description sounds familiar, then you’re almost certainly a fellow survivor of the 1980s with memories of the kids’ spy film “Cloak & Dagger.” Henry Thomas – yes, the “E.T.” kid – played Davey, an 11-year-old obsessed with spy games who accidentally intercepts the target of an actual spy operation: an Atari game cartridge with secret plans hidden on it. Like many a movie kid, nobody believes him. Unlike them, he has Dabney Coleman on his side.

Coleman had a double role in the film, playing both Davey’s imaginary friend Jack Flack – the secret agent who “always escapes” – and his Dad, a widowed Air Force veteran. Jack always pushes Davey to do the daring, cinematic thing, while Dad simply sees a hurting child with a wild imagination that’s getting him into trouble. Both want to help Davey but have wildly different ideas about what “help” means.

In fact, Davey’s Dad may be one of the more sympathetic characters Coleman ever played. In a quiet but powerful early moment, he sits down with his son and tries to explain that being a good guy doesn’t mean being James Bond.

“Heroes don’t just shoot bad guys,” he tells Davey. “They put supper on the table, they fix bicycles, they do … they do boring things, real things, not make-believe. And you’ll understand that when you get a little older.”

That still resonates. And it’s still needed.

Most of us aren’t going to be action heroes. But we are all needed. And in a thousand ordinary ways, we can make life better for each other.

Sometimes that means quietly listening while a friend or loved one pours out the trauma of their day.

Sometimes it means lending your competence at the right time, whether it’s helping with homework or fixing the bathtub.

And sometimes it’s just a matter of doing the unglamorous but needed day-to-day chores and duties that build the foundation for everything else.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for imagination. We need that, too. The magical and the mundane can reinforce each other and make the world a richer place for having both.

But that quiet core matters. 

Ultimately, Jack Flack and Davey’s Dad wore the same face. The dream of a hero … and the solid reality. And when we provide that “boring” heroism, who knows what stories we might inspire?

It might even be enough to transform the king of curmudgeons. Or at least to remember him well. 

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