The Best Of The Zest Of Dana Delany

By Tom Shales / July 26, 1989
China Beach/ABC
On television, in the ABC series "China Beach," Dana Delany has a fresh, ripe, girl-next-door appeal. She's like, well, sis, sort of. In person, however, Delany is much more intimidatingly beautiful. In a skirt cut up to here and a blouse cut down to there, she is sis no more. She's sis boom bah. She makes a grown man gaga and goo-goo and stammer and ask stupid questions. And then want to run back to the office and write a real lovey-dovey puff piece.

"I have that kind of face that's sort of Procter & Gamble wholesome," she complains. "I did a lot of commercials when I first started. The last one I had was 'ring around the collar.' I did a lot of diaper commercials too. I hope I'm a little more interesting than that."

She is a lot more interesting than that, visually and verbally. Delany's steel-solid portrayal of army nurse Colleen McMurphy helps make "China Beach," with its weekly stories of women involved in the Vietnam War, uncommonly compelling. Rather low-rated but mercifully spared the Nielsen noose, "China Beach" is in reruns now (Wednesday nights) and will return for a second season in October. It is the most seriously adventurous drama series on TV. And Delany is the magnetic beam supporting it. If anything, her role will be expanded in the season ahead, apparently at the urging of new ABC Entertainment President Robert Iger, who at least had the sense and the simple human decency not to cancel it.

"And there is going to be a new love interest for me," Delany says, looking eager. "I think that was ABC's request. I think this year they're going to make more requests because of the new regime. I think they would like to see it a little more mainstream."

True to the war in which it is set, "China Beach" can be awfully gloomy. On one of last season's episodes, the likable character of Cherry White, played by Nan Woods, died in the Tet Offensive, shocking regular viewers out of their seats. John Sacret Young and William Broyles, creators of the show, are determined to defy commercial TV traditions. Sometimes they overdo it.

"I think it's true that it does get confusing sometimes," Delany says. "And it's dark, but I like it dark, so that doesn't bother me."

At a party, she ran into Thomas S. Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., a happily married man who has made no secret of having a mad crush on her. Yeah - him and 50 million other guys. Anyway, it turns out Delany's father was in Murphy's class at business school.

"And he said to me, 'Good show, but you know, I just think it's confusing. It needs to be simplified, and maybe have a little more fun with it.' And he's the average viewer, you know," Delany says, "so that's a common thing."

The producers do not always resist the temptation to moralize through hindsight, either.

"Oh, I can't stand it when I see pieties!" Delany sputters. "I hate it in our show when we get worked up. I just want to, like, tell a joke in the middle of it or something. Moon, or something, you know?"

Oh she's a zesty one. Even a lusty one. And yet a thoughtful one. And a serious one. But still, an earthy one. Tumble into those olive green Irish eyes and what do you find? The eternal mysteries, the eternal verities. Innocence and corruption. Redemption and damnation. Dun & Bradstreet - she's from a rich family, you know. Her grandfather made a killing in toilet flushers. Delany, who is 33 now, and was born in New York City, went to pricey preppy Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where George Bush went.

"I only went there my senior year. I still think it was the best year of my life, actually. For one thing, the ratio of boys to girls was 4 to 1. So that was fun. You never find that again in the real world."

It was at Andover that Delany began acting in earnest.

"I got to be in all the plays. It was just a real awakening for me."

She played Lucy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." And Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific." She went to Wesleyan University and acted there too. But the decision to be an actress was made much earlier -

"when I was a baby. I would always perform for my parents - initially probably to get attention, and then hopefully it becomes a craft as opposed to some neurotic need. I did think about being an FBI agent for a while. That was the only thing that intrigued me besides acting. I just don't think they're that different. I'd like to be a spy. As a spy, you're always acting, and you get to be nosy about other people's lives."

Dana Delany - woman of mystery.

"When I act, what I like about it is, it's a journey, and if I'm surprised, then I'm excited by it. I love being surprised in life. I love having tricks played on me. I love anything like that. I love being made a fool of. Like practical jokes or surprise parties. I love surprise parties. I like being taken off guard like that. And that's what I feel about acting. You never know what's going to be next."

Delany has appeared in films - "Moon Over Parador," that big flop comedy, and as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in "Patty Hearst." But television can lay the greater claim on her. Lucky television. First she was on soap operas like "Love of Life" and "As the World Turns." Then she got a big break, playing an old girlfriend of Bruce Willis on an episode of "Moonlighting."

"It was the beginning of the second season. I play a bad girl and kind of kill my husband. To me it was like playing a Gloria Grahame character, and I got a real kick out of that."

The "Moonlighting" gig got her the role of Thomas Magnum's fiancee on a two-part "Magnum, P.I.," opposite Tom Selleck. And of course that meant a trip to Hawaii, where it was filmed?

"Actually, no. The episodes I did were shot in L.A. And I said to Tom, 'I can't believe this. I work on "Magnum," but I don't get to go to Hawaii.' "So we finished shooting and he called me up, maybe a few days later, and he said, 'I think we have to fly you to Hawaii. I think we need some more coverage.' And they flew me to Hawaii - I got to stay there a week - just to do a close-up of us kissing. That was it. What a deal, right? And I think he really did it as a favor to me. Everything people say is true; he's a great guy."

Delany wasn't romantically linked with him, but she has had her share of romantic linkages. There was Treat Williams, the actor. That was major linking.

"Actually, I used to live with Treat. That was the most serious one. Four years. I was young, I didn't know what I was doing. Treat and I are still good friends." She sighs. "Oh, I was linked with Don Henley," of the Eagles. "That was very casual. How old is he? I think he's 41 maybe. Oh, I like older men. I either like older men, or younger men. I don't usually like men my own age. I find they're maybe too much like me. I like a difference."

An explorer. An experimenter. A boldly goer.

"It's the ones that you don't expect, that surprise you, that are good. I'm trying to stay away from actors. And I love actors, I really do, but - they're actors. It's hard enough to be a man, I think - the ego's very fragile - and then to be an actor on top of it! A double whammy.

"Actresses are better adjusted. It could be they're taught to be more open with their emotions, though I don't think that's always true. And I think they don't have as many ego problems as men do. Because 'actor' is a very passive role; you don't have a lot of power. And men have trouble with that."

Now comes "Sweet Surrender." The series, that is - a 1987 NBC sitcom in which Delany costarred with Mark Blum as a pair of yuppie parents, mit kinder.

"A little too cute for me," she recalls. "I did it primarily because I wanted to show people I could do comedy."

Although she says she would like to have a baby by the age of 35, playing mommy on the show was no thrill.

"I think I wasn't ready to be a mother."

It made her feel old?

"It made me feel boring. I didn't think they portrayed mothers like I know mothers. It was a little too square for me. I kept trying to inject something else into it, a little sexiness, a little bit of irony."

A little bit of irony! Isn't she great?

"I was not artistically fulfilled doing 'Sweet Surrender,' "
she says, injecting a little bit of irony into that. "China Beach" she does find artistically fulfilling. To research her role, or at least the country in which the series takes place, she went to Vietnam for 11 days last September, soaking up the Zeitgeist.

"I can't say it was fun," she says, looking back on the trip. Jeff Kober, who plays Dodger on the series, went with her.

"It was one of those actor things where you think, 'I'll get the sensory part of it, smells and taste and all that.' I went over there very healthy, excited, 'cause I really love to travel, and by the time the 11 days were up, I was sick and my body fell apart and I just couldn't wait to get out. Everything caved in. And I'm sure it's because of the guilt you feel when you're there. Just the weight of it. "We started in Hanoi and headed south. We saw the Hanoi Hilton, and Ho Chi Minh's tomb. I'd never been in a communist country before, so I was so very aware of the paranoia that you feel there, being watched, and everyone knew who we were, and you feel like your room is bugged and stuff, and there's great poverty, and people love Americans. They couldn't have been nicer to us. "And you just feel like there was absolutely no reason for the war. It's so apparent there. They have no interest in communism, none of them. You really get a feeling like we were told nothing but lies during the war." Vietnam is trying to promote tourism," Delany says. "But has a way to go. "Oh God, the food was so awful! They eat a lot of eel."

While in Vietnam, Delany and Kober swam from the real China Beach.

"It was like that was our quest. The water was really buoyant and warm, the way I like it. We spent an hour. And then we later found out that it was filled with poisonous sea snakes! If I'd known that, I would not have gone in that water! I mean, they bite you, and you're dead!"

She was glad to leave.

"The day before we left, a Vietnamese girl we had befriended, who sold maps on the street - we saw her being taken away by these two men. I had my camera; I took pictures. She was crying and sobbing. They wouldn't talk to us; they were like totally stony faced. She found us later and she said they were going to put her in prison, ostensibly for selling maps but really for hanging around with us. "Just that atmosphere breeds paranoia so much that I was terrified the plane wasn't going to take off. I really was. The irony of sitting in this Air France jet on this tarmac, and outside is rice paddies and inside I'm drinking French champagne and I'm having pate' and these beautiful stewardesses are speaking French to me. And I'm just thinking, 'Any second now somebody is going to come onto the plane and they're going to take me off and so I'm just going to drink and eat as much as I can while I can,' you know?"

Some people make that their philosophy of life. What about Dana Delany's philosophy of life? She seems much more concerned with acting than with stardom, which is reassuring, yet seems likely to become a big, big star. Already she's done the big-league talk shows: Johnny Carson's and David Letterman's.

"Everybody warned me" about Dave, she recalls. "I saw Carrie Fisher the night before at this restaurant, and she said, 'Don't flirt with him, he doesn't like women who flirt with him.' So I was so aware of not flirting that of course all I wanted to do was flirt with him. But I had a great time."

"Asking Dana Delany not to flirt," says an old school chum of hers, "is like asking her not to breathe." With Carson, flirting is permissible.

"He's a flirt. He likes to flirt. You can flirt with him. I think I got more nervous at the Carson show because it's such an institution, whereas at the Letterman show you can be more irreverent."

The first time she appeared with Carson, he came backstage ahead of time to meet her.

"My publicist's mouth was hanging open. He said, 'He never does that!' "

The last time she was on Carson, Delany showed a photo of herself in the nude. But it was from prep-school days, and taken from a high angle, and you couldn't tell which body was hers. She was among a group of students who, to celebrate the academy's going co-ed, went out on the lawn at 5 a.m. and spelled out "Mother Phillips" with their naked bodies. Not a shy gal, no. She lives in nutty and loony Venice, Calif., on a little street off the beach. Lots of ho daddies and hot doggies and nubile nymphs running around. And, she says, bums shouting obscenities in the night air. But she doesn't care. She likes the hurly-burly.

"I like life to hit me," she says.

Asked to try to analyze the mystical, mercurial, borderline spiritual way she affects some people - women as well as men, by the way - Delany shakes her head.

"Oh that's so hard. You can only sound pretentious and arrogant if you say something about that."

Reflective pause.

"Well, one thing I've learned from doing 'China Beach' is the value of stillness, so that you let the audience come to you, and then they can project whatever they want onto you. There's great value in that. I mean, you see all the old movies, that's what they used to do."

The role of Colleen McMurphy calls not for glamour or flash. Delany brings to it a bracing, stabilizing sanity. You think McMurphy can handle just about anything, and meeting Delany, you'd probably think she could handle anything, too.

"I hope there's some honesty in my work, enough truth in my work. I think there's a certain thread of energy that comes out of an actor when they're really truthful, that sort of emanates from people. You might not consciously be aware of it, but it gets you subconsciously. You get that chill of recognition. That's what I go for when I'm working."

Playing a role in which about all she ever wears are fatigues and army shirts does not bother her as much as she thought it would.

"You know what? I've found I really like them. It's easier. You know what you're going to put on every day."

She does argue with producer Young about his insistence that she not wear makeup.

"The makeup man has a fit, because on camera you look washed out," she says. "Although I agree with John that it's nice when you can see all the freckles and the flaws."

FLAWS??? What flaws??? There don't seem to be any flaws. One would hope you now have a clearer picture of Dana Delany. Perhaps not. Perhaps it would help to say this: Dana Delany is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime woman that a certain kind of guy would only get to spend some time with if he were doing an interview like this.