Dana Delany's Long Gaze Back

By Tom Shales / July 9, 1991
China Beach/ABC
"I'm going to miss McMurphy a lot," Dana Delany says. "I really like her so much."

Delany is closer to Colleen McMurphy than anyone else is. She's played the dedicated, enigmatic Army nurse for the past four seasons on ABC's achingly thoughtful Vietnam drama series "China Beach." But now she is out of uniform and on to new projects.

Two more first-run episodes of "China Beach" air tonight (at 10 on Channel 7) and next Tuesday, and then, on Monday, July 22, the series ends with a two-hour finale that includes moments from past shows and newly filmed scenes that take place at a 1988 reunion of the China Beach regulars.

In the closing sequence, the characters drive from Youngstown, Ohio, to Washington to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They spend about five minutes of screen time at the wall. To get through this dry-eyed, one would have to have suffered severe hardening of the heart.

Delany, 35, was in Washington earlier this year to film these scenes, and the experience was naturally an emotional workout for her and the rest of the cast.

"It's been an amazing family," she says. "I'm going to miss every one of them a lot. I think it's one of those shows that people years from now will think, 'My God, this is so good! What happened to it?' "

Actually, people had already been thinking that. Until ABC announced the show's return for the summer, it was lost in limbo. ABC seems perversely to enjoy putting on unusual and innovative shows, then yanking them off and hiding them away, or moving them to remote time slots where they dare viewers to find them.

"China Beach" has never been exactly a blockbuster in the ratings, but it has usually won its time period. Viewers for Quality Television (VQT), the Fairfax-based grass-roots group, passionately lobbied ABC to put "China Beach" back on the air. It is a series that inspires passions.

Delany says she feels no ill will toward ABC executives despite the cavalier way they treated the series. "I actually like Bob Iger," she says of the ABC Entertainment president. "He's a very nice person. But I think he's answering to people above him."

When one has lunch with Dana Delany ("Do they have mashed potatoes here?" was her first question), one is tempted to ask her to stop talking for a minute and just go into her famous gaze. As McMurphy, Delany raised gazing to an art form on "China Beach." She has the kind of face that seems to reflect worlds of wisdom and understanding, that retains expressiveness even when seemingly expressionless.

Many's the time "China Beach" stopped cold for portentous gazings by Delany. Naturally this has led to some spoofing and teasing. In a parody of "China Beach" made by the show's own crew for a cast party, the writer playing Delany would "stare into the distance," Delany says smiling, while others called out, "Come on, well up! Let's get those tears coming!"

"And she'd just stare into the distance until finally something would pop out."

That's another thing Delany does very well on the show: get misty-eyed. The final episode is almost a medley of her sniffles. She has no special tricks for summoning tears, Delany says.

"I just think about something. I've never had anybody help me cry. It's funny, though, because when I was studying acting in New York, one of my biggest fears was crying. I just could not cry in front of people, because I came from a New England family where you're supposed to hold yourself together and not show your emotions.

"Then you become an actor, and all they want you to do is cry. Never the man, but always the woman, breaks down and cries. And I talked to my acting teacher about it and she said, 'Just think about what you want, and it will happen.'

"And now, of course, they can't get me to stop crying."

Delany made McMurphy an icon, a representative of all the women who served in Vietnam, or in any war, or maybe it's even broader than that; maybe she's An Everywoman for Our Time. Her fan mail, Delany says, reflected the high regard people had for McMurphy and whatever it is she does symbolize.

"I think maybe because of the character I play, people are very respectful of me. Nothing too sleazy in the mail. It's mostly from young girls who like the character, who kind of look up to her. Those are the ones I like the most. There are some from guys who want to go out with me, but they're very polite letters; they send pictures of themselves, and things like that."

Currently, Delany is going out with John Sacret Young, executive producer (with William Broyles) of "China Beach." She lives alone, she says, in a new house she just bought in Santa Monica, Calif., a step up from her previous digs in funky old Venice.

"China Beach" maintained an imposing record of excellence over its weeks and months on the air, a record upheld until the very last moment of the very last show. Among the most memorable episodes for Delany was one directed last fall by actress Diane Keaton in which McMurphy, home from the war, visited her mother in Kansas.

"It's different working with Diane," Delany recalls. "I fell madly in love with her. We really hit it off. She has so much energy, and she came in so prepared, it kind of like lifted the whole crew. It was like a breath of fresh air and we all just went with her. Everyone fell in love with her. The episode had a different look and a different feeling from anything we've done. It's a little crazy 'cause she's a little crazy. Which is fun, you know."

In the history of the movies, there have been many great female film editors, and writers, but few female directors. Delany doesn't know why, exactly, but she knows she has absolutely no desire to be a director herself.

"I think it comes from the whole daddy thing that a director usually is. You have to like being the daddy and you have to be a little insane for wanting all that responsibility. I don't want that responsibility. But I think now that women are more comfortable with that kind of power and responsibility, you'll see more woman directors.

"We're different. We're definitely different. Working with woman directors, I've found they're more emotional. And they're sexier, much sexier. The men shy away from that. They're not as open about it."

Sitting in Duke Zeibert's restaurant, Dana Delany draws a good deal of attention. Bob Strauss stops by, and though Delany seems a very political person, she has apparently never heard of the celebrated Mr. Democrat. But she smiles politely. She does watch "The McLaughlin Group" every chance she gets, Delany says: "Oh, it's so funny. It cracks me up!"

And she has very good news for the one member of the panel who consistently makes sense and never talks through his hat. "My favorite one is Jack Germond," says Delany. "I think he's very sexy. I really do. There's something about him I think is really sexy. I love his sense of humor. He just kind of sits there and chortles."

Near lunch's end, the Grand Duc de Zeibert himself appears. "Goodbye, Mr. Zeibert," Delany says. "Mr. Zeibert? That's my father!" says Duke. Then he tells Delany, "Everything they say about you is true." She laughs. "Oh, good. I think," she says.

Since filming the last episode of "China Beach," Delany has gone on to other projects, the latest being a motion picture called "Light Sleeper" now shooting in New York. The cast includes Susan Sarandon and Willem Dafoe.

She would like to do a movie for Jonathan Demme. She would love to do a movie with Woody Allen. The temptation at first, she says, is to play a character who's kind of mean and rotten, to get as far from McMurphy as possible. But it won't be easy to get far from McMurphy. The character and the actress are going to stay melded in the public mind for a long time.

Delany says, surprisingly, that she has not kept many mementos from the "China Beach" set. "I'm not really very sentimental about things like that. I have my dog tags. Maybe I'll keep my dog tags.

"The other night when we were shooting at 3 in the morning, I was thinking, 'This show has changed so many people's lives,' because of John, really. It's really affected a lot of people who worked on it. I mean me, obviously, but a lot of the technical people too."

And the viewers. It has affected untold millions of viewers. They will be rewarded with a closing episode that really is a closing episode, that ties up loose ends but also reveals scars unlikely ever to heal. Delany as McMurphy hugs her young daughter at the wall. She leaves some sand there from China Beach. She gets misty-eyed.

It's murder. It's a killer. It's magnificent.

There's plenty of gazing from Delany throughout the episode. And there'll be plenty of gazing at her, as there is over lunch. So beautiful. And so smart. If there's anything about herself that Dana Delany would like to change, well, shame on her.