Showing a genuine Courage

 

On her 50th birthday, Tyne Daly shaved every hair on her body except her eyebrows. She wanted to enter the second half of her life as a "naked babe, hairless and hopeful". Five years later, the hair on her head has grown luxuriantly long past her shoulders. It's silvery grey and white, befitting a woman who quite likes the idea of being a crone, or wise woman.

This explains why, when looking for Lacey in a hotel lobby, I completely miss Tyne Daly at first. Stupidly, I expect to see somebody like the feisty 30-something brunette who helped redefine police drama in Cagney and Lacey. This was the first - and still one of the only - police dramas that centred around the experience of female characters. Daly, through the motherhood and career-juggling Lacey, created a role model for a generation of women. But the role model has changed. Instead I find a funny and fulsome earth-grandmother holding court in a corner over a glass of brandy and soda and a battered packet of Camels. She plans to smoke her last one before quitting while talking to me. I feel honoured.

Twelve years on from the last series of Cagney and Lacey, Daly has a hit US TV series, Judging Amy, and is in Dublin to perform the lead role in Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children at the Olympia. A five-time Emmy winner, Daly received a Tony award for the musical, Gypsy, on Broadway. She has performed musical scores with Michael Tilsson Thomas conducting, has played roles in a succession of worthy independent films, and has made another TV series, Christy, which was a critical success but never sold beyond two seasons.

Such achievements can hardly be more impressive than Tyne Daly herself, who continues to break all the rules about what a Hollywood actress should be. Now aged 55 ("just past the US speed limit"), she has avoided what she calls "Botox and detox". Refusing plastic surgery, she has insisted on aging with all her bits intact and hopes to leave with exactly what she came in with. It's almost shocking to meet an actress who celebrates age instead of hiding it. And who'd rather talk about the US juvenile justice system, the importance of unions and the horrendous effects of TV violence on children than plug her latest product.

In her current US TV series - Judging Amy - Tyne Daly is a role model in a ground-breaking drama, yet again. She dares to play a woman older than herself - Maxine, a compassionate and outspoken social worker in her 60s who has come out of retirement to rescue abused children. The show is a double-act between Daly and Amy Brenneman, who plays her daughter, a single mother and family court judge who has left New York City to move in with her mother, Maxine, in Connecticut. What is unusual about the show is that, for Amy Brenneman, it is autobiographical. Brenneman, who, as well as playing the lead role, is the show's executive producer, grew up with a mother who was one of the first female superior court judges in Connecticut. Brenneman made a documentary about what it as like to grow up in the 1970s with a mother who was a challenging role model, then realised there was enough material for a TV drama series. The best testimony to its success is probably the fact that there are now five dramas about judges shown by rival networks.

As Daly talks about the series, a queue of US tourists forms to ask for her autograph. They are generous in their praise and speak to Daly as if they know her personally. They proffer beer-mats, menus and maps of Dublin for her signature.

Daly is such a genuine person that it is sometimes difficult to see the joins between her and her characters, who always have integrity. This creation of a persona is an illusion - a "tissue of lies", as Daly describes it. Yet when Daly was asked to speak to a convention of 2,000 social workers in Baltimore, she got a standing ovation. She started by apologising for wearing jeans, then held up a garment bag and opened it to show the snazzy dress and shoes she had intended to wear, except that her plane had been late. She ended by applauding the social workers, who were doing the real work, she said. After her speech, the social workers lined up for her autograph.

THIS intimacy between actor and viewer is what TV drama is about, Daly says later. She respects TV, and doesn't see it as "the bastard child of film". People bring you into their homes week after week and, as an actor, you investigate your character through all sorts of different crises, you try to reach just the right level of intensity to sustain the drama without overdoing it, while keeping the audience interested enough not to go to the kitchen for a tuna sandwich.

"The audience want to check in and see how you're doing, like you're someone they know," says Daly.

In film, by contrast, she explains, the camera can see into your soul, so you hardly need words at all. In both forms, acting involves creating scenes like beads that are strung together later, so that the emotional intensity of each must be judged in isolation with a view to the overall effect.

But in theatre, says Daly, getting into her stride, you are in the same room as the audience, bringing them through a story from beginning to end.

"They can see you are real, smell you sweating and hear you breathing," she says. Together, actor and audience are agreeing to create an alternative reality. On film, an invading army requires a cast of thousands. In theatre, three actors can do the same job, as long as that magical pact between actors and audience is sustained.

So when Daly got a letter from director Vanessa Fielding of Vesuvius Productions, through her agent, which began: "Would Ms Daly like to lead a troop of Irish actors . . ." Daly had tears in her eyes before she had even finished the first sentence. Would she what? The answer was yes before she had even read far enough to find out the title of the play. Ireland means as much to Daly as to any other emigrant. Originally from Macgillycuddy's Reeks in Co Kerry, Ellen Tyne Daly's last visit was 20 years ago with her sisters, Mary Glynnis and Pegeen Michael ("Guess what play my parents were doing at the time," chortles Daly). The three sisters visited Yeats's Tower in Co Galway. Upon seeing the sheep in the fields, the seven trees, the nesting rook and the bare desk and chair at the top of the tower, Pegeen declared: "Well, shit. I could write poetry here!"

Vesuvius's Mother Courage took two years to happen (there were problems with the Arts Council, says Daly), but now that rehearsals are underway, Daly is in her element. Living in a house in Rathmines and provided with car and driver, she is in the thick of creating a Mother Courage that will be vital, musically-driven and - she tells me - very, very funny. The new translation by Joe O'Byrne has music by Juliet Turner, a hot property. But it is undoubtedly Daly whom audiences will risk a night of Brecht to see. Mother Courage and Her Children may be one of the most important plays of the 20th century, but it has never been performed in Ireland before, according to Vesuvius Productions. An anti-war play, it centres around Mother Courage, who profits from war by selling and bartering goods, but loses her children. Beset by tragedy through her own doing, she learns nothing.

Originally set during the 30 Years War in the 17th century, the play has in this production been updated to Ireland of the past three decades. Replace war with capitalism and you could have a rather good allegory of the Celtic Tiger. But Daly is wary of analysis.

"Whenever you take on a great play, you are in danger of approaching it with so much analysis that you stop playing the play," she says. "I'm approaching this as a brilliant new play."

When you consider that Daly left the set of her successful TV drama on the last day of shooting to go straight to the airport and come to Dublin for rehearsals, you realise that she doesn't have to say she is a serious actress. She lives and breathes her work. The daughter of two actors (James Daly and Hope Newell), she deliberately flunked out of Brandeis University so that she could study acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. There, she met Georg Stanford Brown, a black actor who carried a cane as an affectation.

They married when Daly was 20 and had three daughters, Alisabeth, Kathryne and Alyxandra. Daly now has two grandchildren through Alisabeth - one brown, one pale, the beautiful results of gene-pool mix-and-match. African-American-GreekIrish babies with a grandmother whose dream is a house in the beach, with a big porch around it, where her children and grandchildren can gather.

COMMENTING on the melting-pot that Ireland is becoming, Daly says: "God wants us all to have to get along, so he decided to throw us all in together." Daly is getting closer to her beach-house dream, thanks to Judging Amy. She fell into a financial hole after Cagney and Lacey finished its six-year run in 1988. Her union had lacked foresight in its negotiations regarding cable rights, so when Cagney and Lacey was bought by a cable network, Daly and Sharon Gless, who played Cagney, got a mere 12 cents per episode. This is one reason why Daly supports the threatened strike over Internet rights by the Screen Actors' and Writers' Guild.

Daly's marriage ended after 27 years, soon after Cagney and Lacey ended. But 27 years is a good run, Daly says. And you have to agree. "The older I get, the more I believe in love at first sight," says Daly. "Fate and pheromones are strong and need responding to. And our generation was in a terrible hurry. My daughter Alisabeth had her first child at 28, and I asked: `What have you been waiting for?' "

Today, Georg and Tyne are on good terms, and share time with their youngest daughter, who is only 15 and in boarding school. Meanwhile, Daly has battled through without whingeing to be an all round kind, honest, vulnerable, warm woman unaffected by fame. She has Oprah-level approval and the 18-to-45 demographic to boot because, somehow, she has managed to be true to herself in a profession which rarely sees this happen. I can't help thinking that we are rather privileged to have the chance to see this risktaker who refuses to stay young on the Olympia stage. I'd be willing to sit through a night of Brecht, knowing that whatever Daly brings to it, it will be real.

Mother Courage opens on June 5th at the Olympia