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Tyne Daly: ‘I saw an opportunity in Cagney & Lacey to play interesting parts for women’

Of all the roles she’s played, it was a certain female police partnership that brought this veteran of TV and stage fame, friendship and the freedom to do as she pleased.

Tyne Daly was born in Wisconsin in 1946, to an acting family. She obtained her Equity card at 15 and attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Her big break came when she was cast as New York police officer Mary Beth Lacey in the hugely successful Eighties drama Cagney & Lacey, alongside co-star and long-time friend Sharon Gless.

Over a career that has spanned TV and theatre, she has won six Emmys, as well as a Tony for her performance on Broadway as Rose in Gypsy. She has three daughters with the actor Georg Stanford Brown.

Here, in her Letter to My Younger Self, she talks about fighting racism in America and the genius of Dolly Parton.

By the time I was 16, I had known for half my life that I wanted to be an actor. Both my parents were actors. We knew actors. Writers and directors were at our home, and I got to see some of the greats get really drunk and embarrass themselves, which was useful. So I did something very simple, which is to go into the family business.

It’s a double-edged sword. You have an intro, you get your foot in the door – and when you get in the door, you have to gauge whether people actually like your parents, which can be a learning experience! But people think you’ve inherited your talent. I got some good lessons from exposure to the business, but didn’t get my talents from my dad or my mother.

In 1970, at 24, having already appeared on Broadway and in several movies
Photo: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

When I was 16, I was a terrible liar and a terrible show-off. Which is not a bad combination for an actor. They pay us to lie. There’s an agreement between yourself and the audience that you’re lying to them. But oh dear, I have a lot of regret – that’s a terrible word – about what an awful show-off I was.

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I would plan scenarios on my way to gatherings, plan what I would do to impress people. So I’d remind my younger self that we have two ears and one mouth, so should listen more than we talk. And tell her to stop showing off.

Ethel Barrymore said you begin to grow up the first time you can get a really good laugh at yourself. Humour and realising the absurdity of your awkwardness is big on the learning curve.

At 16 I was working with a local community college and got to play Emily in Our Town, a classic American play. My mom dragged my father to see it and he saw it, wept tears, and embraced me into what we then called the brotherhood of actors.

Because it was the family business, it made me less starry eyed. I wasn’t fooled by the idea of glamour. I knew it was work. I knew it was hard. I knew there were big patches of being out of work and you had to manage that and not go crazy. So that was part of their gift.

I didn’t think it was easy money. I knew it was exaggerated money – that if you’re a house painter you get certain money, but if you play a house painter in a film you get better money.

I was brought up to think acting was a service job. People love stories about themselves, always have and probably always will, so you are telling stories to engage and challenge people, get them to feel and think. My work is empathy work. It’s about walking around in the other person’s shoes. And that is useful. I wanted to be a useful actor.

I went to college sort of by mistake and was a token Gentile at Brandeis University. I had a wonderful teacher named Jasper Deeter, who had set up the Hedgerow Theatre in the Depression. He seemed ancient, lived on booze and cigarettes and had wild white hair and a colourful personality.

In an early class he said, “Don’t hitch your wagon to a star” with a great gesture towards the sky, suggesting you will choke. So it was not about stardom. It was about service. Life is hard, acting is easy. They give you the shoes, the costume, they tell you what your circumstances are and even tell you what you say. All you have to do is pretend.

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I had been working consistently when Cagney & Lacey happened. Sharon [Gless] and I were working actors. She came out of a movie tradition, I came out of the theatre tradition, which was a nice rub up against each other. I had turned down offers to do series. I’d auditioned for things and gone home saying, “Please don’t let me get trapped in this one!” But I saw an opportunity in Cagney & Lacey to play interesting parts for women. And there were two of them, which was so unusual.

The 1980s was an age of women being pitted against each other. So if there was anything unique about the show, it was about the partnership between two women. They weren’t friends, they weren’t like each other, but they had to rely on each other’s smarts in dire situations and be serious, professional partners. That was new.

Every actress in LA wanted to play Cagney but I wanted to play Lacey. Her life setup was full of possibilities. But it was not an instant success. We did it, we got fired, we did it again. I can’t remember who said, “There’s only one thing for an actress to do in Hollywood at the age of 30 and that is leave town.” But Sharon and I were both closer to 40 than 30 so the opportunity was too big to pass up.

There was this payoff of good money and fame. One episode of Cagney & Lacey reached more people than any play I’ve ever done. It got me the kind of popularity that people would cast me on Broadway, which is where I wanted to be. And, further down the line, I can afford to experiment and work with creative people like Patrick Wang [on A Bread Factory] and not worry about paying the rent.

Tyne Daly stars in Patrick Wang’s ‘A Bread Factory’

Besides the money and the glory, I got a really fine friend out of Cagney & Lacey. Sharon and I have stuck with each other, because we like each other a lot. We didn’t know each other at the beginning but it will be 40 years this year and we know each other quite well now. We are friends, we encourage each other to keep going. I talked to her last night.

Daly with Cagney & Lacey co-star Sharon Gless and Dolly Parton at the Ms. women of the year awards ceremony in New York
Photo: Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Appearing on television with Dolly Parton got me the role in Gypsy on Broadway. They’d asked Liza [Minnelli], they’d asked Bette Midler, then [Broadway producer] Barry Brown and his partner saw me singing with Dolly and figured – and they were right – that I could sell tickets. People would come out of naked curiosity alone, to see Mary Beth Lacey as Rose.

Dolly Parton is a genius. I did her show in the midst of Cagney & Lacey, so I was a popular item. I was so taken with her. My mama had sung folk songs, so we had a mutual love of the old songs.

I wasn’t as careful with my personal self, my sexual self, as I might have been. But you can’t wish to be wiser than you were. And in matters of love, there’s all those hormones banging around. But I would tell my younger self, don’t sell yourself cheap. If I could have figured out who I was, it would have been easier to be true to myself.

There wasn’t anything brave or political about getting married [Daly married actor Georg Stanford Brown in 1966, when inter-racial marriage was still illegal in many states]. I was 19 and Georg was 21 when we were courting and we had blinders on about whatever it was that the haters were objecting to. So it was an action of love and passion, not an act of politics and policy. We just got dragged into it.

The more I read now about the offence of marrying someone with a different melanin count than you, the deeper I am appalled by my nation’s insistence on their racism. It’s a fake thing. It’s a made up thing by people who are interested in power over other people. We are in a pendulum swing back to the popularity of hatred now.

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I’m old now and I wish there had been more progress. I was a teenager during a highly political time. When we protested against the Vietnam war, we thought we were the first people to ever walk on Washington. So I would remind her that battles have been fought before – and tell her not to let the tiny, tiny, tiny, amount of progress drive you crazy.

When you are a 17-year-old screaming and protesting, remember that. Know that trying to make the world better is a lifetime job and the payoff will be tiny but you are not allowed to quit. 

A Bread FactoryPart One and Two are in cinemas from February 18 and available on demand in March

@adey70

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