The marriage proposals arrive by mail now, filled with "stuff about my body, and how beautiful I am," says Dana Delany, 34. "That strikes me as funny because I've never thought of myself as beautiful. I have this round little Irish face and then this body that doesn't quite match."

Maybe not, but the pieces have certainly come together for the China Beach star. Her ABC series about the women of an Army hospital in Vietnam could have become just another doctor-nurse flirt fest when it arrived as a spring replacement in 1988. Thanks largely to Delany's portrayal of the tough, spiritually spent Colleen McMurphy, however, it has proved to be far more than a rewarmed M*A*S*H spiced with hot-lipped Houlihans. Forget the show's time-warp setting (1968); Delany has invaded the male preserve of prime-time drama with a charismatic feminism that has earned her an Emmy. "I get letters from young girls who are crazy about McMurphy," she says of her sensitive-but-take-no-guff character. "They see a woman can be like that, and I think that's great."

If China Beach has insured Delany's future, it has left her little of the present. Unread movie scripts sit under dust in her $950-a-month studio apartment on the ocean in Venice, Calif. Fourteen-hour days mean that her Pritikin-style meals ("no fats, no sugar, no salt") are now prepared by a caterer and stacked in her fridge; Norma Kamali dresses hang in her closet, awaiting infrequent calls to weekend duty. Though rumored to be dating China Beach producer John Sacret Young, 43, Delany insists that her social life is both minimal and noncommittal. "I thought I'd be married by now; I thought I'd have kids by now," she acknowledges. "You have these ideas in your head when you're younger, then reality comes and it's all a little bit different."

Not that the reality is bad. The middle of three children born to a New England family made rich by toilets (the Delany flush valve), she graduated with the first coed class ('74) at George Bush's preppie alma mater, Andover, and went to Ivyish Wesleyan in Connecticut before beginning her struggle to stardom. She progressed from soap commercials to soap operas (As the World Turns, Love of Life) and played Broadway before getting her small-screen break as a Bruce Willis love interest in an episode of Moonlighting. Now a dedicated California transplant, she has a homeopathic doctor, practices yoga daily, takes Shiatsu massages and drives to work in a 1987 Rabbit equipped with a phone.

Although Delany has supported abortion rights and a proposed memorial to women Vietnam vets, she steers clear of most political causes. "I'm not a spokesperson; I'm an actress," she says. True enough, but in China Beach she has also become for many the symbol of a new decade's promise. "Television has been a man's world, but I think that's changing," she says. "Women have changed, and TV's finally catching up."