Opal-in-the-Rough Dorothy Lyman Is Daytime Television's Tacky First Lady
updated 02/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
Like Opal, Lyman has a kind of unvarnished shrewdness. She auditioned for what was intended to be a six-week role in 1981 and wound up with a two-year contract. "I came in to play a poor-white-trash mother who was pushing her daughter into modeling," she recalls, "a sort of Sears, Roebuck Teri Shields. At first they wanted her to be a villain, but I wanted people to understand Opal's feelings, so every time I had to hit Jenny, I'd immediately grab her and hug her. Villains don't last long, and I wanted a house in the country out of this job."
To make sure her dream was rewarded, Lyman gave the character humor, easily the rarest of qualities in the vast banal moonscape of daytime TV. For her trouble, she receives up to 150 pieces of fan mail a week—second only to the show's femme fatale, Susan Lucci. She won an Emmy last year as best supporting actress in a daytime series, and recently made her prime-time debut as a member of NBC's Mama's Family, the mid-season sitcom that stars Vicki Lawrence. "This is like the Great Moment," Lyman exults. "The stepping-off point. I feel after 15 years I finally have the uniform on. I may get up to bat."
Yet only three years ago she thought she had been relegated to a permanent spot on the bench. In 1980, after four dead-end years on the NBC soap Another World, she went off-Broadway to co-produce and direct John Ford Noonan's play A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. The show was so successful she decided to give up acting entirely. "The minute I gave up thinking I would achieve what I wanted as an actress," she says, "Opal Gardner came along, and that led to the offer to do Mama's Family." Understandably, she harbors only fond feelings for Opal. "I love her," she says. "When I go shopping, I always buy a little something for Opal too, like a pair of plastic goldfish earrings. It may be the part of a lifetime."
10 a.m. A stage manager's voice booms over the studio public-address system, summoning Opal and Jenny to run through their scenes for the camera crew. Lyman almost never misses a line, possibly because she doesn't feel confined by the script. "If you constantly worry about what you're saying, you can't make any selection how to color it," she explains. "I don't memorize the words, I memorize the thoughts. So if I say 'Take a seat' or 'Take a load off or 'Plant it,' you get the point. If I don't know a line, I just make it up and keep going." If her All My Children colleagues are ever thrown by such liberties, none of them seems to resent it. Lyman is obviously a popular figure on the set, sashaying down the corridors, hugging and smooching the other actors, and occasionally soliciting donations for the nonprofit theater group she sometimes directs. "The toughest part about being an actress is getting a job," says Dorothy. "Rejection is soul-destroying. If you're selling encyclopedias, people say, 'I don't want the book.' In this business it's you they don't want. It took me a couple of years with a shrinker to develop a protective covering."
11:38 a.m. Sprinting from the studio on her lunch break, Lyman stops to sign autographs ("With love from Opal and me"), then catches a taxi uptown for an appointment with her chiropractor. Afterward she heads downtown for a Greek salad and a beer. "I believe in my chiropractor, my astrologer and a psychic," says Lyman. "The psychic told me I worry about my kids, but they're fine, and that my private life isn't very important to me anyway." Dorothy doesn't deny it. "All I've ever wanted is a career," she says.
A stockbroker's daughter from Minneapolis, she made her acting debut at 15 in an amateur production of The Skin of Our Teeth. "I stepped out on that stage, and I knew that was how I wanted to spend my life," she remembers. After studying drama at Sarah Lawrence, Lyman married an aspiring British actor, John Tillinger, settled in rural Connecticut, and had two children. "I was the great hippie earth mother," she recalls. "I milked goats, made quilts, baked bread and grew a huge garden." She also grew increasingly restless. "One day I found myself leader of a Brownie troop of 28 screaming 6-year-olds," she says. "I thought, 'What am I doing? Anybody can be a Brownie leader. Few people can act.' "
In 1978 Lyman left Connecticut, divorced her husband, and moved to New York. Her daughter, Emma, 11, and son, Sebastian, 8½, stayed behind with their father, a director at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Dorothy sees them on occasional weekends. "It just seemed a very selfish life," she observes, "making things cozy for one man and two children. It wasn't large enough for me. When I got the job with Mama's Family, I called my kids and thanked them. I said, 'This would be great for all of us, and if I were home living full-time as your mama, this never would have happened to me." Lyman currently shares her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with director Louis Malle's younger brother, Vincent, a film producer. "I call him my frog prince," she says. "It's purely a term of endearment."
1:09 p.m. Back at the studio, Lyman shimmies into a pair of orange Spandex pants, a floral smock and a leopard blouse. Cowboy boots, makeup and a Cuisinart coif complete a picture of unrelieved tackiness. Next comes a two-hour dress rehearsal; at 4 p.m. taping begins. "Move to Glamorama," snaps director Larry Auerbach several scenes later. "Act two, scene one. Standby to record. 5-4-3-2-1. Cue music."
5:17 p.m. Back in her dressing room, Lyman has folded Opal's fruit-studded bracelet into a plastic bag and quickly slipped into a leotard. Her contract on the serial expires in August, she says. "If they want me, we'll talk about it. Otherwise, I'll be looking for work. If Mama's Family makes it, I've signed for five years. Nighttime TV is six months work a year, six months off at twice the bread." Whatever the risks of such frankness, Lyman's ambition is never hedged with disclaimers. "Actors who tell you they became actors because they wanted to be in regional theaters their whole lives are simply lying," she says bluntly. "I spent 10 years putting other things in front of my career, and I'll tell you—at 35, I've got to make tracks."