Throughout her five-decade career, Tyne Daly has played a wide range of memorable matriarchs, from a meddling mom in Gypsy to a multitasking mom in Cagney & Lacey to a grieving mom in Rabbit Hole—so it seems apropos that when playwright Terrence McNally decided to write a role especially for the Tony-winning actress, he made her a mama. In the stirring new drama Mothers and Sons, Daly plays Katharine, a conflicted mother who visits the New York apartment of her late son’s partner (played by Frederick Weller), who is now married to another man (Bobby Steggert). Broadway.com chatted with Daly about why she finds her new role intimidating, her favorite thing about New York City and memories of her own mother.
Did Terrence McNally just call you up and tell you he had a role for you?
We had a very good time on Master Class, and indeed, he did call me up. On the fifth of July I was hanging with some friends by the pool, and I got a call on my cell phone. He said, “Hello, this is Terrence McNally,” and I sort of said, “Oh, uh, hello, uh, Terrence McNally!” [Laughs.] I was totally startled.
How did Mothers and Sons come about?
I was asked by [producing director] Jed Bernstein to do a fundraiser for the Bucks County Playhouse, which is where I earned the second half of my Equity card. I was at Bucks in 1963—50, count ‘em, 50 years ago. I did a reading of Love Letters with James Earl Jones, and at the end, Jed said to me, “Would you ever think of coming back to do a play in the summer?” He said he was approaching Terrence McNally. In under a year, he had written Mothers and Sons.
How does it feel to have a role written for you?
To feel that I have in some way been a catalyst to his creativity is really amazing. And intimidating! [Laughs.] I’ve been doing this a very long time and sometimes it’s a challenge and sometimes it’s a job and sometimes it’s a wow. This one is a wow for me.
Your personal politics are so different from Katharine's—how do you approach playing such a conflicted character?
My job always is to play a person, not to judge her. This is a lesson that I learned a long time ago. Gordon Davidson was directing Black Angel, a play about a Nazi war criminal and his wife, and he raged at me one day, “Will you quit judging this woman and just play her?” It was a wonderful key to the work. No, I’m not a Republican, I didn’t have a loveless marriage, and I didn’t have a bad time being pregnant. There’s a lot of stuff that Katharine and I don’t have in common, but what we do have in common is more important.
Do you enjoy playing mothers?
I think mothers get a raw deal in American culture, so I’ve been defending them. I have three daughters and I know that as they become mothers, they got a lot more gentle towards me!
Absolutely! I remember when I had two little kids, I was visiting my mom [actress Hope Daly], and we were getting into her old Volkswagen, and I thought, once upon a time, she was my age and had two little kids, and she was doing the best she could. And all of a sudden she became a human being to me. Mothers have gotten a lot of hate and they still do, but they bear a closer look. For me, they bear a second and third and fourth look.
How do you unwind after the show?
I do games of solitaire when I get home to quiet my spirits. I used to think I was going to be a nun to the theater when I was 17. It was going to be the theater or nothing. Then I saw this man named Georg Stanford Brown across a room and I thought, “Oh golly, there’s the father of my children, I’d better go introduce myself.” But now that my grown-up kids and my grandchildren are on the other coast, I have more time and space.
What do you love about being back in New York City?
Many more people saw me on TV than will ever get to see me on stage, but I do love being in the same room as the people I’m telling the story to. I could be a tourist in this town for the rest of my days. I find the city very exciting.
It Shoulda Been You is coming to New York—it’s been a few years since you’ve starred in a Broadway musical, are you ready?
Geez, I hope so. [Laughs.] It’s a different kind of assignment now, but that’s a very fun piece. It’s lighthearted, and I think that will be a lovely balancing for this year. There are good jokes in Mothers and Sons, but bottom line, the play’s no good unless you laugh and cry. It has to be both.
What are your memories of making your Broadway debut [in That Summer - That Fall in 1967] ?
I heard someone the other day talking about playing the St. James, and I thought, “That’s my theater!” [Laughs.] But it’s important for me to avoid nostalgia. As I say in my cabaret act, “Memory lane is not my favorite street!”
See Daly in Mothers and Sons at the Golden Theatre.