Photographs spill out of big manila envelopes, making a mess of Dana Delany’s coffee table. There’s one of Dana at about age five, chubby and jubilant, a Mexican hat on her head and dish of M&M’s in her hand. There’s the actress at 16, with frosted hair, and another snap taken a few years later, after she opted for a perm. She grimaces, but fondly, as she appraises them: the head shots (doe-eyed ingenue, strong-jawed heroine, and one that she calls her Shannen Doherty look); the captured moments from her film, theater and TV work; the Polaroids from countless photo shoots and a pile of candids with her family and friends.
As she shows me a group portrait of her father, uncle and paternal grandfather (“I identify with all of them. We’re all Irishmen”), I start to divine a pattern, which continues to emerge as she offers up shots from her fiftieth birthday party four years ago, which was hosted by her best friend, who happens to be male. “I was his best man at his wedding,” she says, and I’m tempted to comment, but Delany beats me to it.
“The thing I notice is I’m hanging with the boys,” she says, fanning the photos in front of her. Only later will I realize she is leading up to the most surprising moment of our interview.
No conversation with Delany is dull, and during my time in her high-ceilinged modern house in West Los Angeles she will sound off about sex after 50, menopause and swimming with dolphins. She will discuss her ongoing spiritual search and talk about remaining unmarried while truly liking men. Still, I’m caught off guard when Delany reveals that in her dreams, she imagines being a man. And not just any man, but—wait for it—George Clooney.
“It might sound funny, but I wouldn’t mind being the female version of him,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t know Clooney, really, unless you count the time 23 years ago when he was on The Facts of Life and Delany was doing a sitcom called Sweet Surrender and they shared a makeup room. “I wish we shared a dressing room!” she jokes. “I can’t honestly say I know him, but I’ve watched him from afar, and I really admire what he does.”
It is clear, as she ticks off Clooney’s charitable works, his savvy acting choices, his reputation for being a great, loyal friend and, yes, the fact that “he honestly says, ‘I’m not getting married. It doesn’t interest me,’ ” that this perpetually single, politically active Emmy-winning actress has thought through the Delany/Clooney comparison. She has also thought about how it will sound.
“I know—people are going to say, ‘Oh, she wants to be a playgirl,’ ” she says. “But that’s not what I mean. I like him because he’s a responsible human being who loves his life. Who is totally true to himself.”
You don’t have to spend much time with people who know and love Delany to understand how precisely her description of Clooney also describes her. Delany is warm, open and supremely comfy in her own skin, her friends and colleagues say, and that gives her easy access to a generosity that can be uncommon in Hollywood.
“She’s just a doll,” says Marc Cherry, the creator of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, who considers Delany one of his five leading ladies despite the fact that she didn’t join the show until its fourth season. (Delany was his first choice for the role of Bree; she turned it down, three times. Now she plays Katherine Mayfair, a divorcée who this season was accidentally shot and spent time in a mental hospital.)
“Dana knows she’s talented, and that gives her an inner peace that a lot of people in this town don’t have,” Cherry continues. “She doesn’t take herself so seriously, and she’s genuinely interested in people’s lives. A lot of actresses can be narcissistic. Not so with our Dana.”